Game designer Mary Flanagan speaks at World Economic Forum

by Lex Kang | 2/1/18 2:00am

From Jan. 23 to Jan. 26, world leaders traveled to Davos, Switzerland to attend the World Economic Forum. At the forum, Dartmouth film and media studies professor Mary Flanagan gave a presentation titled “Game Changers: Playing Games for Good.” Flanagan also sat on three different panels about design, the future of the work force in relation to artificial intelligence and experiential education.

Flanagan said her talk was largely based on her research on games being used not only as a source of entertainment, but also as a medium to create social and behavioral change. According to Flanagan, games are a reliable platform for social intervention because of the comfortable and approachable atmosphere games can create, allowing the intervention to feel natural rather than forced or intrusive.

“Games are really good at approaching difficult topics because people are open when they play a game — people are free,” Flanagan said. “That’s a key factor in addressing difficult challenges. How can you go in a difficult subject area and not feel talked down to, or told what to think?”

The power of games as mediums for social intervention is the main subject of Flanagan’s research with her colleagues and team of student researchers at her lab Tiltfactor, which she founded in 2003. Though Flanagan founded Tiltfactor prior to coming to Dartmouth, the lab is now located in the Digital Humanities Suite of the Black Family Visual Arts Center.

“Dartmouth’s goal is ultimately to have students go out in the world and change it for the better,” Flanagan said. “So I think it’s the perfect place to work on this kind of project.”

Tiltfactor researchers have been dedicating their time and effort to a variety of social intervention projects and research. Tiltfactor postdoctoral researcher Gili Freedman said that she wanted to focus her social psychology knowledge somewhere she could actually make positive changes, and Tiltfactor was the perfect place for her.

“A lot of my work before I came here was on the basic social processes, particularly social rejection,” Freedman said. “After quite a few years of that you start to actually want to change things, not just document how bad they are. Tiltfactor and Professor Flanagan are doing really cool work on reducing interpersonal biases and reducing prejudice against women in STEM.”

Tiltfactor research assistant Khevna Joshi ’21 added that the Tiltfactor game “Awkward Moment” was particularly useful for reducing biases.

“You pick up a card and it talks about an awkward moment that you might have at work or in your [home],” Joshi said. “It puts you in real life situations and preps you with how you would respond … Instead of responding negatively, it has you respond more positively.”

However, Tiltfactor’s games cover a much broader spectrum beyond bias-fighting games. Tiltfactor’s senior game designer Max Seidman ’12 said that his favorite Tiltfactor game, the typing game “Smorball,” created a tangible, positive contribution to society rather than subtle interpersonal changes.

“As people are playing, they’re actually transcribing books from the Biodiversity Heritage Library, so they’re taking words that machines have a hard time reading and turning it into a searchable text,” Seidman said. “We have software that does this, but these are historical records that often have water damage, or bizarre typography, or are scanned strangely, so it’s hard for machines to do it.”

After producing the game, Tiltfactor often uses its games to conduct studies to measure their efficacy in social intervention. According to Tiltfactor research assistant Lindsay Kusnarowis ’20, the process of producing a Tiltfactor game is extensive. The process starts from setting an objective, then brainstorming, and proceeds to multiple rounds of prototyping and play-testing before the game is used to conduct studies.

“I’ve learned about all of the nuts and bolts about the design and creation of games and how to create them for specific demographics or just to make sure that they are balanced and fun,” Kusnarowis said. “I like the middle [of the game development process] … [when] I’m really working full steam ahead with a concrete direction and game design plan.”

After the hard work has been put into game development and experimentation, Kusnarowis said she can feel the effectiveness of the game on herself as well.

“As a woman in science, I’ve had to deal with some sort of internalized thoughts towards women in STEM,” Kusnarowis said. “I did a study with [Tiltfactor] for this video game [about] attitudes [toward] women in STEM and how you think about yourself as a woman in STEM, and I think that’s helped me work through my feelings about it.”

Tiltfactor games’ potential to create positive change has been recognized by others and is slowly spreading their influence. Kusnarowis said Tiltfactor’s final products are available for retail on Barnes and Noble or Amazon, with digital games on the iOS App Store. Seidman added that they are often marketed at game fairs as well. Tiltfactor administrator Danielle Taylor added that Tiltfactor games are sometimes showcased to educators too — the game “Pox,” made to increase positive sentiment toward vaccination, is one example.

“There’s a faculty [member] at the local elementary school that has incorporated ‘Pox’ into her curriculum,” Taylor said. “Every grade, every year that she has them, does a small unit on vaccination, herd immunity and what those systems are like, and their primary activity during that is to play ‘Pox.’”

Flanagan added that Tiltfactor games have been played during First-Year Trips and have been mentioned on NPR.

The staff at Tiltfactor are looking forward to their next game release in a month, a board game called “Visitor in Blackwood Grove,” and hope to encourage many more Dartmouth students to participate in their studies for game development in the future.

Correction Appended (Feb. 1, 2018):

An earlier version of the Feb. 1 article "Game designer Mary Flanagan speaks at World Economic Forum" erroneously referred to Tiltfactor's next game release as "Visitor of Lackwood Grove." The game is titled "Visitor in Blackwood Grove."