The Counterintuitive Effects of a Prosocial Online Game: When Good Intentions Go Awry

Authored By 
Gina Roussos
Blog contributor 
Policy Fellow
October 30, 2015

Online gaming is booming -  consumers are champing at the bit to play an increasingly large number of fun, free, and easily accessible games. Some entrepreneurs have taken this opportunity to create online games meant to increase empathy and positive attitudes toward those groups (e.g., LGBT people). Unfortunately, it takes more than good intentions combined with some technological know-how and creative graphics to create a game that changes people’s attitudes. It takes the understanding that games are a unique form of media because in games, players get to control outcomes by making decisions about what to do. This belief that one can control one’s outcomes is a large component of why we dislike certain groups, especially poor people.

When I first heard about an online game meant to increase empathy for the poor by showing players what it’s like to live in poverty, I was excited but, it soon became clear, a little too optimistic. I was certain this game could promote positive attitudes toward the poor. I knew that seeing the challenges faced by a person in a certain group and viewing those challenges through his or her eyes could reduce prejudice toward that group by increasing feelings of empathy; this game seemed like a promising way to address poverty attitudes.

After I tested the game out, I was shocked to find that playing this game had no effect on positive feelings toward the poor. In fact, the game had a negative effect on attitudes among certain participants.

What was missing from my initial appraisal of this game was an understanding of how the experience of playing a game differs from the experience of watching a film or reading a book.  When I’m playing a game, I feel like I have complete control over my outcomes. I click on door A instead of door B, and I find a treasure chest full of jewels. I found that treasure because I choose door A. This feeling of control over one’s outcomes is called personal agency. The belief that people in general have personal agency is called meritocracy, and it’s highly correlated with anti-poor attitudes.  

The strongest driver of dislike toward poor people is the belief that poverty is personally controllable- that is, the belief that being poor is a direct consequence of making bad life decisions (like choosing door B in my example above).  So it makes sense that people high in meritocracy beliefs would tend to dislike poor people- according to their view, poor people just aren’t trying hard enough. Given this relationship between beliefs about the controllability of poverty and anti-poor attitudes, any experience that promotes the belief that poverty is controllable will likely decrease positive attitudes toward the poor.

Herein lies the inherent problem with an interactive poverty game. When I’m playing this game, I’m faced with decisions like whether to pay to fix my broken car or start taking the bus instead. I make a decision (taking the bus) and then I see the outcome of that decision (saving money but sometimes being late to work because the bus is unreliable).  For each scenario, the outcome (and its consequences) are directly caused by my decision. I feel that I have personal agency. Because I am playing the role of a poor person, I extend this feeling of personal agency to poor people in general. In the end, my attitudes toward the poor are not swayed by the game. Any positive feelings evoked by empathy from seeing the challenges of poverty are off-set or even outweighed by the negative feelings brought on by the belief that poverty is personally controllable, which results from playing a poverty game involving decision-making.

Thus, the online game had no effect on attitudes because the empathy effects were cancelled out by the effects of feeling personal agency. Even more troubling is the fact that the game actually lead to more negative attitudes when the participants were low in meritocracy beliefs (and likely to feel positively toward the poor). Playing the game convinced them that poverty was personally controllable, turning their positivity into negativity.

I’ve since verified that these results stem from games’ emphasis on personal agency. When people merely watch a screen recording of this game, they show all of the effects the game creators intended- more empathy and more liking. Watching the game removes that feeling of agency, letting the effects of perspective taking shine through.

Make no mistake, creating games to reduce prejudice is definitely a good idea, we just need to do our homework first. Without a nuanced understanding of how gaming can negatively and positively influence attitudes, we could end up promoting the very beliefs we meant to reduce.

Gina Roussos is a Graduate Policy Fellow at ISPS and a third-year graduate student in Social Psychology.