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Board Games To Fight Bias


Over the past few weeks, NPR has explored how discrimination affects people of all races, ethnicities and identities. Could one solution be a board game? Reporter Maanvi Singh has the story.


MAANVI SINGH, BYLINE: The game is called "Buffalo." I'm with my boyfriend Alex and my friend Jess, and we are ready to play away our prejudices.

ALEX: Buffalo.

SINGH: It's simple. You start with two decks of cards. One deck contains adjectives like Chinese, tall or enigmatic. The other contains nouns like wizard or dancer.

ALEX: Shuffle the decks separately and flip one card from each face-up onto the table.

SINGH: And then we all race to shout out a real person or fictional character who fits the description.

SINGH: Dashing TV show character.

JESS: "Knight Rider." David Hasselhoff in "Knight Rider."

ALEX: Female Olympian.

SINGH: Michael Phelps. No, female.


SINGH: Gabby Douglas.

SINGH: If everyone is stumped, or buffaloed, you draw another noun and adjective pair and try again. When the decks run out, the player who has made the most matches wins. But will playing it make me less biased?

MARY FLANAGAN: It's a serious question to look at how a little game could try to address a massive, lived social problem that affects so many individuals.

SINGH: That's Mary Flanagan, the game designer and Dartmouth professor who developed "Buffalo." She says it challenges stereotypes because it forces players to think of people that buck those stereotypes. So for example, think of a physicist. Albert Einstein or Isaac Newton may automatically come to mind. But what if you have to think of a female physicist or a black female physicist? You may have to think a bit harder.

FLANAGAN: So it starts to work on a conscious level of reminding us that we don't really know a lot of things we might want to know about the world around us. But it also unconsciously starts to open up stereotypical patterns in the way we think.

SINGH: In one of many tests she conducted, Flanagan rounded up 200 college students and assigned half to play "Buffalo." After one game, the "Buffalo" players were slightly more likely than their peers to agree with statements like, there is potential for good and evil in all of us. Or, I can see myself fitting into many groups. Plus...

FLANAGAN: After 20 minutes of gameplay, you've got some kind of measurable transformation with a player.

SINGH: Meaning they scored better on a standard psychological test for tolerance. "Buffalo" isn't Flanagan's only bias-busting game. Her company Tiltfactor makes two others called "Awkward Moment" and "Awkward Moment At Work." They're designed to reduce gender discrimination at school and in the workplace. There are good reasons to get behind the idea that games or any other sort of entertainment can change the way we think. Here's Princeton psychologist Betsy Levy Paluck.

BETSY LEVY PALUCK: People aren't excited about showing up to diversity trainings or listening to people lecture them. People don't generally want to be told what to think.

SINGH: But a spoonful of sugar can really help them swallow important messages about embracing diversity. Still, the idea that games can make any lasting difference is fairly new. Anthony Greenwald is a psychologist at the University of Washington. He has spent his career studying people's deep-seated prejudices, and he's skeptical. He says, over the years, plenty of researchers have tried strategies to reduce prejudice.

ANTHONY GREENWALD: Unfortunately, recent research has shown these desired effects generally disappear rapidly.

SINGH: So I asked game designer Mary Flanagan, how can a game that lasts 20 minutes dislodge prejudices we've developed over a lifetime?

FLANAGAN: It's a good question because we don't really know how long the effects last. But we do know that people play games often.

SINGH: Her philosophy - maybe a game a day can help us keep at least some of our prejudices away. For NPR News, I'm Maanvi Singh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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