Subtle Messages in Games

Personally, I was particularly intrigued by the study from this week’s reading: “A Psychologically ‘Embedded’ Approach to Designing Games for Prosocial Causes”(Geoff Kaufman and Mary Flanagan). The study claims that certain techniques such as “1) Intermixing: Combining on-topic and off-topic game content to make the focal message or theme less obvious and more accessible” and “2) Obfuscating: Using game genres or framing devices that direct players’ attention or expectations away from the game’s true aims” make it more effective to influence players of a game about a certain topic when it is not overtly obvious what the game’s intentions are to manipulate a player’s opinion.

I want to first question the notion of conducting studies on how a game influences players. We mentioned the idea of playtesting in class, how players play games to break them, and how Beta testing is important to determine how players will actually react to a game. This is quite on the contrary to the games played in this study, where students were meticulously picked by researchers to play games where, essentially, cards with stereotypes on them were given to players, and a “Universal Orientation Score” which measures “general non-prejudice” are assigned to how players essentially put cards down to refute stereotypes. First, by coining game’s name as “Awkward Moment” (which already frames the game as one which one needs to identify situations outside perceived social norms) or adding in cards with blatant stereotypes, I do not believe that the focus of the game is as “intermixed” or as “obfuscated” as the researchers believe, as the researchers believe. Second, as the players know that they are in a study, they will be influenced to play according to what the researchers may want. In a real playtesting environment where players do not know that they are being watched, I have suspicions that players might play to reinforce stereotypes because they might think it is humorous or to “break” the game. If the researchers wanted to truly see how players would react to the game, they would release the game to the public to gauge how players respond, or at least release the game in a way where the players do not know that they are explicitly being watched. Think about Cards Against Humanity–how would gamers play if knew they were being watched by researchers?

Is it even possible to successfully obfuscate messages into a game? I think that it is extremely difficult to; the games in the study are already, in my opinion, painfully obvious as to what they are trying to convey when players are responding to painfully cheesy cards that say “While shopping at the mall, you notice a store that sells T-Shirts for girls that say ‘Math is hard’.” I feel that a successful game in doing so in implementing these kinds of pro-social messages cannot signal to the player at all any kind of intention, for example, being able to signal some message into a game like Apples to Apples, which is framed as a game where players are supposed to “Play the funniest card,” as opposed to aforementioned scenario where one “Does the right thing to avoid an awkward scenario.”

Last, I want to question the ethical implications of being able to codify or obfuscate messages into a game, if that even is possible. I feel that this can be an extremely dangerous concept; in this fairly tame scenario, where kids are supposed to learn how to refute stereotypes, it is easy to say that there is an inherent good in disseminating this game to players. However, there are many points of contention and issues in today’s post-truth society where people argue for both sides and there seems to be no objective truth. Thus, the role of a gamemaker becomes one of high stakes, and I worry about the possibility of being able to implement “subtle means of designing games to shift players’ psychological responses” through these seemingly innocuous games. It does not seem difficult for impressionable players to be radicalized through subtle messages fed through these kinds of games.

If you’d like to comment about my post, I guess I really have three main questions I’d like to focus on (though feel free to comment about whatever you’d like): 1) What is the best way to accurately glean results of how players will play a game without bias while still being in a controlled scientific environment, 2) Do you think it is possible to successfully intermix or obfuscate messages into a game, and if so, what would that kind of game look like? 3) What are the implications of being able to obfuscate messages into a game, if it is possible?

6 thoughts on “Subtle Messages in Games

  1. Justin, there are many threads in your post that I find really interesting. One thing you stated really caught my eye: “I feel that a successful game in doing so in implementing these kinds of pro-social messages cannot signal to the player at all any kind of intention…” I’m curious about this (and hoping I’m not misunderstanding you). The issue of “signaling” is significant as it appears in other articles, like Jonathan Belman and Mary Flanagan’s work, “Designing games to foster empathy.” They argue that the incitement of empathy actually depends on the game-makers signaling to the player that they’d like them to empathize with the characters in some way. They say that making this apparent will make the game more likely to influence the player’s attitude. So this part seems to kind of go against what you mentioned about intention.

    In regard to obfuscating the message, there are many “serious” games that play their cards pretty openly – one game I’m studying for my thesis, Undertale, makes its commentary on violence pretty obvious. For games with positive messages, we might say that this is a good thing. We might also look at other games that hide their messages and argue that their message fails to read. You note that “It does not seem difficult for impressionable players to be radicalized through subtle messages fed through these kinds of games,” and I think this is really interesting. Aside from the games we’re reading about which sometimes didactically display their intentions, there are already many hidden messages in the games around us that might influence how we see the world. (This would apply also to any form of media, generally, but we don’t need to go down that rabbit hole.) Your post reminds me a bit of someone’s in class comment about representation. So to your second and third questions, I think its very possibly to obfuscate messages in a game that don’t appear unless we take them apart – the ones that come to my mind are attitudes about sexism, racism, violence etc. The implications? Well, many studies have tried to argue that games influence attitudes and behaviors, for better (empathy) or worse (aggression). It’s hard to say, especially since player’s are encountering messages all around them, all the time, especially in our current era. I don’t feel like I’ve answered your questions, really, but maybe brought more threads to the table.

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  2. I’m interested in your second question, mainly the notion that it may not be possible to successfully intermix or obfuscate messages into a game. I think there are a few points to consider. We are shown these games from the perspective of the game designers, so it does become painfully obvious to us what they were trying to do. We can’t really speak to the experience of playing this game as a player because we didn’t. I think the procedural rhetoric that we spoke about in class on Tuesday provide a way to successfully obfuscate messages into a game.

    As a casual player (most), it is rare to think about the structure of the game and what message it conveys through the very structure of the game. It may become obvious when there are political themes central to the story of the game, but when the structure of the game itself has a message embedded into it, I think this could be very successful.

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  3. Regarding your third question, do you think that the ethics of subtle messages are different depending on what situation the game is played in? Regardless of “objective truth,” parents (for the most part) trust teachers and the lessons they impart to students in a school setting. So if the game maker is an educator, it seems like parents should trust a teacher’s subtle messages in the same way they trust a test to be in a student’s best interests. However outside a system of trust, subtle messages in games could be terrifying in the wrong hands. What if you buy a game from a faceless game maker, and the game tries to enforce biases instead of break them down? This isn’t just a question for games—the trust problem is present when consuming all types of media, from books to movies to newspapers.

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  4. I understand where you’re coming from with your concerns about obfuscation, but I don’t think there’s anything inherently unethical in games hiding their messages. It seems to me that across all forms of artistic expression, it’s quite common for the message to be somewhat concealed. Even a movie like Inside Out has the purpose of teaching kids to process their emotions, but hides it through its goofy story and characterization. There’s maybe value in transparency: I’d be uncomfortable with a game maker flat-out denying any message in their game. But I feel that in the games discussed, obfuscating their messages simply allowed the games to communicate those messages on their own rather than requiring outside explanation. (Of course, this could definitely be used harmfully… but I think that just depends on the message being communicated.)

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  5. I think have little problem with hidden messages within games, since this is common practice in fables and story telling. We distance ourselves by casting the characters as animals rather than humans. Intermix, by adding extraneous plot details, character traits ect, and obfuscate by painting certain characters as good or bad without saying
    I agree that this study was flawed in many senses of the game, but the core techniques have been used throughout story telling but is just now being formally applied to games.
    It would be naive to believe that bias is not in any form of media. A clear example is how minorities and women are historically portrayed in video games. By creating formal language to describe these methods we can be more intelligent consumers of media.

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  6. Your blog post had a lot of interesting points, and I really found your second question, “Do you think it is possible to successfully intermix or obfuscate messages into a game, and if so, what would that kind of game look like?”
    I think it is possible to intermix messages into a game. Unless we view a game through the eyes of the game designer and are able to dissect each and every little detail that the game designer thinks of, we won’t know whether there are hidden messages or not throughout the game. As a game player, people begin a game by following the instructions and attempt to achieve their goal of winning. But are there players who pay attention to each and every detail of a game and can figure out what the game designer intended to do with a certain aspect of their game?
    When discussing games and messages, I can’t help but immediately think of the game “Braid” which I had to play and write an essay discussing the various aspects of the game during my Media Aesthetics class. The game had so many allusions to the war and if the player was just playing to clear the level instead of examining the details of the game, such as the various artwork and possible meanings behind each puzzle piece, it would be hard to figure out what the game designer wants us to know. But when a game has hidden messages, there can also be various interpretations, so will we ever figure out the true meaning behind a hidden message in a game? Unless the game designer explicitly tells us what they intended to do in a certain part of their game, I think not.

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