Jamal Davis was brimming with excitement as he headed to meet his new classmates at the welcome barbecue on campus. All his hard work had paid off, and he was ready to begin his PhD research at a top university in his field. He walked up to the student manning the grill to introduce himself, but before he could get a word in, the student asked him to check if there was more soda in the back. The graduate student had incorrectly assumed Jamal was a caterer based on the color of his skin.

This wasn’t real. It was playing out on my computer monitor. At this point in the scene, a bright red exclamation point appeared over Jamal’s head, and a loud ding! rang through my laptop speakers, prompting me to identify the form of implicit bias Jamal had just experienced. This was the first of many incidents I would virtually experience as Jamal Davis in the video game Fair Play.

Fair Play was developed by a group of researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to let faculty mentors experience the academic world through the eyes of a virtual black graduate student. While research shows that incidents of explicit racial bias like exclusion from programs or activities within academic institutions are less prevalent than they once were, forms of implicit bias persist. The culmination of seemingly minor incidents during individuals’ professional careers can be harmful to their mental health and may even ultimately lead them to change fields. A report by the NAS recommends that subtle biases within STEM fields be diminished to increase the diversity amongst scientific leaders and ultimately promote scientific innovation.

As perpetrators of microaggressions are often unaware of their harmful effects, virtually experiencing these common forms of bias can help people consider their actions and words more carefully. The Fair Play team is using their video game as a tool in diversity workshops and training at universities across the country to start a discussion about how to identify and prevent implicit bias in an academic workplace. Fair Play, which I tried at a workshop at Vanderbilt University in July, is an excellent example of the unique benefits and challenges of repurposing video games as tools to promote empathy.    

Video games promote empathy by leveraging something called projective identity(pdf). Research suggests that when playing a video game, there are three identities at play: the player; Jamal Davis, my virtual identity; and the projective identity—that is, who I want Jamal to be. For example, at one point in the game, Jamal is in the library preparing an abstract for submission to a conference. Another graduate student asks if he can review Jamal’s work to help him get started. I was conflicted about if I should let Jamal share his abstract. I wanted him to be an idealist, chasing his research passion and fully trusting his classmates, but my experience has taught me to be careful whom you share assignments with.

However, I felt I was compromising Jamal’s idealistic nature by saying no, so I let him look at the abstract. Jamal paid greatly for this mistake later; he was accused of plagiarizing the other student. To prove his innocence, he had to write an entirely new abstract. These small decisions in the game help in creating a projective identity.

The effective use of projective identity and perspective-taking in Fair Play is what makes it a more engaging experience then the classic lecture and roundtable discussion format of diversity workshops. In fact, 85 percent of players were able to take on Jamal’s perspective. All but seven of those players described being Jamal as “isolating” and “frustrating”. The remaining seven described being Jamal as a positive experience, because they enjoyed learning about implicit bias through his eyes.

By making diversity training fun, Fair Play holds great promise for improving bias literacy amongst participants. Bias literacy essentially puts labels on different forms of implicit bias, improving people’s ability to identify and acknowledge implicit bias they experience or impart. Most importantly, bias literacy provides the vocabulary needed to have a more open discussion about implicit bias in the workplace. Studies have shown that promoting bias literacy among academics reduces the incidents of bias amongst students and faculty alike.

At the end of the workshop, we were asked for feedback on the game itself, and although the feedback was overwhelmingly positive, the other Vanderbilt workshop attendees and I felt that improvements could be made to make Jamal more relatable.  

All the students I spoke to said that they or their friends had experienced similar implicit bias, and connected with Jamal. However, Victoria Ng, a graduate student at Vanderbilt University, thought Jamal deserved more of a backstory. Victoria suggested that showing how Jamal was able to successfully apply to graduate school and even go on to become a leader in his field would improve the game. “Transitions are where a lot of underrepresented minorities get lost in the fold,” she said. Highlighting the unique challenges minority students often experience while navigating graduate school and beyond may encourage faculty to discuss these potential obstacles with the students they mentor.

Students and faculty I spoke with both proposed that future versions of Fair Play include avatars of different races and genders. Donald Dantzler, Jr., an assistant researcher on the Fair Play team, has heard this recommendation before. “At the beginning of the development of the game, they did consider having other main characters, but through testing that version, it was decided to keep Jamal as the main character. This is because African American men are the most disadvantaged of the disadvantaged groups,” he says.

However, the inclusion of alternate characters may provide needed exposure to other underrepresented groups in STEM. Alejandra Romero-Morales, a graduate researcher at Vanderbilt University, commented, “Given the current political and social climate, expanding the awareness of discrimination against other minorities is also important.”

It’s interesting to note that data gathered from Fair Play participants demonstrated that more women than men said they were unable to take on Jamal’s perspective. The Fair Play developers suspect this is because Jamal is male. Previous research has demonstrated that players connect more to a character of the same gender and race. Overall, the addition of more character options in the game would be a worthwhile, albeit costly, improvement.

Fair Play is one example of how classic components of role-playing video games can provide an engaging and impactful way to promote empathy towards others with different life experiences. Other companies are utilizing comparable models to handle similar issues. The company Vantage Point, has developed a virtual reality game to teach about sexual harassment in the workplace.

Perhaps, in the future, Fair Play could be redesigned to address other forms of bias. Dantzler agrees that video games represent the future wave for diversity training. “Diversity and inclusion are on the forefront at just about all colleges, institutions, businesses, corporations, etc. The need to deliver content in a creative, meaningful and engaging way is critical.… This work is vastly important for the next generation of leaders.”