Tiltfactor instigates, provokes, and inspires change. Our lab is home to many research projects which creatively disrupt the norm by using an approach we call “critical play.” Our mission is to research and develop software, events, experiences, and artifacts that create rewarding, compelling interactions. In most of our works, we invite public participation. Often, these situations involve play and games. With a multidimensional focus on inventive game design for social change, human values in the design process, and sustainability, our team seeks to create imaginative interventions for critical thinking and social change. Our ultimate goals are to bring dialogue and action to the forefront and to help people explore what is possible for themselves and their communities. (See our list of publications below)
Tiltfactor develops games that explore challenging and complex social issues to understand how and when games can have impact. We design, build, and study novel games drawing on what psychologists have discovered about biases such as implicit bias, stereotype threat, prejudice, and confirmation bias in order to reduce poor decision making, limitations in education and careers, and more. One particular strand is our work on stereotype threat and implicit bias toward women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Games include:
These games are part of the National Science Foundation-funded project, “Transforming STEM For Women and Girls: Reworking Stereotypes & Bias”, with additional assistance from the National Girls Collaborative Project. Publications include:
We seek to understand the ways in which games, play, and social computing can work together to solve pressing societal needs. Metadata Games (MG) is a free and open source online game system for gathering useful data for digital archives. Our aims are to create fun and engaging online experiences for players while contributing to vital archival records, and offer opportunities for cultural heritage institutions and players to connect with one another in ways they may not have otherwise. With Metadata Games, we are investigating how player motivation, game design, crowdsourcing, and natural language techniques can produce more –and higher quality– metadata for more accurate search and improve community engagement. We are working with partners at the Boston Public Library, the Massachusetts Digital Commonwealth, and the Digital Public Library of America, among others. One Up, a two-player asynchronous image tagging game for mobile devices. This is a multi-round game where you score points for submitting single-word tags and try to get more points than your opponent. One Up is designed to foster higher quality tag submissions; a more detailed explanation of the methodology and preliminary test results was published as part of the 2013 Digital Games Research Associations (DiGRA) Proceedings.
These games are designed to be played online and also on mobile devices.
Our health games advance better understanding of community health issues. We investigate how design, quality, psychology, and innovation in games can result in better health communities and health outcomes. Our games aim to promote self-care, immunization and disease prevention, HIV/AIDS education, health care systems understanding, mental health, and more. We have worked with The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, The Dartmouth Center for Health Care Delivery Science, the Minister of Health of Rwanda, and the Rippel Foundation. A sample of our games for health work includes:
Kaufman, G., & Flanagan, M. (2015). “A psychologically “embedded” approach to designing games for prosocial causes.” Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, 9(3), article 1. doi: 10.5817/CP2015-3-5
Prosocial games often utilize a direct, explicit approach to engage players with serious real-life scenarios and present information about key societal issues, but this approach may limit a game’s persuasive impact–particularly when the apparent aims of the game trigger players’ psychological defenses or reduce players’ potential engagement. In contrast, the “Embedded Design” approach that we introduce here offers effective, evidence-based strategies for delivering persuasive content. This paper provides an in-depth exploration of two key Embedded Design strategies: (1) intermixing: combining “on-topic” and “off-topic” game content in order 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. To illustrate the implementation and effectiveness of these strategies, we detail the design of two games that utilize a number of these techniques.
Kaufman, G., Flanagan, M., and Seidman, M. “Creating Stealth Game Interventions for Attitude and Behavior Change: An ‘Embedded Design’ Model.” Proceedings of the Digital Games Research Association (DiGRA) 2015.
Persuasive games tackling serious issues in a literal, explicit fashion are far less likely to succeed in changing attitudes or behaviors than are games that take the more “stealthy” approach of embedding persuasive messages within a game’s content or context. The “Embedded Design” model, which we introduce here, offers novel, evidence-based strategies for including persuasive content in a game in a fashion that circumvents players’ psychological defenses, triggers a more receptive mindset for internalizing a game’s intended message, and does so without sacrificing players’ enjoyment or the game’s replayability. Such techniques promise to revolutionize the ways that game developers tackle serious issues in games. Three original “embedding” strategies are presented: (1) Intermixing: balancing “on-message” and “off-message” content to render the former less overt or threatening; (2) Obfuscating: using framing devices or genres that divert expectations or focus away from the game’s persuasive intent; and (3) Distancing: employing fiction and metaphor to increase the psychological gap between players’ identities and beliefs and the game’s characters and persuasive content.
Seidman, M., Flanagan, M., and Kaufman, G. “Failed Games: Lessons Learned from Promising but Problematic Game Prototypes in Designing for Diversity.” Proceedings of the Digital Games Research Association (DiGRA) 2015.
Iterative game design approaches have proven effective in creating persuasive games, but these approaches inevitably lead to as many abandoned designs as ones that are pursued to completion. This paper serves as a reflective and instructive post mortem for the unpublished non-digital game prototypes developed for our team’s “Transforming STEM for Women and Girls: Reworking Stereotypes & Bias” (BIAS) research project. We outline three abandoned designs and explain why they were ultimately not pursued, focusing on the challenges of balancing enjoyability, feasibility of production, and impact. We discuss design strategies, including: masking games’ persuasive intentions, prioritizing prototypes with their efficacy-to-cost ratio in mind, and designing for fun first. This discussion offers insights into the design of both non-digital and digital “games for impact” that allow designers and researchers alike to learn from these promising but problematic prototypes.
Kaufman Geoff, Flanagan Mary, Seidman Max, and Wien Simone. “‘RePlay Health’: An Experiential Role-Playing Sport for Modeling Healthcare Decisions, Policies, and Outcomes.” Games for Health Journal, 4(4), 2015. doi:10.1089/g4h.2014.0134.
This article presents the empirical investigation of a novel role-playing sport, the “RePlay Health” game (www.replayhealth.com/), which was inspired by computer simulation of healthcare dynamics. The game immerses players in a fictional world in which they take on the role of characters who are prone to behavioral and environmental risk factors. In a randomized experiment testing the efficacy of the game, active players (as compared with spectators) reported significantly higher scores in subjective ranking of several health policies modeled by the game. After gameplay, players were also significantly more likely to understand health systemically by identifying environmental and systemic factors in health problems.
Manzo, C., Kaufman, G., Punjasthitkul, S., & Flanagan, M. “‘By the People, For the People’: Assessing the Value of Crowdsourced, User-Generated Metadata.” Digital Humanities Quarterly, 9(1), 2015.
With the growing volume of user-generated classification systems arising from media tagging-based platforms (such as Flickr and Tumblr) and the advent of new crowdsourcing platforms for cultural heritage collections, determining the value and usability of crowdsourced, “folksonomic,” or user-generated, “freely chosen keywords” for libraries, museums and other cultural heritage organizations becomes increasingly essential. The present study builds on prior work investigating the value and accuracy of folksonomies by: (1) demonstrating the benefit of user-generated “tags” – or unregulated keywords typically meant for personal organizational purposes – for facilitating item retrieval and (2) assessing the accuracy of descriptive metadata generated via a game-based crowdsourcing application. In this study, participants (N = 16) were first tasked with finding a set of five images using a search index containing either a combination of folksonomic and controlled vocabulary metadata or only controlled vocabulary metadata. Data analysis revealed that participants in the folksonomic and controlled vocabulary search condition were, on average, six times faster to search for each image (M = 25.08 secs) compared to participants searching with access only to controlled vocabulary metadata (M = 154.1 secs), and successfully retrieved significantly more items overall. Following this search task, all participants were asked to provide descriptive metadata for nine digital objects by playing three separate single-player tagging games. Analysis showed that 88% of participant-provided tags were judged to be accurate, and that both tagging patterns and accuracy levels did not significantly differ between groups of professional librarians and participants outside of the Library Science field. These findings illustrate the value of folksonomies for enhancing item “findability,” or the ease with which a patron can access materials, and the ability of librarians and general users alike to contribute valid, meaningful metadata. This could significantly impact the way libraries and other cultural heritage organizations conceptualize the tasks of searching and classification.
Kaufman, G., Flanagan, M., and Punjasthitkul, S. “Exploring the impact of ‘emphasis frames’ on player motivation and performance in a crowdsourcing game.” In Proceedings of the 2014 Meaningful Play Conference.
Relatively little empirical work has systematically verified the claims regarding crowdsourcing games as more ‘fun or productive’ than other crowdsourcing interfaces, and fewer still have identified the psychological factors that might impact the motivation to play crowdsourcing games to encourage better data. Study 1 (N = 97) compared the number of individual tags contributed by players who were shown, prior to play, one of three game “frames” emphasizing distinct motivators identified by prior research. Study 2 (N = 148) tested this hypothesis by comparing the social norm frame used in Study 1 with two new frames that combined the language of the original frame. The findings demonstrate the powerful impact of emphasizing distinct motivational factors when presenting a game to players, and illustrate the potentially detrimental impact of highlighting descriptive norms for participation in crowdsourcing. The research suggests that one effective means of counteracting social loafing in crowdsourcing is to make salient the value of users’ contributions or by stressing the value of users’ unique perspectives for contributing.
Flanagan, M., and Nissenbaum, H. (2014). “Values at Play in Digital Games.” Boston: MIT Press.
All games express and embody human values, providing a compelling arena in which we play out beliefs and ideas. “Big ideas” such as justice, equity, honesty, and cooperation—as well as other kinds of ideas, including violence, exploitation, and greed—may emerge in games whether designers intend them or not. In this book, Mary Flanagan and Helen Nissenbaum present Values at Play, a theoretical and practical framework for identifying socially recognized moral and political values in digital games. Values at Play can also serve as a guide to designers who seek to implement values in the conception and design of their games.After developing a theoretical foundation for their proposal, Flanagan and Nissenbaum provide detailed examinations of selected games, demonstrating the many ways in which values are embedded in them. They introduce the Values at Play heuristic, a systematic approach for incorporating values into the game design process. Interspersed among the book’s chapters are texts by designers who have put Values at Play into practice by accepting values as a design constraint like any other, offering a real-world perspective on the design challenges involved.
Kaufman, Geoff and Flanagan, M. “Lost in Translation: Comparing the Impact of an Analog and Digital Version of a Public Health Game on Players’ Perceptions, Attitudes, and Cognitions.” International Journal of Games and Computer Mediated Simulations 5(3) 2013, 1-9.
As growing body of work demonstrates the ability of games to significantly transform cognitive skill sets and attitudes toward social issues, including public health, it becomes increasingly imperative to understand the divergent outcomes afforded by analog and digital game platforms. Here, authors learn that a nearly identical, digital version of an analog public health game has shown to be less effective at facilitating learning and attitude change. Several explanations based on psychological theories are discussed.
Flanagan, M., Punjasthitkul, S., Seidman, M., Kaufman, G. and Carini, P. “Citizen Archivists at Play: Game Design for Gathering Metadata for Cultural Heritage Institutions.” Proceedings of DiGRA 2013, Atlanta, Georgia, August 2013.
This overview of the Metadata Games project explains the potential role of games in collecting valuable information about archival media through crowdsourcing. Challenges are discussed, including maximizing the player audience, ensuring high replayability, and verifying the accuracy of publicly generated data. The authors ultimately present the “Outlier Design” model used to identify and address these challenges.
Flanagan, M. & Carini, P. (2012). “How games can help us access and understand cultural artifacts.” American Archivist 75(2), pp 514-537.
As libraries and archives seek to digitize millions of items, institutions struggle to collect quality, relevant metadata–the informative tags regarding an item’s content, context, and creation. Reporting on a pilot study of Metadata Games, this paper elaborates on the utility games in collecting metadata, and the potential connection fostered between such rich archival data and a diverse user base which includes researchers, hobbyists, and of course, gamers!
Kaufman, G. and Libby, L. Changing Beliefs and Behavior Through Experience-Taking Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, March 26, 2012.
The present research introduces the concept of experience-taking, in which individuals’ spontaneously orient themselves around the identity of a character within a narrative, simulating the emotions, behaviors, goals, and traits of the character as if they were one’s own.The six studies detailed here investigated the conditions under which this imaginative process occurs while reading a brief fictional work, with special attention to self-concept accessibility, first vs. third-person narrative voice, and ingroup-outgroup membership. Implications for behavior are discussed.
Flanagan, M., Seidman, M., Belman, J., Punjasthitkul, S., Downs, Z., Ayoob, M., Driscoll, A., and Downs, M. Preventing a POX Among the People? A Design Case Study of a Public Health Game Proceedings of DiGRA 2011 Conference: Think Design Play, Hilversum, Netherlands.
POX: SAVE THE PEOPLE is a board game challenging players to stop the spread of a deadly disease. This article details the design process of a public health game, seeking to understand the ways in which science knowledge can be embedded in the game, and transferred from a board to its players.
Belman, J., Nissenbaum, H., Flanagan, M., and Diamond, J. Grow-A-Game: A Tool for Values Conscious Design and Analysis of Digital Games Proceedings of DiGRA 2011 Conference: Think Design Play, Hilversum, Netherlands.
Developed by the Values at Play (VAP) project, the Grow-A-Game cards facilitate values-conscious design and analysis of digital games. In this report, we follow the Grow-A-Game cards as they are implemented in a series of beginner and advanced game design courses, where they are used to better understand the relationship between values and games, as well as to produce innovating and interesting values-focused designs.
The goals of Values at Play (VAP) is to investigate the role of social, moral, and political values in digital games, and to develop a systematic apporach to integrating human values in the design process. Authors provide an overview of the curricula and materials created to date, disucssing their use in graduate and undergraduate game design courses.
Belman, J. and Flanagan, M. Designing Games to Foster Empathy. Cognitive Technology, 14(2).
Research converges on the idea that games are well-suited for fostering empathy in players and groups. The authors begin with an overview of psychology research on empathy, followed by a set of heuristic principles derived from the literature which have direct and practical applications for the design of games for the social good. Lastly, the authors visit three games–PeaceMaker, Hush, and Layoff–as examples of games which have incorporated these approaches into their design.
Belman, J., Flanagan M., and Nissenbaum, H. Instructional Methods and Curricula for Values Conscious Design. Loading: The Official Journal of the Canadian Games Studies Association, 3(4).
Values at Play seeks to investigate the role of social, moral, and political values in digital games. Goals of this project include developing approaches to considering values in the design process, as well as creating and disseminating curricula and instructional materials for introducing students to “values conscious” design. Here, authors provide an overview of curricula and instructional materials as implemented in graduate and undergraduate game design courses.
Flanagan, M. and Lotko, A. Anxiety, Openness, and Activist Games: A Case Study for Critical Play. Proceedings of the Digital Games Research Association, Uxbridge UK, 2009.
A case study of a popular activist game demonstrates how the most powerful play experience results from a new relationship formed between the audience and the player, with special attention to the game’s mechanics, subject position, representation, and content.
Flanagan, M. and Nissenbaum, H. Design Heuristics for Activist Games. Beyond Barbie to Mortal Kombat. C. Heeter and Y. Kafai (eds). Cambridge: MIT Press 2008.
Games have come to be integral to human culture. Given contemporary understanding that human principles could be embedded in game design, the authors offer a values-conscious approach to design, opening opportunities for socially conscious gameplay and design.
Flanagan, M., Howe, D., and Nissenbaum, H. Values in Design: Theory and Practice” (pdf) In Information Technology and Moral Philosophy, Jeroen van den Hoven and John Weckert (eds.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
In a spectrum of approaches to the study of technology and society, it has been understood that values come to be embodied in technical systems and devices. The authors of this paper offer a more holistic approach to design, in which values are equally as relevant to design as functionality. As a more general goal, the authors hope to foster a world where our technology reflects our social, political, and moral values.
Flanagan, M. The Sims: Suburban Utopias Borries, Friedrich von, Walz, Steffen P., Böttger, Matthias (eds.) Space Time Play. Synergies Between Computer Games, Architecture and Urbanism, Birkhäuser Publishing, Basel Boston Berlin, 2007. Plass, J. L, Goldman, R., Flanagan, M., Diamond, J., Dong, C., Looui, S., Hyuksoon Song, H., Rosalia, C., and Perlin, K. RAPUNSEL: How a computer game designed based on educational theory can improve girls’ self-efficacy and self-esteem.Proceedings of the American Educational Research Association, Chicago, April 2007.
The authors review a three-year project to design a web-based software environment for real-time, applied programming for underrepresented students’ early literacy (RAPUNSEL), the chief goal of which, was to design an interactive way to teach middle school girls computer programming. Accomplished through the computer game environment called Peeps, students used programming as a means to achieve goals relevant to other players. By facilitating safe ways to learn-by-error, students’ experienced increases in self-efficacy, self-esteem, computer self-efficacy, and programming self-efficacy. Implications for educators and designers are discussed.
Flanagan, M. Locating Play and Politics: Real World Games and Political Action. Proceedings of the Digital Arts and Culture Conference, Perth Australia, Dec 2007.
The author explores the potential of locative media to act as a tool for empowerment, community building, and cultural change, by offering a conception of the urban environment as a site of novel play experiences. New technologies and mobile platforms contribute to the city’s playscape, and further inform the ways in which creative projects will continue to engage the city itself as the environment for play. Implications for this form of play are discussed, and the social and political possibilities of taking play to the streets are explored.
Flanagan, M., Nissenbaum, H., Diamond, J., and Belman, J. A Method for Discovering Values in Digital Games.Full paper presented at Situated Play DiGRA ’07 (Tokyo, JP September 24-28, 2007).
The authors present a tool called “Values Cards,” which when used as part of the game-design process, prompt creators to consider how values are expressed through game mechanics and representational elements. Analyses of such concepts can be posted to a collective wiki and shared among designers interested in games from a values perspective.
Flanagan, M. and Nissenbaum, H. A Game Design Methodology to Incorporate Activist Themes.Proceedings of the CHI 2007 conference, 28 April – May 3, San Jose, California.Flanagan, M. and Nissenbaum, H. A Game Design Methodology to Incorporate Social Activist Themes.Proceedings of CHI 2007. New York, NY: ACM Press, 181 – 190.
The authors explore a variety of educational and activist game approaches, specifically projects involving design for young women. Offering a close look at Values at Play (VAP), the authors show how a values-based methodology that could be implemented in the creation of games as well as the teaching of game design.
Flanagan, M. and Looui, S. Rethinking the F Word: A Review of Activist Art on the Internet. National Women’s Studies Association Journal (Special Issue: Feminist Activist Art) 19:1, Spring 2007, 181-200.
New technologies have a variety of potential applications for feminist activism. Here, the authors explore emerging directions of feminist art in relation to the internet, considering how technology has informed and realized the goals of feminist artists and activists. Challenges and possibilities of new media, feminist art are discussed.
Feminist Art Activist Roundtable National Women’s Studies Association Journal (Special Issue: Feminist Activist Art) 19:1, Spring 2007.
This special issue presents a roundtable with contemporary feminist, activist, designers and artists. Creators discuss trends toward tactical intervention for the social good, and implications for art and design in altering the social and cultural landscape.
Flanagan, M. My Profile, Myself in Playculture. Exploring Digital Artefacts . Johan Bornebusch and Patrik Hernwall, Editors. M3 Publication, 2006, 20-29. Flanagan, M.Making Games for Social Change. AI & Society: The Journal of Human-Centered Systems. Springer London: Springer, 20:1, January 2006.Flanagan, M. The ‘Nature’ of Networks: Space and Place in the Silicon Forest. Nature et progrès : interactions, exclusions, mutations. Ed. Pierre Lagayette. Paris : Presses de l’Université. Paris-Sorbonne, 2006.
Flanagan, M., Howe, D. C., and Nissenbaum, H. New Design Methods for Activist Gaming Proceedings from DiGRA 2005, 16-20 June, Vancouver, BC, Canada.
Designers and engineers are becoming increasingly aware of the ways in which political, social and ethical values come to be embodied in the artifacts they create. Here, the authors introduce systematic methods for the discovery, analysis, and integration of values into the work of game designers and technologists, discussing the benefits and challenges of a values-oriented approach as it applies to a variety of design contexts.
Flanagan, M. Troubling ‘Games for Girls’: Notes from the Edge of Game Design. Proceedings from DiGRA 2005, 16-20 June, Vancouver, BC, Canada.
The author presents notes from a project to design an activist, multiplayer game for middle-school girls, providing diverse feedback on RAPUNSEL. This paper challenges the many gender-based stereotypes that are inherent in computing culture, and further discusses how a designer may allow for multiple play styles.
Flanagan, M., Howe, D.C., and Nissenbaum, H. Values at Play: Design Tradeoffs in Socially-Oriented Game Design Proceedings of the CHI 2005 conference on Human factors in computing systems. CHI 2005, 2-7 April, Portland, Oregon. New York: ACM Press.
As designers and engineers come to understand the ways in which political, social and cultural values come to be embedded in games, many struggle to find balance between their own values and those of users, stakeholders, and those of the surrounding culture. Authors present the RAPUNSEL project as a case study of game design in a values-rich context, and describe efforts navigating among value sets.
Flanagan, M. Developing Virtual Performance Spaces. American Puppetry. Ed. Phyllis T. Dircks. New York: Theatre Library Association, 2004.
Flanagan, M. Une Maison de Poupee Virtuelle Capitaliste? The Sims: Domesticite, Consommation, et Feminite. Consommations & Sociétés: Cahiers pluridisciplinaire sur la consommation et l’interculturel. Ed. Mélanie Roustan et Dominique Desjeux. Flanagan, M. the bride stripped bare to her Data: information flow and digibodies. in Data Made Flesh, Thurtle et al. 2003.
The author offers an overview of digital information representation, focusing on the embodied code of virtual characters. The world’s first virutal newscaster, Ananova, a character-based, live-information interface, Motorola’s Mya data service, and Syndi, a “celebrity portal” search engine that purports a subjective experience through a character are followed as exemplars. The author discusses the role of the female in these representations, as well as the ramifications of data embodiment, particularly as it pertains to information conveyed through female-shaped bodies.
Flanagan, M. Next Level: Women’s Digital Activism through Gaming. Digital Media Revisited. Edited by Andrew Morrison, Gunnar Liestøl & Terje Rasmussen. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003, 359 – 388.
The author explores noncommercial computer games created by women in order to explore the ways in which language and conventions of gaming culture are shaped and reshaped by women artist activists. Focusing on the works of Natalie Bookchin, Pamela Jennings, and Lucia Grossberger-Morales, the author discusses motivations, themes, and impacts of feminist gaming practices in culture and cyberfeminism.
Flanagan, M. Response to Celia Pearce: About Computer Gaming. First Person. Ed. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003.
Flanagan, M. Hyperbodies, Hyperknowledge: Women in Games, Women in Cyberpunk, and Strategies of Resistance. reload: rethinking women + cyberculture . Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002, 425-454.
While there are more female protagonists in popular computer games than in cinema, they are prone to rigid styles of representation based largely on men’s fantasies. Here, the author presents digital art projects that challenge assumptions about the body and knowledge, gender, and technology, in an effort to articulate the formation and workings of knowledge for women within technoculture.
Spatialized MagnoMemories. Culture Machine 3 – Virologies: Culture and Contamination. Eds. David Boothroyd and Gary Hall. 2001.<
Flanagan, M. navigable narratives: gender +narrative spatiality in virtual worlds. Art Journal. 59:3, Fall 2000, 74 – 85.
Technology affords space for unique means of storytelling and identity formation. This paper seeks to understand the construction of virtual bodies and space by examining the ways in which concepts of gender are embedded in the construction of online worlds. The author discusses the implications of performing the digital space, with regard to the political specificity of virtual reality.
Flanagan, M. Mobile Identities, Digital Stars, & Post-Cinematic Selves. Wide Angle: Issue on Digitality & the Memory of Cinema. 21:3, 1999.
The author discusses the emergence of female, digital stars as they relate to those of contemporary film. Presenting comparison between digital stars and stars of film history, the author complicates the “man-made” female form, as well as highlights the subject/object positions examined by feminist scholars of popular media.
Flanagan, M. Digital Stars Are Here to Stay. convergence: the journal of research into new media technologies. Eds. Julia Knight + Alexis Weedon, University of Luton.
The author makes the case for digital stars of gaming by showing how such characters engage each individuals’ unique sense of agency, and how players engage intimate relationships with the avatars they control.
Flanagan, M. Mobile Identities, Digital Stars, & Post-Cinematic Selves. Wide Angle: Issue on Digitality & the Memory of Cinema. 21:3, 1999.