This game challenges your social biases.

Nothing takes the fun out of a game like the telltale whiff of edutainment. You played with Legos because you wanted to build your own world, not spatial skills. You played Oregon Trail because you wanted to tempt death by dysentery, not learn about manifest destiny. And yet, subliminally, you did learn, just by playing.

That’s the idea behind Buffalo, a card game created by Dartmouth’s Tiltfactor Lab and funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation. The rules are simple: Start by drawing one card from the adjective deck (e.g., “old,” “Caucasian,” “eco-friendly”) and one from the noun deck (e.g., “scientist,” “superhero,” “feminist”). Then, all players race to shout out a real person or fictional character who fits the bill. For the combination of “blond” and “supermodel,” for instance, you might name Heidi Klum; for “dead,” “male,” and “musician,” you might name Kurt Cobain. The first player to make a match with two or more cards takes those cards, and if everyone is stumped, or “buffaloed,” you draw another noun and adjective pair and try again. The player with the most cards wins.


The hidden object of the game, though, is to subvert players’ latent stereotypes. Given only the “physicist” card, you might gravitate toward Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, or Isaac Newton—all men. But when this card is paired with the “female” descriptor, for example, the game challenges your assumptions about who is or can be a scientist. Maybe next time you have to think of a physicist, you’ll go for Marie Curie or Jocelyn Bell Burnell instead. The mechanism is subtle, but research suggests that it works: In a study recently published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Tiltfactor found that students who played Buffalo reported higher “social identity complexity” (a measure of inclusiveness) than those in a control group.

This approach, called “embedded design,” is central to Tiltfactor’s practice. The laboratory, founded by designer Mary Flanagan, builds games based on psychological principles: Buffalo’s “obfuscating” strategy draws on reactance theory, which states that people go on the defensive when they perceive attempts to change their behavior or attitudes. We dig in our heels when we’re told what to do.

Buffalo can break through this innate resistance because you can’t tell it’s working. “The vast majority of players did not connect the game directly to biases and stereotypes,” the researchers note. “When asked what they thought the game’s purpose was, many identified such goals as testing or expanding one’s memory or knowledge of historical or pop culture figures.”

One game of Buffalo might not convince your drunk uncle at Thanksgiving to change his ways—but it’s a start. And it’s a good reminder to all of us to be more open-minded.

Board game, $20.95 at Amazon.

H/t Fast Company

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