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Screen Saviors: Can Activism-Focused Games Change Our Behavior?

In Paintball Hero, one of the latest video games centered on social and political issues, players rescue pigs, chickens and cows in a slaughterhouse.
In Paintball Hero, one of the latest video games centered on social and political issues, players rescue pigs, chickens and cows in a slaughterhouse.

If you don't have time to call your senator, stage a protest or partake in a rescue mission at a slaughterhouse, you can at least save some chickens on your phone. Thanks to the new animal rights app Paintball Hero, created by 17-year-old game developer Skylar Thomas, animal liberation is now as easy as click, swipe, win.

An animal rights activist since early childhood, Thomas sought to start a conversation about animal abuse and mistreatment through gaming. He partnered with , the youth chapter of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, to turn animal rights activism into a 3-D mobile app experience. In the multilevel game, activists or "rebels" can rescue animals in three settings: factory farms, rain forests and circuses. As players move through their various missions, they blast corporate gatekeepers via the fatal forces of "education paintballs," colorful blocks that educate as they kill. In the high-stakes land of Paintball Hero, getting informed can get deadly.

The response to the game, Thomas says, has been largely positive. The game's reach has been wide, extending far beyond the animal rights echo chamber. Thomas says the app has even attracted players who once derided the vegan lifestyle. "They didn't realize until becoming engaged in playing what they were actually doing in the game," he says, "And then they asked questions. Then, they paused to think."

Paintball Hero is not the only game to create a narrative around a cause. In recent years, there has been an influx of games centered on social and political issues, from sexism to racism to the refugee crisis. The Cat in the Hijab, created by Andrew Wang, features stylized cats who are lobbed with hate speech on a subway train. Here, users enter a world that conjures our own, inhabited by feline bigots who could very well have some ancestral ties to brutish Twitter trolls.

In 1979 Revolution: Black Friday, produced by iNK Stories, users play a photojournalist caught in the deadly throes of the Islamic Revolution. The storyline presents some tough choices: Do you side with your family or political allies? Do you partake in nonviolence or armed struggle? Growing up as a child in Iran during the revolution, game director Navid Khonsari hoped the game would help players understand the moral ambiguities that activists face during war.

While certainly compelling, does the impact of these "games for good" reverberate off-screen? How seamlessly do our actions drift from our phones to the real world? Psychologist Mari Swingle, author of i-Minds: How Cell Phones, Computers, Gaming, and Social Media are Changing Our Brains, Our Behavior, and the Evolution of Our Species, says the data is still thin. However, she believes that a game's influence on our behavior hinges heavily on our identification with the game and its avatar. When we see ourselves in the game, our on- and off-screen lives tend to blur. We feel more connected to our on-screen actions, making us more likely to repeat them.

Swingle argues that users' relationship to the subject matter also impacts how games translate into their lives. The same game can activate different brain centers and systems in different users. Homelessness, for instance, can trigger a range of emotions in a person: empathy, pity, fear and even superiority. A game intended to augment empathy and understanding for the homeless plight may not get past, let's say, the base emotion of fear. If the game can't change the base emotion, it can't shift behavior.

Moreover, how messages are delivered can influence how we process them. Because gamers often seek out games that align with their beliefs, Nathan Piperno — the lead designer and writer for the game development company Inner Void Interactive — insists that the key to changing minds is subtle messaging. Unless a developer wants to simply "code to the choir," messaging should meld seamlessly with the rest of the storyline. "I think players don't want to be lectured," Piperno explains, "But they can be extremely perceptive if important themes are delivered organically in the game."

How we game also matters. Kirk Kristofferson, who co-authored the study "The Nature of Slacktivism: How the Social Observability of an Initial Act of Token Support Affects Prosocial Action," found that when people's acts of token support were public, it would satisfy their desire to look good to others. Showing off was their endgame. No further action needed. Gaming, on the other hand, tends to be a more private act, unless we Instagram our scores. When people privately support a cause, they tend to believe their values align with that cause, which leads to subsequent support. Hence, gaming, when not broadcasted to a live audience or a newsfeed, should inspire future action.

Researchers are still determining how gaming imprints itself on our thoughts and behavior. The link between our on- and off-screen selves exists, but it's complex, inconclusive and dependent on a number of interconnecting variables. Regardless of the direct behavioral connection, Kahlief Adams, who, along with Shareef Jackson and Cicero Holmes, produces the Spawn On Me podcast, believes games can achieve one of the most vital steps in driving change: informing others. "Often we see folks who might not even know about a particular social justice issue," he says, "and video games can be the perfect gateway into learning more."

To generate more direct and immediate results, some activism-focused games are donating profits from their in-app purchases to a cause or charity. Likewise, the startup creates Facebook games for brands, such as Pepsi and MasterCard, which donate to charities when consumers play. Some of these games donate based on time played, while others donate when players reach a certain level or achievement.

Drawing on the feverish energy and focus of the gaming community, campaign platforms such as Spawn on Me's Spawn4Good and the feminist gaming site Not Your Mama's Gamer's have had success raising money for various social causes. Likewise, , a fan festival for the first-person shooter game Destiny, raised over $1 million this year through a streaming marathon.

The impact of activism-focused games might be difficult to quantify, but these game developers are still making important strides. They are skewering stereotypes of gamers, stretching the boundaries of their medium and steering their gaze outward — and toward the real world.

Rachel Ament is a writer and editor living in Washington, D.C. She edited the book of essaysJewish Daughter Diaries: True Stories of Being Loved Too Much By Our Moms.You can follow her on Twitter @RachelAment.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Ament