October 1, 2011
Breakthrough, a global human rights organization, produced America 2049, an alternate-reality game set in a dystopian future in which the United States is on the verge of breaking apart because of an inability to tolerate diversity and promote human rights. During the 12-week game launch, players uncovered artifacts related to the persistent struggle for human rights in American history, while also watching an unfolding narrative about oppression and the loss of human rights in the future. Players could decide whether to support the activities of "Divided We Fall," a group dedicated to preserving national unity, or the "Council on American Heritage," an organization pushing for dissolution.
By using a narrative-driven, episodic game (the narrative was released in weekly installments during the 12-week launch), Breakthrough engaged game players on human rights issues and instances of social injustice in a different way. Rather than simply telegraphing positions on issues, game play in America 2049 permits some level of individual agency by enabling players to decide whether and how to align their in-game personas with opposing factions in the context of an unfolding drama. Based on personal or game-related goals, players can choose to support either side (pro- or anti-human rights) in the conflict without affecting their score. The goal was not to promote "good" or pro-human rights behavior during game play, but rather to encourage players to play with possibilities within a human rights-focused narrative and consider how societal choices about human rights could influence the future.
Breakthrough sought to achieve three goals in the America 2049 campaign:
1. Using a serious game on a social networking platform, motivate players to take action on human rights-related issues in the real world by connecting them with others who share similar interests.
2. Educate players about the enduring struggle for civil rights and cultural pluralism in American history. The game encourages them to connect past, present, and a possible future by considering the meanings of relevant cultural artifacts in the context of a fictional universe where diversity is seen as a threat and human rights are largely ignored.
3. Enable players to "play out," in limited fashion, a virtual alter ego's participation in (either for or against) a future struggle for human rights.
To investigate the game's effectiveness as a tool to mobilize real-world action around the issues confronted in the game, Breakthrough engaged EDC's Center for Children & Technology (CCT) as an independent evaluator to evaluate the game. Two research questions framed the evaluation:
1. Do players indicate a willingness to reconsider issues or become active around them following game play? (And when they do indicate willingness, which aspects of the game do they say are influential?)
2. Is there a relationship between the categories of "moral reasoning" players use in the game and their willingness to reconsider issues?
To answer the research questions, we used two instruments:
1. Post-game survey. At the conclusion of Week 12 of the game launch, we asked players to complete a follow-up survey to gather demographic data, information about their "play style," and whether they had reconsidered any of the issues they encountered in the game.
2. "Player choice-point rationale." The instrument was presented to players as part of an in-game "agent psychological evaluation," asking them to explain their decisions about which faction to support at certain points during game play. The language for the rationales (see Appendix A) is grouped into three categories: instrumental, interpersonal, and principle, based loosely on Lawrence Kohlberg's moral reasoning framework.
14,929 users logged on to the America 2049 Facebook site during the game's 12-week launch in April-June 2011.
5,487 users provided a geographic location: Players represented 115 countries (66% of all players were from the United States).
Matched survey and game play data are available for 104 players.
93% (97/104) of survey respondents described their political leanings toward the issues in the game as either "Very liberal," "Liberal," or "Moderate." Survey responses suggest that many players were already aware of at least some of the issues addressed in the game, but that the game enabled them to experience them in a new way. Further, 69% (72/104) were already active on at least one of the issues addressed in the game. In open-ended comments, several players wrote that the game narrative aligned closely with views they already held, but that they enjoyed thinking about them in this context.
89% (48/54 comments) of the post-game survey comments about the game were positive. Many players commented specifically on the high quality of the game play and the way in which Breakthrough integrated the alternate reality game genre with a compelling narrative about human rights.
86% (89/104) of players who completed the follow-up survey indicated at least some willingness to become active at some point in the future on an issue they encountered in the game. Additionally, for each of 15 human rights issues represented in the game, at least 25% of the survey respondents reported that they had spent time reconsidering their views on the issue in real life after game play.
58% (60/104) of respondents reported that they played serious games "Never" or "A few times a year." Conversely, 52% (54/104) indicated that they play commercial games "Every day of the week" or "4-6 days/week." The data suggest that players who might not ordinarily play serious games were motivated to persist over the 12-week launch.
47% (49/104) of the survey respondents cited one of two game features as most influential in prompting them to reconsider the issues: the game's overarching narrative and the specific experiences of the non-player characters.
There is no discernible relationship between the specific choices a player makes during game play and her or his willingness to consider becoming active on issues (as indicated on the survey), nor is there a relationship between choices and a player's reported "play style."