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28 January 2019

Persuasive games are promising to have social impact, but success is not guaranteed!

Recent years have seen a tremendous rise in the distribution of digital games that aim to change society for the better. A study in Basic and Applied Social Psychology investigates if such a social impact game could increase empathy for refugees. The outcome suggests that gamification is no guarantee for success, possibly because players are less absorbed in the game than expected.

Take aways

  • Persuasive games are not always more persuasive than traditional, noninteractive media. Gamification is promising, but not a guaranteed success. 
  • For successful persuasion, it is important that the players feel absorbed in the game. When developing a persuasive game, it is crucial to test this among the target audience.

Study information

  • Who?

    Study 1: 134 undergraduate students (mean age: 22, 80% female)  

    Study 2: 94 undergraduate students (mean age: 19 years, 88% female) 

    Study 3: 161 secondary school students (mean age: 17 years; 53% female) 

  • Where?

    The Netherlands

  • How?

    In three studies, participants either played ‘Against All Odds’, a game in which the avatar is a refugee fleeing a war-torn country, or saw print or video materials related to the refugee crisis, or did not see any information related to the refugee crisis. Then, the researchers assessed participants’ identification with refugees and their willingness to help refugees, as well as the extent to which participants felt absorbed into the provided material, meaning really being drawn into the game, video, or text. Study 3 also assessed ‘embodied presence’: meaning how much participants felt that the refugee and they themselves were one and the same.

Facts and findings

  • The participants who played the persuasive game were not more willing to help than the participants who received information via print or video materials or no information at all. 
  • Surprisingly, participants felt more absorbed in video and printed text than in the game. 
  • Participants who played the game felt like they were really standing in the refugee’s shoes, to a greater degree than participants who did not play the game. However, this did not increase their willingness to help refugees.