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Fun, games and inequality


“You can do anything you put your mind to” is a message that has been instilled in the minds of North Americans. 

People are taught that if they work hard enough, anyone can succeed. This is why many people believe in equality and fairness as forces that shape our economic system and tend to overlook the power of systemic factors like racial discrimination or class barriers in economic inequality. 

A danger in this type of thinking is that people are tempted to blame individuals for their hardships and for their poverty.

How then, can we engage individuals in critical thinking to better understand the structural factors that contribute to economic inequality? How can we help individuals who are in positions of power to better recognize and acknowledge the unearned social, political, and economic capital that helped them to assume that power? 

The game:

C’est La Vie: The Game of Social Life is a simulation activity - a game - that is designed to help players engage in discussions of structural inequality and self-reflection through first-hand experiences. 

To start the game, players are each given a character profile that captures the intersecting sources of privilege and oppression related to race/ethnicity, immigration status, gender, sexual orientation, ability, and socioeconomic status. These factors combine to determine the number of “bonus” credits with which the character starts the game. These bonus credits represent social privileges granted to some groups of people, but not to others. Each player also begins the game with differing degrees of wealth, indicated by starting money credits.

As the game progresses, players make decisions about housing, education, and occupational attainment. They also encounter a variety of real-life situations, including making friends, getting into trouble, and even dating. 

Players are instructed to make strategic decisions on behalf of their character that could result in the gain (or loss) of money, bonuses, experience, education, and health and wellness for their character. For example, early in the game players choose housing in different neighbourhoods. 

The choice of neighbourhood, ranging from public housing to a wealthy gated community, affects their health/wellness and education. Each decision requires players to make a trade-off between money, bonuses, experience, and wellness. Sound like a game of strategy? 

Not quite. 

The decisions are also impacted by the characters’ membership in privileged or marginalized groups, whether racial/ethnic, gender, sexual orientation, ability/disability, or socioeconomic. The trade-offs in the game, and the players’ interaction with their character’s demographic characteristics, are designed to highlight the complex, and often subtle ways that systems of privilege serve to maintain systems of oppression. 

For example, when a character gets in trouble with the law, certain social groups are able to use bonuses to get out of trouble, while other social groups (i.e. visible minorities) must use monetary resources to avoid jail. If players do not have the money or bonus credits, they must sacrifice their health and wellness as they try to fight a system stacked against them. The relevancy and power of this particular example is obvious amidst the fraught discussions about ‘carding’ gripping the city of Toronto right now. 

The game also includes several collective decisions (i.e. votes) that are used to further highlight the processes by which systems of privilege contribute to oppression. In one example, players must use their bonus credits to harness the power of the media to lobby for a wellness initiative. Residents of the neighbourhood with the most votes win the wellness credits, while everyone else loses wellness credits. 

Because only the most privileged characters have the bonus credits to spare, and players tend to vote based on the self-interests of their own character, the wellness credits almost always go to the most affluent neighbourhood. These decision scenarios highlight how institutionalized privilege serves to help some, while hurting others, even when people are not explicitly motivated by prejudiced attitudes.

Research and initial discoveries:

Assessing the effectiveness of the game is an ongoing process. To date, the game has been assessed in a variety of different environments, including a small university seminar classroom, a large-lecture hall, and as a staff training exercise for a non-profit organization. 

Using both qualitative and quantitative data, a preliminary analysis demonstrates several important findings: First, the game is engaging, effective and realistic. Players report that they were engaged in role-playing that allowed them to adopt a new perspective and experience the struggle (or perhaps ease) of life in a different social location. Secondly, the game expands players’ conceptualization of privilege and oppression. In particular, the game stimulates self-reflection, such that players reflect on their own lives with regards to their intersecting identities of privilege and oppression. Finally, the game encourages players to focus on structural causes of social inequality. 

Our analysis revealed a shift from individualistic attributions to more external, institutional attributions for social problems. Encouragingly, players began to engage in a conversation of potential solutions to social inequality. 

Given these promising results, we are continuing to develop and evaluate this project.  For as so many know too well, the experience of inequality is no fun and games.

Arla Good is a PhD candidate in the psychology department at Ryerson University. Kosha Bramesfeld PhD is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Ryerson University.

For more information about the game or the research, published materials can be accessed at: Teaching SociologyTeaching Resources and Innovations Library for Sociology (TRAILS); and Office of Teaching Resources in Psychology (OTRP). This research was supported by a grant from the Teaching about Diversity Fund at Ryerson University.

Photo: Michael Newman. Used under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND-2.0 license.