Professional Development

Implicit Bias In the Classroom: Can Video Games Help Combat It?

By Brenda Iasevoli — June 14, 2017 3 min read
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Researchers at University of Wisconsin-Madison are developing a video game that will guide K-12 teachers through the hazards of unconscious attitudes and assumptions that affect the way they see their students, a phenomenon called “implicit bias.”

This summer, the researchers will work with staff from two school districts to design the game, which will allow teachers to experience bias in the schoolyard, cafeteria and classroom from a student’s perspective.

Christine M. Pribbenow, a senior scientist at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at the university, says one scenario that could turn up in the game is common enough in real life—a teacher in a majority white school calls a black student by the wrong first name, confusing him for another student of color.

“What do you do about that?” said Pribbenow. “If you are calling students by the wrong name, a very simple strategy is to get to know them as individuals. If you’re doing something like that, you’re probably grouping kids together, like all the Asian kids together and all the black kids together.”

The idea for a video game that teaches educators to recognize implicit bias is not new. Pribbenow had a hand in developing the video game Fair Play, which was the brainchild of University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of medicine Molly Carnes. In the game, university professors and administrators directly experience the discrimination against a black graduate student. Players guide the avatar, named Jamal Davis, as he navigates a university campus, networks with colleagues, picks an advisor and attends conferences. Along the way, the students and professors he runs into make assumptions about him because he’s black.

When I played, Jamal ran into a fellow student named Lucas, who is grilling outdoors and assumes Jamal is a caterer. Lucas asks a confused Jamal to bring him some soda. Another student, Morgan, asks Jamal if the lack of minorities on campus makes the college less appealing to black students. The game names these biases—status leveling and tokenism—and defines them, so players can become better at identifying them in future.

Preliminary research based on surveys evaluating professors’ experience playing the game at training workshops held across the country have shown some positive results, says Pribbenow. “Research of a pilot version of the game did find that players were able to take the perspective of the main character,” she said. “A critical piece in decreasing bias is being able to step in students’ shoes and understand what they are going through.”

Subsequent research will investigate whether playing the game actually changed the way professors interact with real-life students.

The game in development for K-12 teachers will ultimately be available, free of charge, to all Wisconsin school districts.

Video games represent just one way teachers in training can practice responding to bias in the classroom without using students as guinea pigs. Stephen Sawchuk writes about live simulations that help preservice teachers recognize bias and figure out how to deal with it in a productive way, before they ever enter a classroom.

What do you think? Are simulations a smart way to prepare preservice teachers to lead diverse classrooms?

Image: A scene from the video game “Fair Play,” which puts players in the shoes of an African-American graduate student. Courtesy of (Games+Learning+Society Center)

For more on bias in schools and projects to counteract it:

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.