Archive for Advance

Not Conservative After All

As I’m reading up on the Modern Racism Scale, I came across a fabulous study looking at why people who score high on the scale (henceforward referred to as “modern racists”) oppose race-based social justice policies.

There’s been debate about what the Modern Racism Scale really measures, because some of the questions on the scale could be read as reflecting conservative political ideologies. Maybe the scale really measures political conservatism, not racism; when applied to issues of race, the two just happen to look alike. There’s been some work on separating the two, but Blatz and Ross decided to test this hypothesis directly. They presented a group of high scorers with a scenario in which orphans were seeking reparations from an orphanage at which they were physically and sexually abused. Half the subjects were told the orphans were European; half were told they were Aboriginal Canadian.

I’ll give you the results in the authors’ own words:

Do individuals with higher scores on a modern racism scale oppose race-based social justice policies because of racial antipathy or ideological principles? The results of this experiment strongly support the racism hypothesis. High modern racists resisted offering reparations to members of a minority group, Aboriginal Canadians, who had suffered sexual and physical abuse as children. When European Canadians experienced precisely the same abuse, the resistance of high modern racists to reparations melted away. In the current context at least, high modern racists’ opposition to reparations apparently reflects their dislike for a minority group rather than a principled conservative ideology.

When the only experimental variable that changed was the race of the victims, modern racists’ attitudes toward reparations changed – despite their claims of opposing reparations on principle.  The principle was being used as a more acceptable explanation of their opinions.

Here’s what I find especially sad. Because modern racists co-opt the language of conservatism, racism detection becomes a problem. How do you tell the difference between someone who has a legitimate conservative position on topics like these, and someone who is a racist and simply using conservative ideologies to justify it? Unless you’re willing to administer the Modern Racism Scale (and its companion, the Modern Sexism Scale) on a regular basis, it’s hard to differentiate the two.

You may ask, who cares? But I think liberals and conservatives alike should care about this issue. Because modern racists use the language of conservative ideology, it becomes hard to have a meaningful conversation with someone who espouses that ideology. One side feels they’re being unjustly suspected or blamed; the other feels they’re being dealt with in bad faith. Liberals have good reasons to suspect conservatives may be lying about their commitment to ideology, because modern racists are only committed to conservative ideology when it serves their social goals. Conservatives have good reasons to feel offended, because they know whether or not they are being wrongly mistrusted*. Personally, I think this is one of the big unspoken reasons for the difficulty American liberals and conservatives have in talking to each other.

Unfortunately, my conservative friends, the solution to this one is up to you. Racists are using your ideology as cover. You’re the only ones who can make it unacceptable for them to do so.

* Yes, many racists aren’t aware they’re racist, but I’m giving people the benefit of the doubt here.

Cyber Therapy

From the Times, a surprisingly good overview of what’s going on in this area.

When people talk to me about Advance, they often assume that it’s an avatar-based game*. After all, it’s a game about discrimination, so you must be playing a person who gets discriminated against … right? This is not actually my design goal, and the learning theory I’m using suggests I’ll get further by asking players to look at their characters as experimental tokens to be manipulated, not as aspects of themselves. However, there are plenty of routes to reducing prejudice. I especially love Bailenson, Yee and Slater’s work about inhabiting a virtual body that is different from your own. I think I’m going to have to reference this work in outlining how technology can support prejudice reduction techniques, even though they’re not exactly doing what I’m trying to do.

* Which is generally followed by an explanation of why avatars are so awesome. Thank you, random people, for assuming I have not thought through my design space.

The Last Refuge of the Bigot

From the MIT report on women science faculty:

Each generation of young women, including those who are currently senior faculty, began by believing that gender discrimination was “solved” in the previous generation and would not touch them. Gradually however, their eyes were opened to the realization that the playing field is not level after all, and that they had paid a high price both personally and professionally as a result.


Once and for all we must recognize that the heart and soul of discrimination, the last refuge of the bigot, is to say that those who are discriminated against deserve it because they are less good.

In my research on racism and sexism, I encounter many, many, many people who want to say the problem of discrimination is solved.  Consequently, if we’re still seeing unequal opportunities for women and people of color, it means there must be something wrong with them.  My dissertation work looks at how to change exactly these ideas, which means I struggle with when to engage and when to walk away from the inevitable Stupid Internet Arguments.

Books like Microaggressions in Everyday Life, Racism Without Racists and The Mismeasure of Woman do a wonderful job of shredding these approaches and showing the harm they do, but I can’t pull out a book-length argument every time these issues come up.  As my brother pointed out, I need an elevator pitch for what I’m working on, or no one’s going to listen to me but other academics.  I think I’ve found mine in this report, or at least a direction for shaping one.

Finding My Line

Over the last two months I’ve been working intensely on my dissertation.  If you’re wondering whether this relates to my adviser’s imminent return from sabbatical, you’d be right!  But I’ve been really surprised by how much this intense focus helps both my productivity and my mood.  I wake up every morning raring to dissertate (yes, I did just say “raring to dissertate”), and I still have several hours to devote to other projects after I hit my daily targets.

Today, I came across Merlin Mann’s article on Making Time to Make and realized what I’ve been doing.  I’ve been drawing a clear and firm line around my time.  While I hardly have the problems of a Neal Stephenson, I do have lots of people who want my time: academic colleagues, former students, potential consulting clients, friends I haven’t seen recently, and more.  All these relationships enrich my life, but there’s more of them than I can manage!  Worse, making daily decisions about how much attention I could spare was killing my productivity even when I wasn’t actually available.

I’ve made a few exceptions, but my so-far-successful ruleset looks like this:

– No meetings that end after 10am, unless data collection requires it.
– No leaving the office for any reason until I’ve hit my dissertation goal for the day.
– No new freelance projects or academic commitments.*
– No organizing social events of any kind; let other people be in charge!
– No long emails.  (And a private IM account that only my boy’s got access to.)
– No apologizing for putting my dissertation first.

What’s especially interesting to me is just how much of this was made possible by the dissertation-completion fellowship program I’m in.  The office they gave me is hidden away**, meaning I don’t get interrupted unexpectedly.  The workspace is ergonomic enough that I can work until I’ve hit my daily goal without killing my wrists.  The meeting room is heavily booked during the late morning and afternoon, so I’m not tempted to schedule midday meetings.  It’s amazing how these structural changes help me enforce my own rules!

That’s not to say that line-drawing has no drawbacks.  There are people I really like who aren’t getting the attention I want to give them, and I’m feeling pretty darn broke without any new projects in the pipeline.  Just yesterday I had to tell a former student I couldn’t meet with him, which I hate to do!  And there are less obvious drawbacks, too: I’m not really good at letting other people organize my free time, so instead of hanging out with friends I’m doing more one-on-one activities with the boy.***

I think that some of the specifics of my strategy will have to change during the upcoming year. For example, I’d like to have one “open afternoon” a week, where I go work somewhere I’m casually available for conversation and brainstorming.  I also don’t think I can go a whole year without organizing any social events!  But having rules, even if they’re less strict, seems to work really well for me.  The less time I spend making decisions about how to spend my time, the more time I actually have to spend.****

* Okay, I’m really bad at this one.  Why must so many things be so interesting?

** In a basement, as usual.  Do you think I can write “Must have workspace with window” into a job contract?

*** Though this isn’t all bad, since it’s resulted in dance lessons!

**** Which is why I may have to do a piece about rules as cognitive technology.  But not now!  My rules say I can’t!

Red Flowers, Pink Flowers

Camara Jones’ article on institutionalized racism is wonderfully written.  What really impresses me is the way she makes current scholarship on race accessible to the casual reader – or at least to the casual reader who makes it past the slightly academic opening.

Most people’s personal understanding of racism stops right around “intentional” and “personally mediated.”  In other words, most people think that racism is located in individual behavior and requires conscious intent.  Jones’ story does a nice job of showing how discrimination goes far beyond that – which is also what I’m trying to do.  I’m hoping that by letting people experience the way individual choices create biased systems, people will have to think twice before limiting their ideas about racism to the personal and intentional.

Unfortunately, plenty of people will just dismiss an analogy, so I’m hoping that experiential learning will affect some of the ones who do!

Women Scientists and Housework

As part of my research on gender, I often find myself reading pieces like this one, and the Academe article it cites, on the impact of housework on women scientists’ careers. Admittedly, the articles I read aren’t always quite so relevant to my life! But they’re often eye-opening, and this one was no exception.

The thrust of the piece is that women scientists do a lot more housework than their spouses and their male peers, and this is a Bad Idea. Not only is it unjust, it’s also an incredible waste of time for highly trained individuals. I’ve invested a whole lot of time and money in my career; my training is in doing research and designing games, not in cleaning the kitchen. This isn’t to say that cleaning the kitchen is somehow not worthwhile – and I hate a dirty kitchen as much as anyone! But it’s basic economics that I should spend my time doing the things that I can do better than anyone else, not on tasks that someone else can do as well as (or better than!) I can.

I really liked Lorraine Tracey’s take on cumulative disadvantage, too:

Ms. Tracey, who is also a postdoctoral research associate at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, said additional personal responsibilities could add up over time for younger female scientists.

“If you have five hours a week less than your male counterparts available for your research over the five- to 10-year period of your graduate and postdoctoral training, this certainly adds up to a significant amount of time that I imagine could impact your competitiveness in the marketplace,” she said.

To me, this ties to work showing it takes time to become an expert – about ten thousand hours, according to most estimates. Five hours a week you’re spending doing the laundry or cooking? That’s just over 250 hours a year, more than 2% of the total time investment required. Unless you’re more talented than everyone around you, you’re either going to fall behind your colleagues or you’ll have to find five hours per week somewhere else.

So why can’t women just find that time elsewhere? Sadly, it’s not so easy. People need leisure! But leisure, for people who are passionate about their work, isn’t always purely fun. When I look at my own life, I spend a vast amount of my “free” time doing things that are actually related to my professional career. I read, I think, I play and design games, I invent new projects and more! Five hours is a big chunk of that time, and would have a huge impact on the imaginativeness and breath of my work.

After reading this article, I recognize how very lucky I am to have a partner who cooks, does the laundry, and is devastatingly witty and handsome to boot. But I shouldn’t have to feel lucky! As a highly trained professional with something significant to contribute to the world, I already have more demands on my time than I can handle. I just don’t have time for extra hours of housework. Neither do my less lucky peers, but they end up doing the extra work anyways.

I don’t think there’s an easy solution, but all this has reminded me why I’m working to change people’s ideas about gender. This is work that matters.

Headlamp and Online Data

When I was thinking about Advance, I decided that I wanted to automate a lot of my data collection. I made this decision for a variety of reasons, some theoretical (if I keep the data collection low-key, it won’t interfere with player behavior) and some practical (more time spent on R&D, less on entering and coding data). Most important, I wanted to be able to distribute my game online and reach a broad population, but still be able to collect sophisticated and subtle data.

Turns out this is actually hard. Who knew?

I’m not surprised that automated online data collection has its own set of challenges, but I’m a bit surprised by what some of those challenges have been. I keep running into fairly simple things I want to do that aren’t well-supported by existing tools. Counterbalancing presentation of tasks. Randomizing subject assignment to research condition. Conditional pre- and post-test support. Complex tasks combined with surveys. Some tools have some of these features, but I haven’t found any that have all of them.

Enter Headlamp Research, which is designing tools for people to do research online. They haven’t released their toolset yet, but I just took their “What do we need to be doing?” survey and was really impressed. If nothing else, they’re asking all the right questions.

They’re not relevant for the work I’m doing on Advance, because I’m rolling my own tools into the game itself – but by the time I’m ready to begin a new study, it seems like they’ll have some really powerful tools available, plus a user population already in place. Self-selection effects could be problematic (after all, you’re only testing the kinds of people who sign up to do research online!) but I find their approach really inspiring.

Advance Interface Sketches

Advance! Main Screen

Advance! Main Screen

Advance! Job Detail

Advance! Job Detail

Advance! Character Detail

Advance! Character Detail

Reorientation to Research

One of the hardest things about this project, for me, has been balancing its many threads: reading, research, coding, writing, design.  Each of these could easily be a full-time job, so how do I balance them?  Not only do I have to figure out how to allocate my own time, I also have to provide leadership for the other people on the project.  No two of us have the same skills, nor the same amount of time to commit, nor the same things we want to get out of the project.  This makes it an even harder problem.

This is not something I’m particularly good at, and it’s been a big challenge so far.  While I’ve done a good job of setting aside lots of time to work on this project – I do something for it every single day, come hell or high water! – I tend to get very focused on one aspect of it at a time.  When I’m doing development, I just want to keep developing.  Same if I’m doing design, or reading articles, or writing.  This is not great for making sure all the parts of the project move ahead together!

To address this, I’ve decided to start evaluating each area of the project in the context of our upcoming deadlines.  For example, I’m giving a talk in research practicum next month.  I sat down to make an outline and realized that, while we’ve got a lot of design and development progress to report, we don’t have as many new articles to discuss as I’d like.  

Okay, so I’d identified a challenge, but I wasn’t sure how to address it.  Doing more reading and research is crucial for us, but we can’t afford to take time away from design and development if we want to be able to run a pilot this summer. 

Pazit, however, is an experienced project manager, and she had some really good suggestions about how to handle this.  “Do more research” isn’t exactly an actionable goal – but I have a big list of references I want to read and I know how I want to incorporate them into the project.  She suggested that we each agree to read one article a week from now until next month’s presentation, and discuss how they fit our work during our group meetings.  That’s something we can totally do alongside our existing commitments to the project!  I think the discussion is also going to be key, because I think a lot of good ideas (and an even longer reading list!) will come out of our conversations.

This is my first time leading a research team, so I’m always on the alert for learning experiences like this one.  I’m really excited about the research progress we’ll be making over the next few weeks, and about my new techniques for managing a multi-threaded project as well!

Eyeballing and Scoring

Screenshot of Eyeballing game.

Screenshot of Eyeballing game.

I just spent some time playing The Eyeballing Game, which has convinced me that you can make a game out of just about anything. This game asks players to tackle a series of visual tasks, from bisecting an angle to finding the point of convergence of three lines. (Shown: create a right angle by moving the blue line!)

There are three things, as far as I’m concerned, that make this experience a fun one. First, the game challenges skills I don’t often have the chance to explore. Visual perception may be useful in some professions, but it’s never been a particular strength of mine, and I certainly don’t use it much from day to day. It was very satisfying for me to feel my brain stretch as I got better at the exercises!

That brings me to the second point that made this game successful: the game gives you feedback on how you did. After each of the seven mini-games, it shows how many “units” you were off by, and actually shows you what the correct answer looks like. This helps you get better over time, both because you can consciously try to understand why a particular answer was off and because you unconsciously get better at seeing. For example, I developed a conscious strategy for the right-angle game, namely turning my head until the base of the angle looked horizontal; I also found myself more able to perceive when the blue line was very slightly off the perpendicular. Because you get to play each game three times per round, you can actually watch yourself improve!

That brings me to the third thing that’s successful about this game: that the game tracks your progress over time. Not only do you get to see your three scores per game per round, but the game tracks your best score on a particular computer, and it lets you compare yourself against the best recent players. Even the simple guideline of “lower is better” helps shape your relationship to these games. When I’d make a mistake and be off by, say, 30.9 units, I’d find myself cringing at the thought of what it would do to my average.

There are lessons for Advance here. The bad news is that this game has only made me more sure that we need to get our feedback to players just right – and I’m not sure we’ve managed it yet. But on the bright side, if this game can be motivating and engaging by introducing scoring and feedback, so can ours. While we’ve made some early prototypes that show our basic gameplay is fun, we’re relying heavily on our scoring system to get players to think carefully about bias. This game reassures me that getting the numbers to be as big or as small as possible can be highly motivating, at least for players like me.