Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Anti-bullying research (Learning to Be Human)

Note: This post deals with my game, Learning to Be Human. As such, it will contain spoilers.

The bullying problems and their solutions needed to be portrayed accurately in order for the game to be at all effective. This meant research into how bullying works, and what can be done to stop bullies and empower victims.

As far as helping the victims of bulling, I have spent a lot of time researching and helping with regards to forming healthy relationships. I volunteered for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, specifically in a section dedicated to helping callers with unhealthy relationships - both romantic and otherwise. There I learned just how key it is to offer support, encouragement, and self-empowerment to those people who are suffering from an unhealthy relationship. I learned which behaviors are unhelpful: excusing the negative behavior, demanding the victim change their behavior, or even offering unsolicited advice are all ways that can make victims feel even more boxed in. The best a helping friend can do is make it clear they don't like the situation while still offering support. It's up to the victim to determine when it is safe and reasonable to make changes, and it's important to signal that victims have control over their own lives and decisions.

I incorporated this into Learning to Be Human by making it so that the android only gave advice to victims when the advice was asked for. I made sure that the advice empowered the victim, and offered possible solutions instead of definite commands. And I never once allowed players to downplay or dismiss the victim's concerns. (Note that this dynamic might play out a little differently if a teacher had been involved.)

There are two important aspects in addressing the problems from the bully's side. The Android gave the bullies advice on how to change, but in order for players to listen to and internalize that advice, I knew they had to identify with the bullies first, or else it wouldn't seem relevant. Second, the advice to the bullies had to be actually good advice.

I tackled identifying with the bullies first and foremost. If the player couldn't put themselves in the bully's shoes, then they wouldn't pay attention to the advice and solutions. The players would rationalize that they don't need the advice, because it doesn't apply to them. I didn't want that to happen. This is actually a common problem in games: the enemies are painted as a one-dimensional evil (Nazis, evil space invaders, Orcs), which then allows the protagonist plenty of moral leeway while still considering themselves heroic. The most obvious example is the hero-controlled torture scene in Wolfenstein: The New Order. The cruelty towards the torture victim is supposedly justified, because in this game the enemies are so evil that they aren't human, and so don't deserve human empathy. But that sends the exactly backwards message.

That is why I focused on creating empathy and rapport with the bullies in Learning to Be Human. I made sure that the bullies seemed approachable, friendly, and caring towards the player. One of the bullies lashes out, but only because someone damaged the android. Another bully just wants to fit in and have friends. They are not monsters, or cruel, or bad people. They are just people who have made some poor decisions. And those poor decisions can be corrected.

There is a specific way to discuss correcting those poor decisions that helps. The trick here is to approach the problem from a non-judgmental, problem-solving mood. By offering opportunities for change, instead of demanding change, the bully has a better chance of agreeing with, internalizing, and implementing changes. Obviously, some hard-enforced rules are necessary around the issue of bullying, but encouraging empathy and personal change are important.

To do this effectively in Learning to Be Human, I made sure that the android asked curious questions instead of passing judgment. In fact, some opportunities for passing judgment were expressly disallowed. This was in part because if the player had approached the bully judgmentally, the bully would have reacted negatively, as though personally insulted, and would have dismissed any advice. Instead of dictating changes, the android had a discussion with the bully, and discussed strategies for change. The android listened to the bully's concerns, and offered solutions for those, too.

All of this came together in a story where anti-bullying stories were strongly encouraged in ways that create empathy and understanding, for everyone involved.

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