22 April 2011
Games and stereotype threat
A young girls sits alone, silently crying on a dimly lit staircase in her home, a small piece of paper hanging loosely from one hand. She knew this was going to happen, she knew that she was not good at taking standardized tests. And she knew that girls were not good at math. She knows this the same way that ‘everyone’ knows it; it’s just common knowledge.
She has an older brother who sailed through the same test and received outstanding scores, and who did half of the homework she did on a regular basis. How could she have thought that all the work would pay off and that she would do just as well or better than her less than studious brother? As soon as the exam proctor at the head of the room said ‘Go!’ on test day she knew that she had been wrong, and now her fears were confirmed. She is just not good at math. Or is she? According to Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson her scores were biased by something they call 'stereotype threat.'
Stereotype threat is the anxiety creating risk of confirming a stereotype about a group with which one self identifies. It is the x factor that leads many potentially great performers to choke in the moment. It is the x factor that led our heroine to underperform on her college entrance examination and to subsequently limit her postsecondary options. It is certainly not the only factor influencing performance, but it is one that has absolutely nothing to do with the knowledge or ability being measured. As such it is a bias that should be removed if we are serious about understanding an individual's level of development.
According to ReduceStereotypeThreat.org, one method for reducing stereotype threat is to ‘reframe the task.’ As a measure of performance or mastery, gaming may provide a great opportunity to do this reframing and reduce the bias of stereotype threat. It would be a bit extreme to say that this alone provides reason to create games for the purpose of education or measurement, but I believe it should be listed as an advantage of the method. As we move toward the creation of a system that facilitates and tracks progress toward mastery, it should be one factor that is seriously considered when design decisions are made.