Role-taking as a Darfurian refugee videogame character and the willingness to help (Peng et al., 2010)

At quarter’s end, being temporarily released of my grad student duties was the biggest relief ever, especially coming home to Montreal with the meeting up with people and recharging my batteries. After a week of Montreal, I reverted back to my pre-grad student habits: slouching, playing, and watching youtube. It’s going to take a while to relearn my grad student role for the next quarter and I figure that writing a blog post (which is long overdue) would be the first step.

Wei Peng (Michigan State University) and colleagues have published a study on the subject of serious videogames, videogames with the intent to teach, raise awareness of a social or health issue. The serious videogame subjected to scientific scrutiny is Darfur is Dying, the game is available online and I demand you to play it before continuing with the blog post.


Serious games are emerging as a new medium for social change. This study investigated the influence of presentation mode afforded by different media on willingness to help in the context of humanitarian aid. Two online experiments were conducted. The first experiment demonstrated that playing the Darfur is Dying game elicited greater role-taking and resulted in greater willingness to help the Darfurian people than reading a text conveying the same information. The second experiment deconstructed the variable presentation mode in more detail by adding a game watching condition. Similar results were found such that game playing resulted in greater role-taking and willingness to help than game watching and text reading. Implications for researchers and game developers are also discussed.

There was a PHD comics that neatly summarized what I did back in Montreal, but I couldn’t find it.

Role-taking as a Darfurian refugee makes you sympathize to their plight, didn’t it? Role-taking is one of the theoretical mechanisms that lend serious videogames having an effect on people’s attitudes on a serious social issue. They defined it as a cognitive process that an individual temporarily pretends to be another person in order to learn the other person’s thoughts, attitudes, intentions, and behaviours of a given situation. Or as the authors put it in simple English, “putting yourself into other’s shoes.” To complicate things, other concepts shares similarities with role-taking, such as identification, defined as viewers imagining themselves as the characters in a movie or TV program. Role-playing, the authors defined it from a sociological point of view, roles that serve a social function. For example, the role of a teacher or police officer and of their expected behaviours. The authors made distinctions between role-playing and role-taking as role-playing is more of enacting behaviours of a prototypical model whereas role-taking is more psychological or elaborative in taking the role of a unique character or more rounded character.

The authors explored the unique complexity of role-playing videogames where players are actually role-taking the character of a different world. This kind of blurs the conceptual line between role-playing and role-taking, players are required to think, act, behave and emotionally react to what they think the character they’re role-playing (as in role, social or cultural expectations), narratively speaking (IMO). An alternative interpretation that surfaces as I try to synthesize their argument, it’s like role-playing a prototypical model at first, say a gangster, and as we play that model, it becomes more fleshed out and unique which we eventually role-take as the character. From this perspective, players’ role-taking create divergences from each other, so we have a player who role-takes a fat gangster whereas another takes on the role of a righteous gangster, a divergence from an original source model. The authors acknowledge that alternative in the discussion section and added that players often incorporate their identities in virtual environments. (and my head hurts…)

Role-taking also meant empathising the other person or character which influences helping behaviours, and it is especially notable if they are role-taking a victimized person or character. It is very powerful since players are required to imagine what their characters are feeling and thus they can imagine their feelings or react similarly to their feelings, and also react their own feelings if they were themselves in their character’s situation.

The crux (IMO) is that the interactive medium has larger impact in raising social awareness than other media, such as television or books. An argument posited by the authors is that playing is active in contrast to the passive actions of television viewers. Reading is also active and requires deliberate effort, but playing goes further by visualizing players’ actions of which the identities of both the player and their avatar converge or IMO the narrative distance between player and character is very short. Interestingly as an aside, “games usually set goals for the players to achieve. These goals are also the goals of the avatar in the game environment. […] the player shares the goals of the avatar.” A tower defense game called Immortal Defense has an interesting take on mixing the player’s and avatar’s goals along with the narrative. Reading the critical analyses scared the hell out of me, even though I haven’t played it.

Study 1


Participants: 133 undergraduate students, 72 male and 61 female. Average age is 20 (SD = 1.91), recruited from two classes. 84% played a digital game within last 6 months, I don’t know if that helps in the analyses.


Willingness to help: four behavioural intention questions which are answered on multi- 7-point Likert scales: likelihood-type, probable-type and a possible-type. An example of behavioural intention question is “sign a petition to build the political pressure needed to end the crisis in Darfur”.

Identification: Cohen’s identification scale. six items answered on a 7-point agreement Likert scale. Example: “At key moments, I felt I knew exactly what the Darfurian was going through.”

General involvement with international humanitarian affairs: this was used as a covariate to take into account participants’ interest in international affairs since it may influence responses to the willingness to help measure. Four questions.

Empathic tendency: another covariate measure to take into account that may influence the willingness to help measure. They cited a reference, but no details given of the measure were given.

Prior knowledge of the Darfur crisis: a single question whether they heard about the crisis in Darfur.

Videogame used: Darfur is Dying. The authors created a text version that is informationally comparable to the game so they can compare whether a serious videogame is more effective than a pamphlet.


The whole experiment is done online. Participants are linked to a website of which they complete the covariate questionnaires and they were randomly linked to either the videogame or the text. In the game condition, they were instructed to play the water foraging segment only and if they succeeded in foraging water, they are to proceed to the next section of the experiment. If not, they are to try again for a at most three times. Average time playing is 5 minutes. In the text condition, they read and the average reading time is 2.5 minutes. After that, they complete the willingness to help measure, and role-taking measure.


Their MANCOVA analyses showed that those in the game condition were more likely than the text readers to: donate money to raise awareness about the crisis, sign a political petition, discuss Darfur with family or friends, and to forward information about Darfur to friends. Covariates issue involvement and empathy were significant covariates whereas sex and prior knowledge of the crisis were not.

Regressions were conducted whether role-taking has a mediating role in the relationship between the type of medium and willingness to help. And they found a partial mediation for role-taking. So, the interactive medium is effective through the allowances of role-taking which in turn influences participants’ willingness to help. Sounds great, but! The text condition is informationally comparable to the game in that the text is about a general social group, i.e. the Darfurian refugees, but is not narratively comparable or is not focused on the individual character. However, study 1 provided grounds for a second study.

Study 2

Study 2 extends the previous study by investigating in more detail on the features of the medium itself. Specifically, they are investigating the interaction, visual, audio and textual features.


Participants: 120 undergraduates, 55 male and 65 female. Average age is 20 (SD = 1.38).

Measures are the same as in study 1.

Videogame used: the same videogame. The text version is more narratively-driven in that describes what happens within the game and uses parts of the game’s text into it. The third condition is watch only condition where participants watch a recorded play session of the videogame.

Procedure is the same as in study 1; participants are randomly linked to either to the videogame, text or video. Because the text has only one ending (i.e. Poni and Jaja were captured by militias), only participants who failed (i.e. the same two Darfurian refugees) in the videogame condition were included in the analysis just so there are consistencies between the groups.


MANCOVA results indicate that the game condition group are more likely than those in the text reading group to donate money, sign petition, discuss with others about Darfur, and forward information to others. The same when compared with the video watching group, except that there was no significant difference in signing a petition.

The text reading and video watching group did not differ in any of the willingness to help measures.

They checked whether role-taking is a mediator between medium type and willingness to help and they found none.

Interestingly, they measured enjoyability as a control measure and found that players were having a less enjoyable time than those in video watching or text reading group. The authors raised an interesting question whether people are willing to play a potentially upsetting videogame. For sure, I believe they would avoid boring games, unless boringness was intentional.


Peng and colleagues analyses have shown that serious videogames like Darfur is Dying have a significant effect in influencing attitudes, and behavioural intentions more so than non-interactive media which means grounds for further experiments and further development for serious videogames.

Their results regarding role-taking’s as a mediator in the relationship between medium form and willingness to help are mixed. Their first study found a significant relationship whereas their second was not. The authors argued that the presence of role-takeable individualized characters was a factor for role-taking to occur. Furthermore, these characters can be argued to serve as exemplars which previous studies in other contexts were found to affect viewers’ responses. On the other hand, the authors cited that role-taking is not automatic and their experiments asked participants to take on the role of a Darfurian refugee. The authors are aware that players might play the game and character quite differently. Nevertheless, the potential for persuasion comes from that role-playing videogames can motivate players to role-taking characters, something the authors suggest in figuring out how to maximize role-taking from a videogame design standpoint.

Regarding differences in media forms, i.e. interactivity and multimodal (visual, sound and text). Interactivity was found as a key factor in the differences between serious videogames and public interest television advertisement (IMO). But, this bold statement has yet to be tested since this study compared a videogame play and a recording of a videogame play which the latter lacks external validity, it’s not what you would normally show if you were trying to produce a 5 minute video program. Nevertheless, game watching is something I rarely hear which merits attention given the abundance of let’s play videos on youtube and the authors suggested that future research on game watching. There’s also the question of what interactivity means. They cited five type of interactivity: dialoguing, controlling, manipulating, searching and navigating. Taking these into account might provide a complete picture they argued.

The authors ended with caution about the implications of the study and serious videogames. First, once serious videogames become commonplace, they would lose their novelty factor and would face competition from other media in getting individuals’ attention. Second, the graphical quality is cartoonish and is not comparable to the photorealism of other videogames like Modern Warfare 2. They argued graphical realism would increase presence which in turn would increase role-taking. I don’t know about that… after banging my head in conceptualizing videogame realism, other realism dimensions should also be considered, such as narrative realism and procedural realism (i.e. game rules, how the game world works as closely as to the real world, this is also echoed in Ian Bogost’s work discussed later). Third, their study asked behavioural intent, and not actual behaviours. But that’s okay, they got this study published and hopefully this is convincing enough for a granting agency to fund a more expensive one. At the top of my head, giving money to participants as participation reward and ask them if they want to contribute to a relevant charity or something like that.

I suggest a different approach in examining serious videogames, or as Ian Bogost calls them, persuasive videogames. Reading over the first two chapters of Bogost’s Persuasive Games: The expressive power of videogames, I suggest examining persuasive videogames in its effects of people’s understanding of the processes that lead to certain events, in the case of Darfur is Dying, the historical complexities of Darfur towards its present state and how the current procedures and how limited a Darfurian refugee can do in these circumstances. It’s something I’m trying to wrap my head around about procedural rhetoric, where persuasion comes from the rules of a game or how things in the world work by living in it.

In regards to interactivity, it may go about to examine what dimensions of interactivity is meaningful to the narrative at hand. Dialoguing with the Janjaweed for a Darfurian refugee is less meaningful than navigating a perilous journey. In the case of Grace’s Diary, dialoguing is more meaningful than searching. From this line of reasoning, how to deal problems hypothetically depends on what is the ideal range of solutions the game authors believe to be. What the solutions procedurally would affect the persuasiveness of the videogame and it is not necessarily, as Bogost argued, more interactivity means more immersiveness, selectivity or framing (in communication science parlance) the game’s rules to the narrative elements. Grace’s Diary is a prime example of confronting a friend about dating violence through dialogue, whereas a kid jumping over bullies and chasing after A+ papers isn’t inspiring kids to stay in school (I forgot the name of that game).

Bogost’s critique about the game (p.95-97) lends a different perspective for communication scholars to consider about Darfur is Dying. He recognized that the game would raise player empathy, however the game isn’t persuasive in raising ideas of resolving the Darfur crisis. This raised an interesting research question to extend on Peng’s study is to examine whether games can inspire people to seek information on the crisis and construct solutions. Furthermore, Bogost was critical that the game simplified the crisis hiding the complex circumstances of the crisis and that the game raises attention to it.

Peng, W., Lee, M., & Heeter, C. (2010). The Effects of a Serious Game on Role-Taking and Willingness to Help. Journal of Communication , 60 (4), 723-742. URL


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