To Understand the Nuances of Race, First Get Frustrated

By Josh Spiro

Two groups of people take a standardized test. One group gets asked to fill out their race before the exam, the other doesn’t. This simple question produces a phenomenon called “Stereotype Threat”, which makes people, particularly people of color, subconsciously anxious that they might prove a stereotype true, and drastically reduces their performance.

This is the type of thing that Michael Baran thinks about in his work as a cultural anthropologist and diversity consultant; it’s also the type of information he’s compelled players to think about through his app-based quiz game, Guess My Race (a 2011 Games for Change Award nominee). Created in collaboration with Michael Handelman, Baran’s close friend from college and head of the interactive design agency Playtime Interactive, Guess My Race shows players photos of different people and asks them to guess how each person racially self-identifies. It is a deceptively challenging question that Baran says “messes with people’s competitive urges.” The player then gets to see the person’s answer as well as a tidbit of information (like the one above about stereotype threat) in order to put the personal stories in a larger context.

Since the app launched in May 2010, it has been exhibited in a number of museums, including the Boston Museum of Science and the San Diego Museum of Man, where Baran says it has reached hundreds of thousands of people. He’s comfortable calling the app a “game for change”, though he acknowledges that some people think of it as more of a learning tool than a game “since you can’t really get better at it.” He wanted to create a game that addressed questions of race and identity in a fun way as a counterbalance to the heavy-handed and patronizing approaches he felt were often brought to the topic.

In our interview below, Baran discusses the pain and exhilaration of watching people play test one’s work, how the media dodges deep analysis of race in favor of discussing Obama’s favorite beer, and how making the player frustrated can ultimately be educational.

Where did the idea for creating an app like Guess My Race originate? How does it fit into the broader context of your own work?

The idea for creating Guess My Race really emerged organically out of all the previous anthropological research and teaching that I had done. I start from the assumption that race is not a scientifically valid way to divide up human beings into biological groups. So if that’s the case, then how come these categories continue to be part of the way Americans understand their social world? And how come these categories continue to be so powerful for the way that resources are distributed?

As a cultural anthropologist, I have done about 15 years of research about how people understand race, and even more specifically, how children learn about these concepts. But I wanted to do more than just write about these topics for other anthropologists. I wanted to make a dent in the way that the public thinks about these issues.

In some ways, we’re really stuck in the public dialogue on race. We get these windows where it seems like we are going to have an interesting race discussion, like when Obama was running for office or when Henry Louis Gates Jr. got arrested, but then it fizzles into a story about what beer Obama likes to drink. And I think that seeing the issue from a more critical, anthropological perspective can really be eye opening. But actually getting the topic to be fun, engaging, and relevant while also still conveying the core messages from academia is no easy task.

Why did you settle on the core mechanic of a quiz game? What emotions were you hoping to evoke in the player?

I think the idea for this had been rattling around in my head ever since I did research on race in Brazil back in 2002-2003. I was studying how children learn about racial categories, which seemed to be in transition in Brazil. But of course you can’t talk to kids in the same way you talk to adults. So I went out and took hundreds of pictures of people’s faces. And then I used those pictures to create fun little games for kids to play that ended up telling me a lot about how they thought about racial categories, even though they couldn’t articulate those ideas explicitly.

When we started brainstorming the app, the idea hit me right away. We wanted to create a quiz game where the user had to guess how the person in the picture actually answered the question “what race are you?” And the user quickly realizes that this is much harder to do than they had previously thought. That simple fact alone teaches one of the key concepts of the game – that you can’t look at someone and know their identity.

But I also wanted to use frustration and confusion to shake up people’s entrenched beliefs about race. And that’s why I deliberately choose multiple-choice categories that mess with people’s competitive urges. For example, one of the options may be ‘Caucasian’ and another one may be ‘white.’ But for most people, those are synonyms, so they get really confused and frustrated. When we do something like that, we try to create the confusion so that the user wants to hear more about why we did that. And then after they swipe to the next screen to read a quote by the person in the picture, they swipe to a third screen which is a cultural fact or tidbit that ties it all together and answers the confusion about the multiple category choice.

Did you perform any play testing over the course of creating Guess My Race?

The game-play of the app is not extremely complicated so we didn’t do much play testing. But I did conduct some research about how it was being used. I would secretly watch people playing the app when it was on exhibit at the Boston Museum of Science. And it was fascinating!

Sometimes people would read through all the quotes and all the cultural tidbits carefully. But then other times, people would just rush through, trying to get the right answer, and skipping past all that we had worked so hard to write. They might high-five their friends when they got one right. But then maybe one picture would catch their eye and they would actually read through the quote and the tidbit. So I felt good that there were many different styles of play, but that they all encouraged learning of some sort.

What would be your ideal next step for a player of your game who walks away catalyzed with an interest in issues of race and identity?

Ideally, this app produces a spark of looking at race and identity a little differently. As the user plays more and opens up their eyes more to these issues, hopefully that spark grows to a more critical way of seeing race. And having this critical gaze about race and identity can then hopefully lead to more complex thinking about other issues as well. We see our role as catalysts but that everyone then develops this thinking through their own interactions with the world.

In the end, we hope for a world where someone’s background or appearance does not affect their life chances. But ignoring race now will not produce that future. That’s why we aim to start a dialogue, but a more informed, more engaging dialogue that will keep us moving in the right direction.

You can learn more about Guess My Race and download it here.


Josh Spiro works on game design in Brooklyn, New York and blogs about social impact games at Will Play Games for Change.



Now, if you were so kind as to check your links – you got some of them confused with mail referrals, so they do not point to what I assume to be a valuable resource but rather my mail client.

Jeff Ramos

Thanks Jakob! Not exactly sure how that happened, even after we checked the link structure before we hit publish – Nevertheless, it's fixed. Thanks for the keen eye.


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