Author: Liam Greenslade, Project Officer – Canterbury Christ Church University

In my previous blog I argued that one of the problems with teaching or training around the topics of stereotype threat and implicit bias lay in the difficulty of delivering information which could, from the point of view of the student, be quite sensitive and possibly threatening. One way of overcoming this, I suggested, was to switch the focus of the training to identity safety a concept which emphasises the inclusion of all students in the group rather than highlighting the difficulties and problems facing just those who are subject to specific forms of bias and negative stereotyping.

Examples of biases and responses used in the Identity safety game derived from

While shifting emphasis to a more inclusive approach can help diffuse possible tensions that may arise within and between different groups of learners, this does not mean that ‘difficult’ topics such as racism, sexism or other forms of sources of bias and discrimination can or should be avoided. The problem facing us remains much the same – how do we change students’ knowledge, awareness, and attitudes around implicit bias and stereotype threat without at some point creating a potentially unsafe context?

After considering and ultimately rejecting a number of possible solutions I decided that ‘gamification’ might be a way forward.  While transforming learning activities into games has been formed part of the armoury of ‘brain friendly’ techniques in schools and further education for many years, it is only relatively recently that the ideas have taken hold in higher education (Toyama, 2015).

Apart from providing extrinsic motivation (e.g. competition and/or prizes) games also create a ‘safe’ context in which to explore sensitive issues. Moreover,  many of the qualities that are stressed in the Changing Mindsets approach can emerge organically from merely playing the game: persistence, risk-taking, attention to detail, problem-solving, and being prepared to fail one or more times (Klopfer, Osterweil & Salen, 2009).

Having decided that this might be a possible approach, I began to look for pre-existing ‘gamified’ approaches to implicit bias and stereotype threat. I found two aimed at university students. The first was based on the Harvard IAT.  As it involved shooting young armed black or white men, it was swiftly rejected as a possible starting point. The second, Fair Play follows the adventures of Jamal Davis, an African-American graduate student as he negotiates and deals with racial bias during interactions with other characters in a virtual grad school environment (, no date).

Because Fair Play is set in a graduate school and deals in topics associated with a professional academic career, direct use of the game was not deemed relevant for use with first year undergraduate students. However, the game did provide numerous examples of bias together with possible solutions or ways of dealing with them. Initially, these were extracted and used as the basis for an infographic for distribution to student participants

Early Childhood Studies Students Working on the Identity safety game (Note the smiles!)

The next phase of gamifying involved the selection of relevant examples to which students could relate.  The photographer Kiyun Kim, a student at Fordham University. Kim photographed other students holding captions describing racial or ethnic microaggressions which they had actually experienced (Kim, 2013). Some of these photographs were adopted as examples of the experiences of stereotyping and bias dealt with in the Fair Play game.  An image search provided other examples for use in the game. A game based on these materials was developed in consultation with the student peer mentors who are part of the Canterbury project.

Early Childhood Studies Students Working on the Identity safety game (still smiling!)

So how does it work? The cohort is broken up at random into small, peer-mentor led groups. Each group is given a set of instructions, eight photographs and two sets of eight cards representing ‘problems of’ and ‘solutions to’ bias. They have to identify the correct type of bias exemplified in the photographs and then identify an appropriate solution that they attach to the photograph. They have a limited time to complete each phase of the activity.

In keeping with the growth mindset approach, not all of the cards have a corresponding photograph and not all of the solutions necessarily apply. This constraint forces students to discuss each instance, sift through the alternatives, and, if necessary ask for help from the student mentor who is facilitating the group before they come to a decision.  In this way, as well as learning about bias, they also learn that in an academic context not all problems have a perfectly correct answer.  The mentor’s task is to prompt them to consider generating their own characterization of the problem and their own solutions to it.

When they have completed the small group task, they then transfer their responses to a larger version of each photograph posted on the wall of the lecture theatre. All the groups see the other groups’ solutions and are invited to exchange reasons for their decisions. The activity is completed with a general discussion of the game and what they learned from it.

As well as being pre-tested with student mentors, who provided some useful amendments and pointers, the game was piloted with a small group of Early Childhoods Studies students who also gave their feedback and suggested improvements.  The activity has now been run with a much larger group the majority of whom, according to their post-session evaluation, found it useful and enjoyable. Again further suggestions for improvement and modification were requested and these will be incorporated into the activity in forthcoming sessions where practicable.


Toyama K (2015) The Looming Gamification of Higher Ed Chronicle of Higher Education October 29 2015 Available at   Accessed 17/11/2017

Kim, Kiyun (2013) Racial Microaggressions   Available at   Accessed 17/11/2017

Klopfer E, Osterweil S,  Salen K  (2009) Moving Learning Games Forward Cambridge (Mass): The Learning Arcade MIT Available at Accessed 15/11/2017

Disclaimer:  the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this blog post belong solely to the author, and do not necessarily reflect the values of the University of Portsmouth or the extended Partnership.

The game’s the thing – from Stereotype Threat to Identity Safety 2
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