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Diversity and Inclusion in SEL Game Design

Social and emotional learning (SEL) games largely center on creating scenarios and exercises that reflect social exchanges and social dynamics. Ideally, these exchanges and dynamics reflect real-world experiences, with the aim of offering users varied opportunities to practice managing emotions, setting and achieving goals, and supporting others in a realistic yet low-risk setting.

If an accurate reflection of real-world social exchanges is key to a game’s success and lasting impact, diversity and inclusion must be intentionally incorporated from the outset. Ignoring representation can undermine the efficacy of SEL games by failing to teach users about coexisting with individuals and groups from diverse backgrounds and by marginalizing some end users who look to see themselves reflected in game play.

Thomas and DeRosier (2010) explain that intentional game development underpins the success of evidence-based, social skills training games. Throughout the game development process, researchers, designers, and other stakeholders must collaborate to ensure the primacy of intentional, user-centered design. 3C Institute uses focus groups, among other methods, to evaluate projects under development. Effort is made to recruit a diverse pool of participants so that a variety of experiences and perspectives are considered.

Research on diversity and inclusion highlights three levels of oppression and marginalization: the individual level, the institutional level, and the systemic level (Randall, 2008). All three levels intertwine and manifest in complex ways within society. The individual level includes an individual’s beliefs about a person or specific group, the institutional level comprises how an organization’s values, policies, and procedures impact specific individuals or groups, and the systemic level encompasses deeply entrenched social norms and societal values. The unavoidable layering of these three levels ensures that marginalized and underrepresented people experience oppression in nearly all areas of their lives. When viewed through this lens, the importance of providing representation in the SEL game setting becomes clear.

Social narratives depicted in film and literature have the power to construct, reinforce, or challenge the sociocultural narratives deeply ingrained within society. Games, too, can have this impact. When we exhibit or disseminate social narratives—in whatever medium—we cannot completely capture human complexity. And trying to be “identity blind” ignores that complexity altogether. Individually and as a society, we cannot judge someone or “see” them based primarily on race, gender, disability, and so forth. However, we also cannot overlook the injustices or experiences that different groups have faced and continue to face.

Keeping these complexities in mind, a game development team must consider all aspects of game play where diversity and inclusion can be incorporated. Dialogue between characters, character development, and setting must be assessed to ensure that the game is inclusive, just, and equitable.

In addition to development considerations, the game team itself should be diverse in order to allow different perspectives and experiences to inform the process. Diversity involves more than conversations about race or gender and includes categorizations such as sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and belief systems, to name a few. A lack of diversity and inclusiveness in the software design process can have serious real-world implications for end users, particularly because technology is now firmly ingrained in the digital economy and daily life. One study found that individuals with darker skin tones were more likely to be hit by self-driving cars than individuals with lighter skin tones (Wilson, Hoffman, & Morgenstern, 2019), largely because of algorithmic bias. Humans, with all of their biases, input information into machines and systems, and the resulting technology functions and responds based on this input. Having a diverse project team can circumvent many issues that arise from bias and unconscious assumptions informed by the levels of oppression mentioned previously.

— Adrian J. Mack, PhD, Director of Marketing Strategy


Randall, V. (2008, July 3). What is institutional racism? Retrieved from   

Thomas, J.M. & DeRosier, M.E. (2010). Toward effective game-based social skills tutoring for children: An evaluation of a social adventure game. Proceedings of the 5th International Conference on Foundations of Digital Games. Monterey, California.

Wilson, B., Hoffman, J., & Morgenstern, J. (2019). Predictive inequity in object detection. arXiv preprint arXiv:1902.11097.