Approaching Everyday Racism through Fiction in Co-Creation Workshops

Everyday racism is entwined in the technology that we design, yet we have few tools and techniques to engage participants in solutioning. Participatory Design is an ideal method for bringing people from marginalized positions into the design process. It is a powerful way to imagine solutions with those directly involved in a challenge, but for sensitive topics, like racism, group discussions can be too painful and personal. Here we share how a first-person, fictional, interactive narrative can serve as a rich foundation for collaboration and discussion, and relieves participants of the need to reveal personal trauma until they are ready.

Our paper, “Fictional, Interactive Narrative as a Foundation to Talk about Racism,” will be published as part of the Designing Interactive Systems (DIS) Conference in July, 2020. It is a short paper, four pages, introducing our research within the Human Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon and part of Alexandra To’s dissertation research within the OH! Lab (Dr. Jessica Hammer) and the eHeart Lab (Dr. Geoff Kaufman). In this article we share how and why we designed this method.

Our objective for this work is to identify places where technology falls short and racism is present, and to facilitate design ideas to explore a different world. In this study, to focus our participants on a tangible instance of racism — but one that does not have to come from a personal, and possibly painful experience from one of the participants, we described a fictional, but relatable situation in an interactive narrative.

Interactive Fictional Stories

Interactive narratives, such as “choose-your-own-adventure” games, allow us to engage in-depth with a character in a first-person perspective. Players can make meaningful choices for how a character responds and interacts with the world, and in many cases feel transported into the world and take away experiences that feel real and embodied.

In the Twine game, Prof. Smith asks, “What are your plans for the future?” You have 3 options to reply.
In the Twine game, Prof. Smith asks, “What are your plans for the future?” You have 3 options to reply.
Here is a scene from the fictional, interactive narrative. You, the main character, make a choice about how to respond to a question from your lab manager.

As a way to mitigate the potential trauma that comes from discussing racism with a group of strangers, we use methods from game design and games research. We leveraged the immersive qualities of first-person games and developed a choose-your-own-adventure style game where the participants worked through a scenario of being the target of a microaggression from a visiting professor in their school lab. Theory shows us that games provide enough distance so that players can experience something virtually but not take on the trauma of the character.

We developed a story on Twine, that participants play from the point of view of the main character, an undergraduate student named Sam, who is headed to a lab meeting with a visiting professor. In that meeting, you, as Sam, experience two subtle microaggressions from the visiting Dr. Avery. She compliments your English and describes you as “articulate” (you are a native speaker) and then asks, “Where are you from? Where are your parents from?” These are microaggressions that different non-White-presenting people might experience every day, over and over again.

Below you can see how we illustrate the racial interaction between Sam, the main character, and the visiting scholar, Dr. Avery.

Screenshot from the fiction, Dr. Avery asks, “Where are you from? Really from?”
Screenshot from the fiction, Dr. Avery asks, “Where are you from? Really from?”
Can you spot the microaggression in this scene? Dr. Avery singles Sam out as non-American, as someone who is “not from here” and pushes to find out Sam’s racial background.

Design Workshops for Coping with Racism

Drawing on the collaborative and generative nature of Participatory Design, we ran 6 workshops with 26 racially-diverse participants (21 females; ages 18–56).

The flow of each workshop went like this:

  • Research introductions and goals. Ground rules for engagement. Participant introductions.
  • Participants recreated the elements of the fictional story which they had each completed as pre-work.
  • They created layers of information on each of the key scenes from the story, using sticky notes: 1) key moments in the story, 2) identify emotions Sam was feeling, 3) describe pain points for Sam, and 4) brainstorm ideas for current and future technological solutions.
  • Finally, each participant chose one idea from the brainstorms to draw out in more detail, as a storyboard. It isn’t always easy for participants to draw, but conceptual quality was emphasized over artistic quality and the format of “before, during, after” helped participants develop new details about an idea.
Here participants have created layers of details about the fictional story and are beginning to brainstorm solutions for coping with racist experiences.

What We Found

The fictional story appeared to be a viable way to bring strangers together to brainstorm ideas about sensitive situations. Participants connected to it and used the main character’s experience to describe difficult interactions. They related to the main character’s experience. They grappled with the complexity of an offensive comment made by someone in a position of power, who was trying to be helpful. This served as a generative foundation for brainstorming that all participants could engage with..

“I think a lot of minorities have heard it, it’s ignorant, maybe they’re well-meaning, but it puts you in an awkward position because you’re not sure if they know they’re being rude, like you’re supposed to take it as a compliment. It’s a position I’ve been in a lot.”

— Workshop participant

The story gave them time to disclose personal details at their own pace. In the beginning of each workshop, participants typically did not share their own experiences with racism. But in our analysis of “self-disclosure statements” we see a strong trend of participants sharing their own experiences with racism after the discussion of the racist interaction in the fictional story. It seems that participants had a chance to “read the room” and assess whether or not to share personal experiences with racism until after the group showed support for viewing Sam’s experience as hurtful.

“A teacher of mine made a remark about Chinese culture. No one said anything back and no one responded. And then he said, ‘Oh well, maybe in your culture it’s not acceptable to have a different viewpoint.’ He was trying to encourage us to dissent, but it definitely threw me off, it irritated me, but I knew he meant well”

— Workshop participant

This Participatory Design format supported our goal of generating a large number, and wide variety of ideas. The 26 participants generated 122 ideas on sticky notes and sketched out 20 storyboards to elaborate on one of their favorite ideas. They developed ideas that ranged from: automatic detection and disruption of racist behavior (like an alarm), reflective tools that replay what happened (record and playback), AI as emotional comfort (“Alexa, I had a crappy day”), and dedicated online spaces to share racist experiences publicly (Yelp for racist places).

“So there could be a buzzer in every room, or whatever location. Kind of like a smoke detector with a speaker and a microphone that listens to everything you say and buzzes loudly when it hears racist comments.”
— Workshop participant

“A website where people can add what they consider racist. Like where “You’re very articulate,” and then why. So people can refer to it.”
— Workshop participant

“An app that provides people with positivity — like cute puppies, happy stories, like some type of headspace. If you’re just feeling sad and… just like, want to forget about it.”
— Workshop participant

3 hand-drawn sketches show future technologies, like a smart speaker that asks, “How was your day? How can I help?”
3 hand-drawn sketches show future technologies, like a smart speaker that asks, “How was your day? How can I help?”
Three examples of storyboards created by participants in different workshops.

To Learn More

We are continuing to develop this work on how technology can support people who experience everyday racism. If you’re interested in the details of our methods and adopting them for your own work, you can read our DIS paper here. As follow-on work, we have expanded on this method to use the interactive vignette to evaluate translated provotype designs from the PD workshop into the racial interaction to explore participant responses. Alexandra To has published her previous work on whether technology currently supports emotional connection for coping here. For upcoming notifications about how this work progresses, follow Alexandra on Twitter here and find Hillary Carey on Twitter here.

Who We Are

Lead researcher, Alexandra To, is approaching her PhD Defense in Human Computer Interaction. She is a mixed-race, Asian-American woman who studies race and racism through lenses of HCI and critical race theory as well as organizes as a racial justice activist.

Hillary Carey is a PhD candidate in Transition Design, studying the intersection of anti-racism and design. As a white woman, she is particularly interested in why people maintain ignorance of racism, and how processes of imagining futures can overcome this.

Design → AntiRacism → Design | pursuing a PhD in #TransitionDesign @CarnegieMellonDesign

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