Life-changing play: PhD student Waseq Rahman explores games as tools for social change communication

Waseq Rahman
Photo courtesy of Waseq Rahman.

To Waseq Rahman, games are much more than mere child’s play. His work asks: How can playing games generate thought-provoking experiences that lead to greater insights about our purpose in life and our personal growth?

Rahman came to the University of Oregon in 2017 after completing bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Dhaka in Bangladesh. His interest in communication began during his undergrad years. Intrigued by advertising, he began working on social development campaigns for large nonprofits.

After graduation, he took a job with an agency working with nonprofits on projects such as a public health campaign for UNICEF. That work piqued his interest in strategic communication and made him wonder how the mechanisms behind such campaigns work.

But he realized that many nonprofit organizations based in the United States operate in the context of Western culture. Rahman wanted to find strategies that can be used more effectively in other parts of the world.

Since joining the Communication and Media Studies Doctoral program, Rahman has worked alongside colleagues to develop his ideas around entertainment education. He has also experimented with game designs to see how they bring to life cognitive mechanisms that may not manifest in traditional, noninteractive media experiences. Looking at games allows him to explore how play can lead to meaningful experiences and reflective opportunities to contemplate life’s existential questions.

We sat down with Rahman to find out more about research and its implications.

What are you looking at with your work in social change communication?

My interest began while studying the application of games and virtual worlds for strategic communication and social campaigns. I started exploring this idea, looking at games that already existed for different kinds of social development campaigns. I started digging into why these games might work as a tool for social change. I wanted to understand the cognitive mechanisms underlying game-based message processing and what strategies designers and developers use to communicate social messages through gameplay.

As I was exploring the so-called "serious" games, I started learning about all the different cool things you could do — for example, integrating social/moral dilemmas that challenge players' decisions, thought-provoking messaging into a game's narrative that make them reflect, and the possibility to experience a range of emotions such as guilt, agency, pride, etc.

Commercial producers in recent times have delivered players deeply emotional and moving experiences that are often only heard from traditional-linear media fare. The expressive power of games makes these emotional experiences more salient.

What is an example of how this might work?

People who do not believe in climate change, when they come to play or interact with a climate change-based game, they get to play out their own beliefs about climate change issues. If the designers are doing well to represent scientific models through game mechanics, the players will come to see that the world works in a certain way that their beliefs might not be congruent with. This experience creates cognitive dissonance among players. In trying to beat the game, it will facilitate an elaborate processing of the narrative message of the game.

That elaborative processing might lead to updating their mental models about how the environment works, which might lead to changes in beliefs and opinions about environmental science and climate change. If not, it will at least intrigue the players to seek more information about the issue to resolve the conflict for themselves.

What is your dissertation about?

It's about strategic climate change communication — using game-based simulations to communicate environmental science and its complex models that help us better understand climate change challenges. Climate science is met with a lot of skepticism, particularly because the process of environmental change is not explicitly visible. Then there's the politicization of environmental issues. The partisan media makes it a difficult situation to deal with.

I'm looking at climate change board games as a possible tool to bring together communities to engage with climate science. Because climate science in itself is not a simple thing, I think games, with their interactive storytelling properties and how they mount an argument, can be more illustrative of how the environment and climate behave in general.

You worked on a board game about wildfires and climate change. Can you tell me a little more about that?

It was [Journalism Master’s graduate] Robin FitzClemen's project initially. Dr. Maxwell Foxman, our common advisor, asked me to become a part of the team, and we worked on the play testing and redesigning of the game together. The project was funded by the Center for Science Communication Research at SOJC. The game is a great example of how game mechanics can present climate issues.

The game goes in phases, and Robin designed them keeping in mind the weather patterns we have observed on the West Coast or the Pacific Northwest in the past few decades. With each progressing phase, weather patterns become super unpredictable, which is actually the case [in real life].

As the weather patterns become more and more unpredictable, the game becomes impossible to deal with. The players increasingly have a more challenging time managing the wildfires. That one mechanic representative of weather, the weather deck, kind of resembles the fast-changing weather patterns that directly result from the changing climate.

How does positive psychology contribute to meaningful media experiences?

Not only do we seek pleasurable experiences from media, but we also seek meaningful experiences from media. According to research in positive psychology, our sense of well-being can be understood as psychological and subjective well-being.

Psychological well-being is more about growth, more about finding meaning. What studies are increasingly finding is that audiences are intrinsically wired to seek meaningful experiences, to seek personal growth, purpose and understand life and the human condition.

In my dissertation, I am looking at whether playing board games can facilitate a meaningful entertainment experience and whether players can gain insights about climate science and a deeper appreciation of the environment from these analog simulations.

What is the overarching goal of your research?

I see myself going down two paths. As described earlier, one is the use of games in strategic communication, and the other is media use and well-being. The overarching umbrella for my research program may be described as the entertainment media effects.

One of the other studies I'm finishing up writing is why people seek and play brain-training games, especially when the jury is out on whether these games improve cognitive functions. Cognitive enhancement is a big deal. It means our brains are plastic, so playing a few games every day on your phone could change its dynamics. But that is not the case. A media-use and well-being perspective sheds light on how recovery experiences are possible on a temporary basis from playing games and, in turn, gaining a sense of psychological well-being. Still, it does not lead to any lasting change in cognitive functions.

I am also part of the University of Oregon Esports and Games Research Lab, where we are currently studying the growth and institutionalization of collegiate esports. As a part of this lab, my focus has been on how entertainment cultures surrounding collegiate esports enable opportunities of strategic communication, especially for non-endemic brands like universities and colleges. While the more qualitative end of the lab focuses on critical issues of collegiate esports like legitimization of student labor and player harassment, I am more on the experimental side of things. In one of our most recent projects, we are trying to compare and contrast the spectatorship experience of esports through VR headsets and 2D screens and how that may impact fan entertainment experiences.

How has the SOJC been supportive of your work, and how has that influenced you as a researcher?

I have had great mentorship from the faculty I worked with. My advisors, Dr. Donna Davis and Dr. Maxwell Foxman particularly, have had a great deal of influence on my scholarship on games and virtual worlds. Our contrasting approaches to communication science have taught me how to critically think about the problems and ideas I am interested in.

It has been a very transformative journey. I am a different scholar, or even a different person, from the first day I began here until now.

—By Haley Landis ’22

Haley Landis is a third-year journalism student from Portland, Oregon. She has a passion for writing and is driven by her desire to meet new people and learn about new and challenging topics. She strives to engage an audience through compelling storytelling across a variety of subjects.