The tumbrils of Twitter roll, day after day, carting culprits to the guillotine. Famous heads are lifted high, then tossed into a basket: Weinstein, Spacey, C.K., Hoffman, Lauer, Keillor, Lassiter and more. The basket fills. The Bastille falls. Justice tears off her blindfold, fixes her robe and furiously hurls her scales at her leering boss.
The #MeToo movement, unearthing misconduct, exposes managers to risk. Kevin Spacey’s behavior destroyed his career, but it also cost Ridley Scott $10 million to Photoshop Christopher Plummer over him in All the Money in the World. And that’s a rounding error to the liabilities at the Weinstein Company. In recent months, producer Kathleen Kennedy created a non-profit, helmed by Anita Hill, to end sexual harassment in the film industry. Hill and Kennedy have harnessed a lot of sentiment and converted it into financial support. But it isn’t as easy to convert these dollars into large-scale cultural change.
And the ambitious goal of cleaning up Hollywood is hardly ambitious enough. For every violated actress, there’s a fleet of females in foodservice, factories, armed forces and tomato fields. They need help no less than the actress.
Risk exposure motivates managers to change the workplace, often by edict. The digital studio where I serve as managing director faces this sort of challenge all the time. “Our trainees don’t need to have fun,” an Air Force client once told us. “We’ll order them to play this game.” Similarly, in a proposed distracted-driver project, Doraville traffic court sentences the guilty to play the remedial game. But compulsion is not enough. Unless you actually engage the player, you get very limited results.
#MeToo might out every bad actor from the White House to the Waffle House, but then what? You can root out misbehavior, but you cannot bury it until you introduce a new code of conduct. How will that happen?
Our studio makes games to shape behavior. Games employ science and art to help players freely explore choices. Players discover insights and master new skills that transfer to the real world. The goals range from helping children respect classmates in wheelchairs to helping CIA analysts overcome biased thinking. Large studies show that these games produce more permanent improvements than alternative methods. They help leaders introduce meaningful change.
Engagement is not easy. It requires mastery of the media arts (everything from character design to music engineering to code artistry). No less importantly, engagement requires a deep working empathy for the particular player. Specifically, to end trouble, reformers must engage the actual troublemakers. The entertainment industry, which provided so many victims and villains in the great 2017 perp walk, can provide muscle here.
COMMITMENT WORLD VS COMPLIANCE WORLD
What tools can offer Anita Hill enough leverage to make large changes in a toxic environment? Hill is a lawyer. A lawyer’s natural tool is regulation. To change behavior, set out new rules. Establish enforcement and you get compliance. In the world of compliance, workers learn the limits of behavior in a number of well-defined conditions. The system offers the workers little help in situations that rule-writers did not anticipate. Zero tolerance enforcement policies establish a leader’s seriousness, but they only make artificial divisions more rigid. They focus on rules rather than the relationships which rules are written to protect. Workers are concerned with self: self-control for the sake of self-preservation.
“Commitment is the resilient engine that starts with clear values and ends with intentional action.”
But the best leaders want much more than brittle compliance. They want commitment. Commitment is the resilient engine that starts with clear values and ends with intentional action. Abraham Lincoln said that people “are never less likely to change, to convert to new ways of thinking or acting, than when it means joining the ranks of their denouncers.” He advised temperance activists: “To have expected them not to meet denunciation with denunciation…and anathema with anathema, was to expect a reversal of human nature.”
Put simply, committed people reach goals more efficiently than compliant people.
In Commitment World, workers focus on each other and on the team that they compose together. A man who sees a coworker as a talent is unlikely to treat her as a toy.
Of course, Commitment World has rules too. In fact, these are the same rules as Compliance World. But they serve a different purpose. In Commitment World, rules are like guardrails on a mountain road. Sane drivers do not use those rails to steer their cars. They need them only to prevent disaster when something upsets their driving skills. In Compliance World, the fences are like those in a stockyard, where cattle bump against the rails as they are herded forward.
It isn’t easy to get to Commitment World. Compliance can be compelled, but commitment must be earned. A worker accepts that his actions are constrained by rules, but no rule can tell him what to believe. We can be happy that neither rules nor technology inspired by clockwork orange can compel belief.
COMMITMENT THROUGH GAMING
People learn by hearing, they believe by seeing, but they change by doing. Games have a unique way of making the hero’s journey personal. Games are also laboratories of behavior, and offer a few surprise discoveries. For example, when we use eye-tracking hardware for game-tuning, we consistently notice that male players look at each female character breast-first. Even when she is a cartoon character of an aging tomboy in a pantsuit.
To build empathy for the oppressed, activists must first accomplish a far more difficult empathy: They must understand the offenders. They can’t fix the few true sociopaths and they don’t need to fix the innocents. But most men are muddled in the middle with some history of bad jokes, biased assessments, pornographic daydreams, and a tangled mess of role models and peer pressure. They are not angels. But to treat them as monsters is to surrender hope.
There are many approaches a game might use. A proven pattern in a narrative game is to start by placing the problem in the third person. The player’s avatar encounters other characters who exhibit the bad behavior, and the avatar is thrown into the role of mentor, helping the third person replace a failed perspective. In later levels, the avatar himself must explicitly demonstrate a committed approach, often with the help of a mentor. In the final levels, it is the genuine commitment of the player, rather than that of the fictional avatar, that is put to the test.
When the law cannot dig deep enough, activists can turn to art, the essence of the entertainment industry. Stories can model healthy behavior, or they can trace the arc of transition. Getting “woke” is a hero’s journey. If rendered well, it is a journey that viewers can join.
BE PART OF THE GAME
#MeToo is a unique opportunity to achieve a world of better behavior. But what world is that?
It could be a nervous Compliance World, guided only by its zero-tolerance policy and controlling workers by the threat of punishment. Better leaders would establish Commitment World, in which workers have reason to trust one another. In Commitment World, people listen to all voices, uninterrupted. Workers value their variety and take pride in the productivity of the team.
Surely, Commitment World is worth the work it will require. Better to dig out the roots of dysfunction than whack away at its manifestations. Embrace this challenge. The gaming world can and should assemble and energize partners from all quarters to join this quest.