Academic - LiveI’m Nour Kteily, a social psychologist at Northwestern University studying the recent rise in dehumanization, and thinking about effective ways to counteract it. AMA!
Oct 30th 2017 by nour_kteily • 28 Questions • 7236 Points
My short bio:
Our indie game development company turned 5 years old today. Two years ago we were at the brink of bankruptcy with my brother, after 3 years of work we had $50 000 in debt. Today, after a long series of events caused by a Reddit post and Redditors rushing to help, I paid it off, and our company is now debt-free!
5 years ago I had embarked on an unpredictable journey with my brother, after one year of hard work we managed to release our very first game accompanied by a lot of excitement. Excitement soon turned to disappointment, total sales ended up at $1000. After some contemplation, we decided we were not ready to give up on our dream.
However, to give ourselves a chance, we needed to take a loan of $50 000. Through a series of coincidences, a third person appeared in our lives, and it quickly dawned upon us he had been the missing link. We grabbed him with us and started on a new game, which in hindsight ended up taking way too much time. After almost two years of work our second game was released and ended up with $2000 in total sales.
Devastated and with very limited funds left, we made a 180 degree turn in our strategy. Despite everyone stating premium games were dead, we decided to try anyway. We realized spending time trying to figure out how to milk money from customers wasn't for us. We wanted to create a game, ask a fair one-time price and let players play without restrictions.
Time was ticking, and we were developing our most ambitious game yet. We stretched as far as we could, but we eventually ran out of funds. With only $1000 left on our company account, I called our landlord and canceled our office tenancy agreement ahead of time. We thought we were done.
But fate would have it otherwise. In my darkest moment I decided to post here on Reddit, and found myself overwhelmed from all the help we received from you Redditors. With your help our then released game (Battlevoid: Harbinger) was to send out a message to the world that the story of this small indie game development company was not yet over, and today I can happily state the game has sold over 150 000 copies across all platforms. It feels so surreal after many years of struggle.
Through our story I want to encourage you to follow your dreams. You don't have to be super smart or know everything to try something you really want to do. We made so many mistakes on our journey, but persistence kept us alive. Let your passion guide you, stay persistent and be ready to learn new things every day.
The gaming industry is ruthless, and we continue on one game at a time. Today we released a new game into our "Battlevoid" series on Steam, Google Play and Apple App Store and once again we are excited to see how it will fare out there among all the other games. Feel free to ask me anything about our journey, our games, game development in general or the gaming industry!
My Proof: Battlevoid Twitter
Is 'us vs them' too ingrained that we will never transcend it? How fast can our minds create an enemy in someone else we were otherwise always totally neutral towards?
Congrats. I feel like I'm you before the big successful part... so um, you hiring?
There's a lot of work suggesting that Us vs. Them tendencies are a very common feature of human psychology. Mina Cikara and colleagues (along with my frequent collaborator Emile Bruneau) have done some fascinating work in this area (see http://cdp.sagepub.com/content/20/3/149.short). People like Josh Greene at Harvard psych have also written extensively about us vs. them tendencies (see his book Moral Tribes). Some work suggests that even group membership created on highly minimal grounds (like whether you overestimate or underestimate the number of jellybeans in a jar) can generate ingroup favoritism. So, I do definitely think that we have a high capacity for intergroup hostility.
That said, I don't think these dynamics are insurmountable. Josh Greene and Paul Bloom and others have written about using rational thought/compassion to overcome intergroup biases. In some of my own work linked above (in my intro), we've been showing how to reduce the tendency to blame entire outgroup (e.g., all Muslims) for the acts of a few (ISIS attackers). Other work has shown that creating common goals between groups can reduce animus. As people like Steve Pinker have pointed out, we've also made tremendous gains in reducing inter-group violence across human history through creating certain norms (like universal human rights) and institutions (like the E.U. and other entities that link groups to one another economically and politically). So, it's hard, but not insurmountable!
We're not big and successful yet, just out of the hole that we were in and really happy to be able to continue developing games.
Hiring, huh! Are you willing to move to Finland?
Do social networks and big data make people dehumanize one another? Any difference between anonymous social networks and ones where users have to use their real identity?
Is it a coincidence or does finland have some kind of advantages for indie game developers? I swear 5 posts I see about people developing a game either lives or moves to finland
There are a few reasons why it might: some subtle forms of dehumanization involves simply treating others like a number (for example: thinking of an athlete as nothing more than his/her stats). This is facilitated to some extent, I would think, by the social distance. You're less likely to see an athlete as nothing more than his/her RBI if you were sitting face-to-face with them. Interacting online versus in person similarly creates a social distance, and removes not only social cues that can reduce misunderstandings but also reduces the "social tuning" behaviors we engage in when we're actually face-to-face with someone. Work on drone strikes versus face-to-face combat relatedly suggests that it's easier to kill someone when you're pushing a button thousands of miles away. I'm not sure if there's work specifically on anonymous social networks vs ones where people use their real identity, but my guess is that anonymity would facilitate any nasty tendencies by removing the reputational concerns that are a major part of human psychology.
Finland has opportunities, much more so than other countries for sure I would say. Much of this is thanks to Rovio and Supercell I would say, sparking a real interest in investing in gaming companies and trying to nurture them.
Are there any dehumanizing tendencies you've found that are unique to the academic setting? Do you have any latitude in deploying countermeasures within your department or the surrounding school?
Have you ever considered making a multiplayer game? Also I recommend linking your patreon or starting a kickstarter for a new game, I imagine it would be very successful
I'm not sure how unique academia per se is in this regard, but like other workplaces with a hierarchy, I think it's quite likely that those occupying a higher rank (e.g., professors) sometimes overlook the minds of those who occupy a lower rank (e.g., graduate students), potentially sometimes treating them as means to an end. I've not tackled this issue specifically in my own work, but I think it's incumbent on those with higher ranks to engage in perspective taking and remind themselves that they're dealing with human beings on the other side.
A future Kickstarter has been on our minds regarding Space Haven! As a form of getting alpha testers.
One of your colleagues (Waytz) referred to dehumanization as "reverse-anthropomorphism". Do you think that the tendency to dehumanize and anthropomorphize others share the same social, motivational, and cognitive basis? For example, a person who see human where they shouldn't (in animals, God, clouds, etc) also is more likely not to acknowledge human traits in actual humans?
Is there a special reason why you're called bugbyte? Didn't Bugbear (FlatOut 1+2) also come out of Finland? What is it with you guys and bugs? Aren't they something to avoid?
Hi! Fascinating question. I have to admit that I'm not especially expert on the bases of anthropomorphism, but to the best of my knowledge, the tendency to see humanity in non-human entities is importantly facilitated by a lack of social connection (e.g., loneliness; think Tom Hanks and Wilson in Cast Away). One reasonable prediction, then, is that fulfilling the need for social connection with other humans might reduce the tendency to ascribe humanity to other entities (even to other humans). As far as I'm aware, there is indeed some evidence supporting that prediction.
Some people have theorized that a lack of social connection and a sense of social isolation contribute to the dehumanizing attitudes of extremist groups, but there has not yet been solid empirical confirmation of that. Even if that is one important factor, I think that there are others that are likely not shared with the tendency to anthropomorphize: for example, there is good reason to think that feeling physically threatened by another group predicts overt dehumanization of them; I suspect that physical threat would be less relevant to the tendency to anthropomorphize.
Haha, I don't know! When we started we didn't have any other Finnish companies on our mind.
I think we did what many others would do when trying to come up with a name. Taking industry terms and trying to combine them in a way that would create a new word of our liking. At first we were Bugbyte Productions, but later on dropped the "Productions" :)
I've been looking for a comprehensive introductory resource on this subject for a while, but put it on the backburner as I'm so ignorant about it I didn't know where to look or begin. Do you have any plans to write a book, or could recommend any for layman-level audiences?
How much programming experience did you guys have when you first started?
No book plans as of yet, but if you'd like a short primer of mine on the topic written for a wide audience, I'd recommend my paper (linked in the intro) titled "Darker Demons of our Nature". I also highly recommend Haslam and Loughnan's 2014 paper (http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev-psych-010213-115045?journalCode=psych). In terms of books, I enjoyed David Livingstone Smith's "Less than Human".
My brother had made a really small simple game in flash before. So not much :)
My brother is way more talented than I am though, my strategy is to be stubborn and fiddle with a problem until it is solved somehow.
Do you believe that referring to a group of people with different beliefs as"Nazis" is dehumanizing? Would you say that those doing that are trying to provoke conflict with that specific group, or are there many other factors playing into this as well?
and we few are very VERY happy that you support linux. Gonna check out your games after work ;)
I'd say it's dehumanizing to the extent that the people using the term intend it to liken whoever they're imbuing with to animals (i.e., to the extent that they see Nazis as subhuman). Whether it is or isn't dehumanization, I'm not sure it's the most helpful or productive approach, as I think there are more effective ways to level vigorous critique while still appealing to someone's mind. I don't have to agree with you, but if I acknowledge your humanity (despite being clear that I don't agree with your perspective), I'm much more likely to be able to get through to you (and less likely to make you lash out and continue whatever behavior I'm against)
Thank you! :)
I have heard some writer or comedian, I forget who, theorizing that a big event like WW2 pulled people from their regions that otherwise wouldn't have left and combined them in teams with people they otherwise wouldn't have really bonded with. They thought that the end result was a much more unified country, and a lot more appreciation for the complexities of the 'New Yorker' or 'redneck' or whatever stereotypes they would have otherwise had. Is there any truth to that? Did exposure to each other have enormous societal benefits?
What do you use to make your games and how does the process start?
I don't know this particular anecdote (perhaps you are referring to accounts of improved attitudes towards African Americans after the war effort?), but this idea is very consistent with the tenets of the so-called "intergroup contact theory" proposed by Gordon Allport, and subsequently expanded on by scholars like Tom Pettigrew and Linda Tropp and others. The idea is basically that part of intolerance comes from a lack of contact with others, and that when we actually come together (especially when we are working as part of one group towards a common goal and where we share equal status) that can change negative stereotypes and attitudes for the better. There is evidence from people like Dora Capozza (see e.g., http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0170554) suggesting that contact can reduce more subtle forms of dehumanization. Emile Bruneau and I are now finding evidence that the same is often true for more overt forms of dehumanization, too.
At the same time: a few words of caution. People like Tamar Saguy and John Dixon have shown that sometimes contact between high-power and low-power groups can improve inter-group attitudes, leading the low-power group to expect structural changes (e.g., power-sharing) that is not necessarily forthcoming, and can create a backlash.
I used Unity to start. First step was to look up Unity tutorials and follow them, creating simple games. From there I decided to make my own project with what I had learned. Every time I stumbled upon a problem I opened the browser and started googling.
I learned more by reading solutions to my problems online and after 14 months I had a game together! I worked 12 hours 6 days a week, so that made it come together a bit faster.
Hi Dr. Kteily,
I'm interested if you have any experience with/thoughts about the purpose and function of storytelling in regards to the restoration and rehumanization of disenfranchised individuals and groups? He's coming from a more anthropological point of view, but Michael Jackson's "The Politics of Storytelling" explores the importance of storytelling - from both ends - to human experience, and specifically its importance in maintaining a sense of both personal and societal agency in the face of a world that seems indifferent or actively hostile to one's existence.
Do you have any thoughts on how we - as both storytellers and spectators in the human arena, from stories as seemingly unimportant as our day-to-day conversations to those as culturally influencing as mass-distributed major-media productions - can work to use the stories we tell to effectively combat dehumanization? What can those who are not members of specific disenfranchised groups do to actively participate in the cultural storytelling process positively - beyond simply listening/spectating - without further dehumanizing these groups and individuals by drowning out their voices?
Have you considered doing a 3D game? Unity makes this quite simple.
Hi! Thanks for the great question. I don't know that there's been a ton of work about the role of storytelling in the domain of rehumanization, but I think you'd find the following work by my colleague Emile Bruneau very interesting and it seems consistent with your account: (http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0140838)
Interestingly, other work of Emile's suggests that perspective-giving is even more effective than perspective-taking for disempowered group members who don't feel heard: (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022103112000297)
Yes, but we kind of like 2D! Perhaps in the future.
Are you aware of dunbar's number? Does it hold credence as to why people do this?
how do you feel about lootboxes and microtransactions dominating video games in 2017? where will it take us in 2018?
I am aware of Dunbar's number, yes. I'm not sure that it explains why people dehumanize necessarily, but it may well be that cooperating across vast numbers of people (i.e., billions, rather than the 150-person tribes we were a part of for much of our evolutionary history) is more challenging for us. But that's not to say we can't accomplish it.
Well, they are designed to milk money from customers. So the focus has been on how to get more money from players, instead of how to make the game better.
I don't like that. I don't like that time is spent on developing features to milk money from players, when all that time could have been spent on developing features that make the game better.
I feel like it's going all wrong here. In my ideal gaming industry world games would have a one-time price + for every big content update there would be an additional price. I feel this would keep the focus on making great games and enable developers to get paid for their effort.
Hi Professor, I'm a cognitive science grad with substantial interest in this subject. One book I read while working on my thesis that I found to be enlightening was Lasana Harris' book Invisible Minds. I was curious if you were familiar with Lasana Harris' work and if you had any thoughts about it.
One thing I found particularly interesting was Harris' suggestion, as you've pointed to in some of your responses, that dehumanization when selectively employed can be beneficial to the dehumanizer. I'm wondering whether you think dehumanization, whether or not it's individually beneficial, is societally beneficial in any context and what makes dehumanization acceptable in that context?
I have less than 20k in debt. You mind taking on that as well?
Hi, I am indeed aware of Lasana Harris' work in this area— his was some of the very first work to examine neural processes linked to dehumanization, an important step.
In my view, there are some limited contexts in which some forms of subtle dehumanization can be 'beneficial', or put another way, might contribute to prosocial ends. One example proposed by others is the surgeon working in an operating room. If the surgeon explicitly focuses on the patient's humanity (e.g., capacity to experience pain) during surgery, it might be that much more difficult for them to operate effectively. That said, I think that most forms of overt dehumanization (actively deeming another group as lower animals) have insidious consequences.
Not right now, maybe later!
How will the reproducibility crisis in your field play out?
Not sure if you're still answering but what's different between the new game and Harbinger?
I bought Harbinger in 2015 and definitely got my money's worth from it. Keep up the good work!
My hope is that the current methodological reforms and the seriousness with which the field is taking them will continue to improve the robustness of psychological science. I think it's great that psychologists have been motivated to increase the field's rigor, and it's good to see that this awareness is spreading to several other disciplines, too.
Here's what I posted in our forums:
Max 10 ships + 8 stations to command in Sector Siege versus 3 ships in Harbinger.
Marines added to ships.
Boarding feature added, both the player and the AI can board.
Capture points added, generating resources.
Old and new ships.
Turrets are mostly the same. Area of effect added.
Fog of war added.
Seamless saving and loading added, save and load at any time. Cross-platform save/load support.
Ability to capture all enemy units and stations added, and it's possible to start building them once you have one captured.
1 new race, the Guardians added.
All alien races may warp in to a fight and attack any other race. This means alien races will be fighting each other too.
Skirmish game mode with 2v2 added, you can play with an alien ally.
Star map is not randomized, but a lot of the elements inside a sector are randomized. Sector Siege is all about what happens inside a sector, and one sector play can easily take 30-60 min. A campaign has 25 sectors.
You can build up the Battlestation.
Defense missions added.
Skirmish also has defense mission and you can play against endless enemy waves trying to reach a high score.
How does it mean to "dehumanize" someone, exactly? Is there a checklist of actions or traits you refer to in your work?
Do you have any insights or recommendations for leaders in work environments to help them "remember the human?" Maybe a book I can toss at people?
Hell, I'm happy for you guys. good on you for pursuing your dreams and finding success.
Space Haven perked my interest. How management based would you say it will be? I have a penchant for tycoon games, but on mobile it's often just a case of build the next thing and wait. I want something more like theme hospital, with challenge.
Either way, I'm happy to support you, have a 4 hour flight later today so I'll buy battlevoid sector siege. Hope it's kind on my battery life!
I recommend that you pass any books out gently rather than tossing them, lest they perceive your delivery device to be at odds with your message ;) My colleague Adam Waytz is coming out with a book in 2018 called "The Power of Human" that I expect to speak very directly to some of the issues you mention (including managers).
What it means to dehumanize someone is a complex question subject to substantial informative debate. It depends also on what type of dehumanization you mean precisely (e.g,. are you overlooking someone's humanity subconsciously or are you actively likening someone to animals). I study mostly the latter type, and, for me, overt dehumanization implies actively ascribing a given target with animalistic traits like "savagery", "primitiveness", and/or a "lack of self-control". Usually, we see those who we actively dehumanize as beneath us, and outside the spectre of our moral concern. That is, those we don't give those we dehumanize the same moral consideration that we would others we consider peer humans.
Something a bit more towards Rimworld is what we're trying to achieve. A lot of focus on the characters, but also management. It's like taking a base building game but you get to move that base all the time :)
Have any sociologists looked into the role over-population might play? Not everyone enjoys being stacked in cramped spaces or living in communities with a high people per square mile density. The more people in the world and the less free space, the more I hope for calamities and disasters.
I didn't used to feel this way. There used to be more empty land, more green spaces between towns. Now housing and people are everywhere. When I was a kid I could ride my bicycle from one town to another thirty miles away, lots of farmland. Now forty years later, there's 100 houses on that same route when there used to be 10. I no longer get upset when I hear that hundreds or thousands of people died in some accident or disaster. Instead, I'm like good, hope those remaining quit breeding. I used to feel SAD when I heard about people dying! Their suffering mattered to me. Now I'm just like, oh well, there's already too many people.
Fantastic. Well I loved rimworld so that definitely sounds enticing.
What would you say you are doing that will make me play it instead of Rimworld (if I'm honest I'm concerned a game of that type that is also available on mobile would lose depth and therefore longevity in its appeal).
Hi womenhaveovaries (I can't help but enjoy the irony of your username!).
Yes, the world is growing rapidly, and my guess is that population growth— combined with human migration resulting from war and the consequences of climate change— have heightened the stakes of intergroup dynamics. I hear what you mean when you say that life is getting tougher and more competitive, and I distinctly remember the feeling when I saw how hard it was to get a job for college graduates right around the financial crisis.
That said, human capacity for achieving incredible things through cooperation at large scale (think for example of the LIGO efforts with hundreds of scientists working across the world!) means that—leveraged wisely— our numbers can be a boon rather than a zero-sum proposition. It's still a big world out there, with enough space for all of us... and research shows that, at least on a national scale, immigration actually improves economic outcomes rather than hurting them (of course, this economic gain then needs to be distributed fairly via policy). When we dehumanize entire groups (like refugees and migrants) we give up the potential for mutual gain and help bring about tensions we could avoid.
Personally, when I'm feeling cynical about the world, I find it re-invigorating to watch BBC documentaries (Wild China was a fun one) about some of the incredible things humans have accomplished working together.
We're developing Space Haven PC first. PC is the main focus and we will do everything in our power to bring it to mobile too. We will try our best to make the whole experience different enough compared to Rimworld to make it exciting. There's a lot of possibilities to do so since the setting is different. Rimworld is on a planet while Space Haven is set on space ships.
Remember, FTL is on mobile too :)
Hi Nour, thanks for doing this. This is especially timely given political developments in the US.
How can we make links between dehumanization in the workplace (private sector) and in government policies (public sector)? Is it expressed in similar ways? Do you counteract it the same way?
And are you more likely to find it in certain fields or positions? e.g. Is a CEO more or less likely to dehumanize? What about a President?
Fair point, though I'd say FTL is very different from Rimworld and maybe more easily moved over.
Either way don't mean to give you a hard time, just intrigued about your thought process and intentions. Either way clicking buy on sector siege on playstore... now!
Great question! Distinguishing types of dehumanization is important, and different types are more likely to be operative in some contexts than others. Relative to the political and inter-ethnic domains— where overt/blatant forms of dehumanization (actively characterizing another group as 'animals') can be common (especially in the presence of conflict)— dehumanization in the workplace is likely to stake on more subtle forms. For example, a boss is more likely to 'overlook' the mind of an employee, or objectify them by seeing them as an instrumental means to an end. Sometimes when people subtly dehumanize, they don't even notice that they're doing it, which is less likely with blatant forms of dehumanization.
For those reasons, these types of dehumanization probably require different 'solutions' to counteract them. When you point out to a boss that they're overlooking the humanity of an employee, they might be horrified and seek to correct their behavior. That's less likely when someone consciously deems another group as animals. Then, you have to do more work to challenge the bases of their dehumanizing views (for example, by pointing out the hypocrisy in people's tendency to blame an entire group for the actions of a few of its individuals).
The last part of your question speaks to the role of power in dehumanization. This is a complex question, without one clear answer: there is some evidence, yes, that those who occupy positions of power are more likely to overlook and objectify the minds of others than vice-versa. And, to be sure, much classic dehumanization 'flowed down' the power hierarchy, with more powerful groups like colonizers dehumanizing their 'subjects'. But in recent work, we've been showing that, in the presence of active conflict (like war), even a lower power group can dehumanize its high-powered adversary (we think this is because when a group is on the receiving end of violent conflict and sustaining heavy losses, they're likely to see the other side as 'savage' animals without a heart).
Thanks :) hope you like it!
Has wide spread dehumanization always been prevalent in human society or is it a relatively new thing, at least to this extent?
Hi! I absolutely loved Battlevoid: Harbinger. When I first downloaded it from the Google Play store, I was amazed by how much time I spent on this game.
Question: If either you or your brother is married, what did it feel like answering your spouse's questions about work and the state of the company while you were at your lowest? Did you try to remain upbeat? Were you brutally honest?
Thanks for entertaining all of us with your creations! Going to download your newest game now.
Dehumanization is not a new phenomenon (it played an important role, for example, during colonization and slavery).. but in the past couple of years, the levels of its expression in public discourse in the U.S. have been higher than in the past 5-10 years.
Well, I guess we had to say to our parents how much we were making. I found it funny and depressing at the same time. But when you give something your all and it doesn't end up well, you're going to be sad but also proud of yourself.
I would say to friends sometimes that things seem so hopeless, but you can only try try and try and hope it turns out ok.
How'd you get into programming? Any tips for a novice coder?
Online! Start with c# and Unity for example. Look at tutorials on Youtube and create something of your own with the help from those tutorials. You will find out how cool it is soon enough!
It just takes a lot of work and persistence, like learning to play a guitar.
What’s the most interesting thing you’ve encountered/realized while studying the recent rise in dehumanization?
Two things, one negative and one positive:
I was pretty amazed at the levels of blatant dehumanization we've been observing, both generally, and especially in Eastern Europe (Hungary, Czech Republic). I suspected we'd find some overt dehumanization, but have been pretty shocked at its extent.
Some of the work I'm most excited about is a recent paper led by my colleague Emile Bruneau (as well as Emily Falk). We've found that simply having White Americans first reflect on how responsible they are for the acts of violence of specific group members (e.g., Dylann Roof's killing in Charleston in 2015) is able to reduce the tendency to blame all Muslims for the acts of groups like ISIS: we don't think of ourselves as responsible for extremists within our groups, and when we're reminded of that, we become less likely to blame all outgroups for acts by some of their members. It turns out that this can itself reduce dehumanization, too. Finding such a short & simple intervention that can reduce intergroup hostility was very gratifying.