Microaggressions: A Learning Game

As players determine how to respond to different scenarios, the resulting conversations can bring new perspectives and foster understanding.

 By Nicole Woon, Reviewer, SWE Editorial Board

microaggressions the game single card with steachingtips.org url

In 2019, I attended the Association for Computing Machinery Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing Conference. Presented by the Center for Minorities and People with Disabilities in Information Technology, the conference “celebrates the technical contributions and career interests of diverse people in computing fields.”

My favorite experience at the conference was attending “Recognizing and Responding to Bias and Microaggressions.” For context, a microaggression is a term used for commonplace and subtle interactions that communicate some type of bias toward a marginalized group. Microaggressions can be intentional or unintentional, and generally convey a negative or derogatory opinion. This engaging workshop was led by Harvey Mudd College professor Colleen Lewis, Ph.D.; National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) research scientists Catherine Ashcraft, Ph.D., and Wendy Dubow, Ph.D.; and University of Florida professor Kyla McMullen, Ph.D.

microagressions card game cards
Recreated with permission from CSTeachingTips: An excerpt from Microaggressions: The Game, building on NCWIT Critical Listening Guide.

The session’s primary activity was playing Microaggressions: The Game!, a hands-on way to better recognize and respond to bias in our environments. The game was borne from two different projects: NCWIT’s Critical Listening Guide, which helps identify common misunderstandings about women in tech, and CSTeachingTips.org, a National Science Foundation-funded project that documents effective teaching practices in computer science to optimize learning and remove barriers.

The game creators note, “In turning this into a game, we aim to dispel some of the discomfort and sense of blame that sometimes come with these discussions. Sometimes humor is an effective way to have these kinds of conversations. Other times, it may not be as appropriate. And we in no way mean to diminish the seriousness of these instances in everyday experiences.”

To play, break into small groups.

Within each group, assign a host for the round, who will choose a scenario to read aloud. Some scenarios you may run into:

→ Your colleague says, “Your name is so hard to pronounce. I’ll never remember it. Can I call you something else?”

→ Your colleague says, “I would think women would like working in tech with men. Lots of dating options!”

→ Your colleague says, “Jack says he uses the pronoun ‘they,’ but I told him that it isn’t grammatically correct.”

→ Your Jewish colleague tells you that you’ve scheduled an important lunch meeting on Yom Kippur.

→ Your colleague says, “We want diversity, but we don’t want to lower our standards.”

Each player then shares how they would respond in that situation. After everyone has spoken, the host reads the sample answer on the card, and the next round begins with a new host. The game can be played competitively (where the host selects their favorite response similar to the Apples to Apples or Cards Against Humanity card games) or collaboratively (where each card can be used as a roundtable discussion topic).

When I first played the game at the Tapia conference, my table had a variety of perspectives, including a Black female user researcher at Google, a Latinx male college junior studying computer science, an Asian female scientist at a research laboratory, and a white male professor. We all came from unique backgrounds and experienced various microaggressions during our lives, so we had a lively discussion centered around our personal stories.

The scenarios appear to be straightforward initially, but the nuance comes when determining how to respond. These conversations require vulnerability and trust with those you’re playing with. I appreciated being able to build off others’ responses and learn from their experiences.

Since then, I’ve brought the game to other communities such as my women’s mentoring circle and my work team. You get the most out of it in a meeting dedicated to the game, but it is still impactful as a “diversity, inclusion, and belonging moment” at the start or end of a meeting. Navigating the situations presented is challenging. However, being able to talk openly about how to approach them as role-playing prompts in a safe environment can foster understanding amongst peers and build a sense of belonging.

Microaggressions: The Game! is available at https://www.csteachingtips.org/cards in multiple formats (PDF, slides, physical card deck, spreadsheet). There’s also a teaching practices version for training teaching assistants to identify inclusive teaching strategies and responses to microaggressions.

Nicole Woon is a SharePoint program manager at Microsoft and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with an M.S.E. (mechanical engineering) and two B.S.E.s (bioengineering, entrepreneurial management). She is an active SWE life member and serves on the editorial board.