Media and Communication Ph.D. Dissertations


Simulated Social Justice? Paradoxical Discourse and Decision-Making Within Educational Video Games Designed For Social Change

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


Media and Communication

First Advisor

Radhika Gajjala (Advisor)

Second Advisor

Scott Martin (Other)

Third Advisor

Sandra Faulkner (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Lara Lengel (Committee Member)


Video games that aim to create social change are on the rise. Their goal is to foster empathy for social change. However, few scholars have critically examined how players make in-game decisions based on hegemonic discourses that shape their emotions. Drawing on transnational feminist and postcolonial theory, this dissertation considers how location and positionality within a postfeminist, neoliberal landscape shapes and mutes the perceived representations of characters within games aimed for social change. My primary site of inquiry looks at players of the development game: Half the Sky Movement: The Game.

Central to the game’s narrative is global women’s empowerment. This study was interested in exploring the discourse of dissent and acquiescence framed around the game’s narrative. More specifically, it problematizes who is rendered (in)visible through narrative, representation, and gameplay. Drawing on the gameplay review method (Kirschner & Williams, 2014), 29 participants journaled about their experiences playing Half the Sky. Participants examined their feelings, thoughts, and decisions throughout gameplay. Then, 10 individuals participated in a follow-up interview in which they played the game Life is Strange. Formation, identification, and meaning-making process of each player’s opinions on women’s empowerment were recorded and analyzed. Comparing both games and the decisions made throughout each game, findings suggest that players drew on emotions rooted in past experiences and development imaginaries rather than creating asymmetrical reciprocity (Young, 1997, p. 49). Ultimately, I argue that this genre of games needs careful consideration of the postfeminist, neoliberal media ecology that shapes both its developers and players.