Thanksgiving Dinner, Or, How to Approach Difficult Online Conversations

Another post that arrived courtesy of Ethan Zuckerman and Matt Carroll’s “News and Participatory Media” class at the MIT Media Lab. Our assignment for this week was inspired by Chris Mooney‘s Mother Jones article, “The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science.” In the piece, Mooney writes about motivated reasoning, or the idea that people tend to rationalize in the face of scientific facts that contradict their own values. Mooney’s solution, for those who seek to persuade, is:  “You lead with the values—so as to give the facts a fighting chance.”

In order to exercise our persuasion muscles, teammate Christina Houle and I wanted to create an interactive program where players could interact with different methods of persuasion. What I took away from this exercise: to lead with “values”, to an extent, means to lead with “listening.” In order to appreciate someone else’s values, you have to understand how and why they construct the truth the way they do. 

The role playing game we created, below, is in its initial stages. The class offered many suggestions, including the idea that we should make the answer choices more plentiful and subtle, but they liked the interface. 

The game also addresses an idea I’ve been interested in ever since co-organizing the #beyondcomments conference at the Media Lab: how do we deal with difficult, controversial topics online? What are the crucial moments when conversations go awry, and how do we steer convos back on track?

Creating the Game

Christina Houle and I decided to team up for this assignment. We tossed around a few ideas for creating something interactive, and she mentioned that she’d previously used Muzzy Lane to create an online interactive game (Muzzy Lane builds software that in turn allows teachers and educators to create games for learning). Christina and I wanted to capture the ways that discussions unfold in real time, while at the same time offering people feedback on argumentation strategies. We thought it would be interesting to allow people to role play a difficult conversation online. By offering players multiple response options (as well as feedback on those responses), we thought the exercise could become more interesting and demonstrate practically how to lead arguments with values.

We decided that our role play scenario was going to be Thanksgiving dinner with a friend’s family. Why Thanksgiving dinner? When we started talking about our own experiences with controversial conversations, we found that these tough conversations often happened with family members. What makes disagreements in this context so difficult is that we care about the people involved, and can’t just walk away even when disagreements can be profound.

The topic we wanted to explore: paid family leave. This is exactly the kind of subject on which members of a family might have very different views. We wanted to bring out the family dynamic, as well as allow different family members to share their experiences.

Our scenario:

“You’re visiting your friend Rita’s family for Thanksgiving Dinner. You’ve never met any other member of the family, and don’t know what people’s political beliefs are. After a warm welcome, you all sit down to dinner. The topic turns to paid family leave – a discussion that has been much in the news. As you navigate the conversation, your goal is to learn what other people’s values are, and use what you’ve learned to guide your responses to what other people say. Hopefully, you’ll learn something new while still advocating for your own position – which is that paid family leave in the United States should be expanded.”


Rather than grading responses as right or wrong, we allowed players to earn points for “judgment” or “values.” When players choose to lead with values – which means understanding another character’s point of view – they get a point for values. If, however, they opt to go straight for fact-based confrontation, they earn a point for judgment. At the end of the game, they get a total score and some general feedback on strategy.

Link to the beta version of our game:

Our process:

Muzzy Lane’s interface is fantastic! Here’s how we created our exercise, followed by a few screenshots from the actual gameplay.

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