How the Game 2048 Could Implicitly Enforce Real-Life Hierarchies

03/31/2014 01:16 pm ET | Updated May 28, 2014

In the past couple weeks, there's been an influx of coverage on the new addicting game 2048, comparing it to other gaming sensations like Flappy Bird and Candy Crush. Thanks to my Facebook newsfeed, I had already become mildly addicted to 2048, and in doing so, realized a key ability in the game to implicitly affect how players think about real-life hierarchies.

As an open source game, 2048's popularity also led to spinoffs replacing the numbers with pictures and logos, or even turning the entire grid 3D. One variation of 2048 was brought to my attention awhile ago, which replaced the standard numbers with Greek symbols of different fraternities on campus. Just as with most college Greek communities, these fraternities followed a hierarchy of bottom-tier to top-tier rankings. The fraternities associated most frequently as bottom-tier replaced lower numbers starting from 2, 4 and 8, and progressed up the ladder as numerical values increased.

If you haven't played the game, the goal is to combine lower numbers which double each time, to reach the number 2048 or even higher. So having a grid full of 2's and 4's can be extremely frustrating. As I played the fraternity version, something began bothering me about its structure. I found myself coveting the "higher-ranked" fraternities and irritated seeing "lower-ranked" ones on my board. Although I don't care much for Greek rankings, the more I played, the more I subconsciously valued the higher-status Greek letters. It occurred to me that this subtle effect could lead to implicit attitudes, attitudes I didn't even realize having, about Greek organizations. I immediately switched over to the standard 2048.

This wouldn't be the first time that video games have laid the foundation for implicit biases in players. Others have tried to use games as a way to reduce implicit bias. But cues for implicit attitudes come from all around us. In everyday situations, people react to implicit biases involving race, gender and appearance. These biases have been proven through Implicit Association Tests (IATs), as well as referenced frequently in behavioral books including Blink by Malcolm Gladwell and Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg.

After consistently playing the fraternity 2048 game, this specific hierarchy could become implicitly ingrained in thinking and processing. People could unintentionally begin to associate certain fraternities with higher value and enforce the subjective system laid out by the creator. There is cause for concern in the game's ability to both hook players and subconsciously affect their implicit attitudes. These implications could also extend beyond the quibbles of college Greek rankings.

Suppose someone made a variation of 2048 on the world's most powerful CEOs. If the lower-valued numbers were largely women CEOs, it could potentially affect how players saw women in leadership positions. Same effect with college academic or sports rankings. If someone played a 2048 game with a tiered system of NCAA teams before choosing a March Madness bracket, would he or she be more inexplicably drawn to teams that were used as higher values in the game? If a high school student played a version with the top-ranked universities in the U.S., would that implicitly affect his or her decision when choosing a college?

2048 is still new enough that there isn't any sort of public research on the addictive game, so this is not exactly a data-driven observation. But 2048 itself is a game built on copies. 2048 stemmed from a game 1024, which copied the original game of Threes. Now, there are tons of similar games flooding in. In fact, there are alreadyseveral sites dedicated to aggregating all the 2048 variants. So it may not be long before someone creates a variation that promotes or creates ingrained biases. Especially as the format of 2048 is perfectly suited to translate into hierarchical structures.

I don't know if any of these creators used the game purposefully, knowing how it could affect players. But it is worth noting that even the most simple games that reel us in are also capable of affecting us in much deeper ways.