Kyle Maxwell

Just me.

Changing behavior through game design

I was going to blather on about how video gaming represents some fundamental shift in how we view our relationships to each other and the world around us – but I don’t think I really need to do that. We’re well into the 21st Century already.

Instead, let’s focus on what can we learn from game design to make us more productive?

What tasks can be turned into a game?

  • Parenting: Mary Poppins did this years ago, turning dreary tasks into something more enjoyable.
  • Breaking a habit (caffeine) or creating one (exercise) is largely about changing how we perceive the rewards for our behavior.
  • IT security, such as patch management, need not be some boring exercise in check lists and threatening emails about being out of compliance. Turn it into a properly-structured competition.

Relevant game design elements

Anyone who’s ever played Civilization (“one more turn then I’ll go to bed”) or done a grind in a MMORPG (one more level) knows how important constant, low-level feedback can be for a game. Small, frequent rewards do much more to motivate us and teach new behaviors than large, infrequent rewards. It’s easier to work through something knowing you’re only five minutes away from some small reward than it is knowing you’re six months away from a large one.

Competition is a key element as well This can be either players competing against themselves if it’s not appropriate or helpful to encourage it with others, in the sense of trying to beat their own personal bests or try to achieve some set goal. Of course competing against others — which department can achieve the highest compliance rates this month? — is also often a great motivator.

Successful games often encourage emergent play: can players find novel unintended new strategies? This isn’t to encourage cheating, but to find ways to be much more effective within the rules but not necessarily as originally envisioned. If you’ve ever seen a tank rush, this is exactly the sort of behavior that I mean.

Example: Child doing chores.

First, consider the goals and particular circumstances, both of the desired behavior and of the “players” involved. If you want your child learn to take care of herself and her belonging, a game might be appropriate. But simultaneously, how do you instill a sense of responsibility and not just turn everything into a bribe?

Assign daily and weekly chores appropriate to her age and ability. Set up a chart indicating her progress. (This is not new, obviously.) But here’s the trick:she must achieve a certain threshold to avoid negative consequences, and gets additional rewards for exceeding that threshold. Maybe she accumulates points above that threshold and can turn them in, either small amounts for small rewards or larger amounts for larger rewards. Think about arcades where players get tickets and can get anything from candy to soccer balls.

Games are so prevalent in our society that the basic ideas should almost be second nature to us now. Leveraging what we’ve already learned from them into modifying or creating positive new behaviors is a wonderful way to lead healthier, more fulfilling and productive lives.


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