The Power of Play, Part 2

Children will put in over 10,000 hours of video gaming before the age of 21.  How do the video game producers keep people playing?  Can health communicators harness the power of gaming by applying game mechanics to our campaigns?

These two questions have been nagging at me and I have found some answers.   Following up on “The Power of Play” blogpost, this post will explore gamification (applying game psychology to non game environments) further.

Why do we keep coming back to games and spending hours acquiring points?

Games are created from the ground up to engage us.  They are make believe.  Game producers create an experience.  The best video games are created around story that is meaningful to the player.  Saving the world, or at least the environment created by the producer, is the overarching goal of many video games.

Mastery is the experience of being competent , of achieving something.  This experience is at the core of what makes any good game fun and engaging.  The producers of video games also create a rule system to master.  There is a clear overarching long term goal and what is called a structured flow of nested goals.  For example, the long term goal is to save the world, a medium term goal is to kill the monster, to do that you need to obtain coins so a short term goal is to collect 5 coins.  Mastery is fun and it is addictive.  We crave learning: overcoming obstacles and then succeeding.  Joy lies in the tension between a risky challenge and the successful resolution of the challenge.

And this leads to a discussion of flow…Does the game have flow?  Flow means that it is neither under-challenging or over-challenging.  If the game is too easy the player becomes bored.  If it is too hard, the player experiences anxiety and frustration.

One of the tricks is to have frequent easy challenges that allow the player to savor their mastery but also have sudden spikes in difficulty.  The goals that are created need to be structured so that at each level it gets a little bit harder to reach the next level—for example, the player needs to earn more points to reach the next level  Another part of the creation of a game is to provide lots and lots of positive feedback when mastery occurs.

When creating a game, knowledge of your users is critical.  Games are tested and prototyped and retested.  Finally, successful game producers help us feel that we are playing rather than working.  Working is something that we are forced to do; playing is something we choose to do voluntarily.

One of the things that keeps us playing is that they aren’t reality.  They are make-believe.

Yet our vigor, our fitness, our physical condition is our reality.  A person’s body and a person’s ability to function in the world are all reality.  Health is reality:  seeking good health or increasing good health or motivating healthy behaviors are all real world endeavors.    And games mimic reality… as we play our games we are always looking for points to increase our hero’s health so that s/he doesn’t die and we don’t lose.

I believe that this is where a game creator who is interested in improving health could plug their behavioral messages.  When the player loses health, opportunities that are real world oriented, could be implemented to gain it back.  The most important part is that this needs to be tightly integrated in the “make-believe,” bringing a player back into reality makes educational or health games preachy

Again, incorporating research into the creation of a game is critical, test and retest to determine what your players want in a game will make it a successful and fun experience. Losing play means you lose your players– the strength of games is the power of play.

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The Power of Play

Why do gamers spend hours amassing points for rewards that don’t really exist?  

Because games are fun.    What does this have to do with health communications?  Health communicators are trying to use game mechanics to hook people into doing things that will improve their health.  That’s right:   instead of being preachy, there is an effort afoot to make losing weight or increasing physical activity enjoyable.  By coupling a system of incentives with any number of efforts to improve health , health communicators hope to make doing a new healthy behavior fun and “addictive.”  Getting people to begin a new health behavior is difficult…that’s where the fun comes in.  Making it ‘addictive’ is critical because one of the major problems for any behavior change initiative is maintenance:, that is,  how can we find a way to keep people from backsliding, losing their momentum and quitting the behavior? Gamification is the new buzz word.  Why is gamification so fashionable?  It makes sense.  Let’s look at human beings.  According to economists, we are loss averse, favor immediate gratification and are overly optimistic about the future.  What this means is that the risk-oriented messages that are part of traditional health interventions really don’t convey.  Investing in your future good health or relating present behaviors to the future just doesn’t have as much impact as the immediate rewards of the behavior.  For example, even though you know smoking that cigarette can cause cancer in the future, you still smoke it because it tastes great with your first cup of coffee. According to health game aficionados, since people are more interested in reward in the present than what will happen in the distant future, communicators need to think out of the box.  This is where the structure and reward system of games comes in. With games you can invent immediate gratifications for behavior change, you can offset the configuration of time of action and payback around desirable health behaviors.   Here are some ideas to keep in mind when making a behavioral intervention, at ,for example, a workplace, into a game. The first is KISS…keep it simple means choosing one task or behavior and focusing on that.  Second, it is important to find out the key motivators for the audience. What can you do to integrate their motivators into the game? Relatedness, or an individual’s need to feel connected socially or to a group is a powerful tool that is used.  This is also related to a person feeling valued by things outside his or her self.
Third, incorporate the opportunity to work together if there is a desire.  The group size is important, apparently 8 is the magic number to get things to happen.Fourth, allow people to advance through levels and acquire points as individuals and as teams.  Fifth, use social and monetary equivalent rewards. Be sure to reward based on information on motivations.Sixth, be creative and use narrative themes to keep interest. Finally, provide rewards/incentives at regular intervals but then add to the game some surprise rewards.  Surprises work and keep people interested.

An innovative use of game mechanics is the Biggest Loser Minnesota Challenge.  The Alliance for a Healthier Minnesota partnered with RedBrick a company located in Minnesota to create the game. More than 22,000 Minnesotans participated in this statewide health program.  Altogether they lost 75,000 pounds. Now that’s a powerplay!