Most behavior change games include four game design mechanisms: setting goals and missions, tracking progress, receiving incentives, and receiving support.
The first step in most behavior change games involves setting a goal and missions, quests or challenges to achieve the goal. Players have missions assigned to them, choose from a set of pre-configured missions, or create their own missions. Missions range in difficulty, and new players are encouraged to start with easier missions before proceeding to more difficult ones. On Mint and Payoff, typical goals include paying off a credit card debt or buying a house, while on Fitocracy and SuperBetter typical missions include eating healthier or working out.
Most behavior change games track progress by asking players to complete virtual tasks (Urgent Evoke, World Without Oil, Code Academy and DuoLingo) or self-report on their progress (RecycleBank, Fitocracy and SuperBetter), while some automatically track data through sensors and feeds (Quentiq, Nexercise, Zamzee, OPower, Mint and Payoff). Most games use points, rankings, levels and leader boards to help players measure their progress and compare their performance to friends, similar others, and other players. For instance, OPower compares players’ energy consumption to that of their neighbors and Mint compares peoples’ spending habits across categories such as coffee, phone bills and gas. These benchmarks help players re-evaluate their missions and encourage a healthy sense of competition, both to beat their own best performance and that of their friends.
Players receive incentives when they accomplish tasks such as completing their profile, inviting friends, sharing their progress, or achieving a milestone. Incentives range from rewards like points, virtual goods and unlocked content; recognition through badges, levels, titles and special privileges; and in some cases real-life prizes including cash prizes (Payoff.com) and holidays packages (RecycleBank). Incentives are effective in attracting first-time players, helping them get started and creating fun and excitement. After they are hooked and begin to successfully complete missions, players receive the ultimate incentive to keep playing – they see a change in their behavior and experience a sense of pride and self-empowerment.
Most behavior games are intrinsically social in nature. They encourage players to share their performance with their social networks and connect them to other people who have struggled with or overcome similar challenges. These communities of friends and like-minded strangers offer players support, encouragement, advice and, when needed, a good dose of peer pressure. In some games, friends have specific roles to play; for instance, in SuperBetter, players invite allies to create special missions for them, while in Urgent Evoke, players give power votes and act as mentors for others.
Behavior change games work best when they are designed with wonder, playfulness and storytelling at their core. In spite of the hype around gamification and the success of white label gamification solutions like Badgeville, Bunchball, and BigDoor, it’s not enough to just add community or game elements to boring tasks.
Game researcher Nicole Lazzaro explains why we play games:
“Wonder, one of the strongest emotions of game design, rivets player attention and unleashes powerful neurochemicals that facilitate learning. At the heart of every intellectual pursuit, at the root of nearly all engagement, wonder keeps players coming back.”
Game researcher Raph Koster argues in his book Theory of Fun for Game Design that games and stories have a complimentary role: “Games tend to be experiential teaching; stories teach vicariously. Games are good at objectification; stories are good at empathy. Games tend to quantize, reduce, and classify; stories tend to blur, deepen, and make subtle distinctions. Games are external – they are about people’s actions; stories are internal – they are about people’s emotions and thoughts.”
This has been your prime minister of fun and mischief. Let the games begin! Come join me spread the fun, follow me on Twitter @hubiesocial. I'd love to hear from you.