How to change your habits by playing social games

12/22/2010

Getting people to change their behaviours can be extraordinarily hard, even if it means that they’ll live better lives: become more healthy, save more money or learn something new they can apply to professional and personal development. If simply becoming healthy (i.e. being more comfortable, living longer, and enjoying one’s life more fully) was sufficient motivation to healthy behaviour, the statistics on obesity wouldn’t be so horrific. I recently read a few articles that made me think about behaviour modification and social game design.

Courtesy of Flickr's Caro's Lines

Courtesy of Flickr’s Caro’s Lines

One being from James Mcwilliams, which gives compelling arguments for why we might not be able to assume that humans will make self-interested choices in the face of well-designed incentives when it comes to fighting obesity in America. In another article from Ramit Sethi, who is an expert on personal finance and entrepreneurship, a New York Times best selling author and also the founder of I Will Teach You to Be Rich, he makes the same argument about people not making rational decisions about their spending/saving habits, although it would benefit them in the long run. It’s fair to say that most of us know the benefits of saving money now for retirement later on, yet the goal is so far reaching that we end up not doing anything about it.

So how does this all relate to game design? I think that Mcwilliams’ and Sethi’s theories and recommendations for people to overcome these inherent hiccups in rational decision making are similar to those game mechanics that we believe can be used in social games. Things like removing the difficult barriers to success (no immediate rewards, long term goals instead of short-term ones) are some of the ways we ensure that players are achieving their optimal flow.

In our GoodLife™ games, we encourage players to start the game by setting smaller, short term goals rather than large ones and if they succeed, they get a reward. We think that by removing the subtle factors that may prevent someone from taking the initial action steps, like asking them to lose 20 pounds instead of just not to have that next cookie tomorrow, we remove these subtle barriers (too hard, too much commitment) and this helps modify their behaviours more easily. As Sethi comments, while willpower matters, we can help overcome its ill effects with certain psychological techniques.
Using ones social graph can be a powerful way to influence behaviour. Research has found that how much we eat, exercise, drink, smoke and even take vitamins are all socially contagious behaviours. According to a study from the University of California at San Diego, having a buddy who packs on pounds makes you 57 % more likely to do so yourself. It’s no surprise, then, that being accountable to one’s social circle has proven to be very effective as a game mechanic that encourages certain behaviours. Obviously, there are a complex set of issues at play, but one of the key principles in social games is that the very presence of your friends and community helps reinforce your engagement with the game. That’s why peer to peer support and social communities are important game elements in most health games dedicated to improve patient adherence, help addiction recovery or manage chronic diseases. These issues ask for deep behaviour changes that only social support and sharing seem to make easier to achieve.

In Healthseeker for example, when you pledge to take a healthy Action (to go for a jog, for example, or to eat a salad with your next meal), you can Challenge one of your friends to take that Action with you. It turns out that a person who has received (but not accepted!) at least one Challenge has, on average, twice the number of completed healthy actions as the average player. So even if you don’t explicitly accept the challenge, simply knowing that there is someone in your social graph that cares enough about your health to encourage your progress in the game is enough to spur significant action. Among those that have accepted a friend’s challenge the numbers of healthy actions are even higher.

Using a virtual game economy to provide a context for the user’s goals is a great technique for behaviour modification. Ultimately, it’s still the player who is responsible for changing their behaviour, but a well-designed game can provide context in the form of a narrative environment to help the process along and motivate engagement. Fun following function. What do you think? What psychological techniques have you deployed to change your own behaviour? Drop me a line at michael[at]ayogo[dot]com if you have any questions or leave a comment.