Using Gamification to Make the World a Better Place

Using Gamification to Make the World a Better Place

[Editor's Note: This article has been updated to change the headline from "game theory" to "gamification." We apologize for "hijacking" the wrong term.]

From the "Prius effect," when hybrid drivers use feedback on their car dashboards to challenge themselves to drive more efficiently, to utility consumers in Sacramento competing with their neighbors to see who can save the most energy, games are increasingly used as a tool to help increase sustainable behavior.

At the recent Sustainable Brands conference, a gaming expert named Gabe Zichermann shared strategies for companies to harness the power of games. He pointed out that it's the pleasure of play itself, not the subject of a game, that makes people participate.

On Facebook, Farmville requires plowing fields, planting crops, and other manual labor. "Does that sound like fun?" Zichermann asked the crowd. "That's work our forefathers gave up in the Middle Ages." And yet over 40 million players play Farmville.

That appetite for games can be a powerful tool for driving sustainability, and more and more organizations recognize this. They also recognize games as a major source of competition for online audiences. Kiva president Premal Shah has referred to Zynga, the producer of Farmville, as Kiva's largest competitor. I recently spoke with Gabe to learn more about gamification.

Adele Peters: What is gamification?

Gabe ZichermannGabe Zichermann: It's the process of using game thinking and game mechanics to engage audiences and solve problems. It's a process, not a destination; we don't just magically arrive at a point where something is "gamified." Game thinking is really just a product of being exposed to games -- how we think about the world differently when we've been exposed to an idea over time.

Shakespeare said "all the world's a stage," but if he were alive today, a better metaphor might be "all the world's a game." Game mechanics are the tools that game developers use to make games -- things like points, badges, levels, leader boards, challenges -- those are all mechanics.

Gamification is really about taking the lessons of games at a high level, and the techniques of games, and putting them in a non-game context. Usually that's meant to solve a problem of some kind. On the marketing side, that's usually engagement-related, and on the do-gooder side, we think about fixing the world; getting people to be a better version of themselves.

AP: You've mentioned dashboards in hybrid cars, that give feedback on how efficiently drivers are performing, as a good example of a game improving sustainable behavior.

GZ: The cars are interesting. This is an important lesson for sustainability advocacy -- the car dashboard is not strictly speaking an effort to reduce environmental impact. It wasn't designed for that, actually.

Car manufacturers put it in to provide feedback about why the vehicle's core meaning -- why its actual value -- was real. You buy this car because you want to save money and save the environment, but if it didn't have that dashboard feedback, you wouldn't know how well you were doing.

Then that also begets a viral loop, where you can relate that feedback to others. Other people in your car can see it and ask you what it's all about. In the latest version, in the Nissan Leaf, it's actually about a socially connected game. So it's the same idea, but socially connected.

What's significant about that is that they don't say "play this game to reduce your environmental impact." It's just "this is a fun interaction you can have with your car." That makes a huge difference in terms of how people perceive it.

AP: What are some examples of games that have been explicitly designed to help improve the world?

GZ: One is World Without Oil; another is the UN Food Program's Grains of Rice. World Without Oil, designed by Jane McGonigal, falls more into the pedagogical realm than the behavior-change realm.

Jane has said that even though World Without Oil didn't have a lot of players, after a year, a quarter of players are still talking about advocating for the reduction of oil at least once a month -- so it's changed their perception. It does this a few different ways.

Fundamentally, games are about creating challenges that a user overcomes, in exchange for a positive reinforcement loop. We know from research that the challenge-achievement loop produces a dopamine response in the brain, which then makes you want to do that more. That's the intrinsically motivating reason for game playing.

Whatever challenge-achievement loop you put in there, it will be positively reinforced if it's well designed. It doesn't have to be, "kill the Orc in the forest with the gems," and it doesn't have to be "fly through space and blow up the Death Star." It can be to improve your environmental footprint, or to help your kids learn about sustainability, or get people to make better choices in their day-to-day lives, as long as you tap into that basic loop.

AP: If a company is interested in gamification, where should they start?

GZ: The first thing you have to do is unpack the motivational state of your user. What drives them, and why are they doing what they're doing? We use a rubric for that, called Bartle's Player Types. There are four player types: the achiever, the explorer, the socializer, and the killer. Our goal is to map those player types to the desired behavior that we're trying to express.

This is an important insight. If you're a company, for example, trying to get people to choose a more sustainable toilet paper, not everyone's coming to that aisle in the supermarket looking at that decision framework the same way.

Some people will be activated by a competition; others will be activated by the opportunity to socialize. Other people will be activated by giving them something to find in the world, and other people by the opportunity to really beat someone else. You need to design for those player types, and you need to design for all of them, not just for one.

AP: What's a simple program that a company could introduce?

GZ: If a company already has a loyalty program, you can introduce some fun challenges around sustainability that are connected to the loyalty program. Sometimes the flaw of doing that is how the program is structured.

For example, in an airline loyalty program, the core behavior they want you to do is fly. It would be very difficult for them to design sustainability into that loyalty program, because they'd have to rethink the point system. An airline would have a great deal of difficulty doing that.

But a company that's building one from scratch could correctly incentivize or disincentivize using points and sustainability as a matrix.

I'll go back to the example of toilet paper -- let's say you have a loyalty program. The easiest intervention is to give people extra points for the most sustainable choice.

That will produce a basic economic result -- more people will choose the sustainable toilet paper. The question is, is that fun? On the surface, it's not -- it will work, but it's mechanistic, and it's not long-term engagement. We can start using different techniques to make it more compelling and fun.

For example, the notion of "karma:" As you buy products, you build up "karma points," and then can use those to gift someone else something that would be really meaningful to them, like plant a tree in their honor. It's not for you, but for someone else, and this can make the company part of the altruistic loop.

AP: What are some challenges for companies trying to incorporate games?

GZ: Some types of games put companies' short-term objectives into conflict with long-term consumer behavior, like when they are trying to incentivize reduced consumption.

One of the big things about gamification for corporates is finding alternate revenue streams that weren't there before. The biggest one is virtual currency.

Gamification introduces a virtual currency revenue stream that's separate and additive to the core product sales. You can give people opportunities to buy and gift things on which you can make money but are not necessarily the core product that you're selling.

AP: And those things could be virtual as well?

GZ: Absolutely. Or they can be physical, but you basically have a gift card model where you're taking money in, and you don't always spend it all -- you get some leverage because you drive people to higher-margin items.

The introduction of virtual currency can be a transformative choice for a company, and a way potentially to offset some of the consumptive losses if the program is about reducing consumption.

AP: What's an example of how people are taking the wrong approach to gamification?

GZ: On the sustainability side, one of the biggest problems is the message that goes along with the experience. In World Without Oil, which actually didn't have a lot of users, the opening is heavy -- how to deal with the huge problem of oil. Instead, it should be baked into a more fun experience that's not just about training and education.

People that work in sustainability have a tremendous desire to do good and are motivated, but the consumer isn't always motivated that way. They say they are, but then they don't act.

Games can design for altruism and selflessness, and then give people the opportunity to do it. It may be easier to design an intervention where people, for example, virtually reduce consumption, which then leads to a real-world reduction as they learn to take control of their consumption. That may be a necessary step in the process in some cases, because stopping certain kinds of consumption is very difficult.

Photo CC-licensed by Conor Ogle