Future of Engagement #2: Behavior Change Games

People use the power of games, networks and data to change their behavior

What are Behavior Change Games?

Behavior Change Games use game design elements and the power of communities to motivate people to achieve challenging tasks in the real world. Behavior change games have been used to enable people to lead a healthy and sustainable lifestyle, recover from illness and injury, manage time and money, learn new skills, and engage with political and social causes.

The rise of behavior change games can be tracked to three changes in how people play games. First, social games on Facebook have widened the appeal of games beyond the video gaming niche of kids and young adults. For instance, Zynga’s Farmville (video) had more than 83 million monthly active users at its peak. Second, marketers, entrepreneurs and changemakers have adapted game design principles in contexts other than entertainment, to design marketing and loyalty programs, social networks and training software, and serious games for social impact. For instance, location-based social network Foursquare  (video), which uses gamification to make “checking-in” more fun, crossed 25 million users in September 2012. And, third, the explosion in personal, social and location data has led to the popularity of the quantified self movement, enabling people to track and change their behaviors. For instance, 10 million people use personal finance management service Mint.com (video) to track over $80 billion in credit and debit transactions and almost $1 trillion in loans and assets.

Behavior change games use the power of games, networks and data to help people create meaningful change. In 2012, a number of niche behavior change games emerged across a diverse range of topics. Quentiq (video), FitBit (video), Nexercise (video), Healthrageous (video), HotseatJawbone UP (video), Striiv (video) and Zamzee (video) help people track their workouts and activity automatically. FitocracySuperBetter (video), Habitual, SlimKicker, Hubbub (video), HealthMonth, Mindbloom (video), HealthyHeroes (video) and Goalpost help people become healthier and develop good habits. PracticallyGreenRecycleBank (video) and OPower (video) help people adopt a greener lifestyle and save electricity. Mint (video) and Payoff (video) help people manage their finances and debt. Urgent Evoke (video) and World Without Oil (video) educate people about social issues and encourage them to contribute to solutions. Code Academy and DuoLingo (video) help people master a programming language, or learn French.  Epic Win (video) and The Email Game (video) help people increase their productivity and complete tasks or clear their email inbox. Finally, Goodify (video), Keas (video), Shape Up and Youtopia (video) are focused on organizations and schools, and help them motivate employees and students to volunteer or get fit.

Some of these behavior change games have also created social impact at scale. Shape Up has helped 700,000 people lose 1 million pounds, PayOff has helped members pay off $41 million of debt, and OPower has helped people reduce energy consumption by 1.6 billion kilowatt hours and save $179 million on electricity bills.

Source: latddotcom on flickr

The success of behavior change games shows that people can change deeply entrenched behaviors and form lasting good habits, if they are able to break up big challenges into small goals, receive feedback on their progress, and tap into their networks for support.

This is not surprising. Game researcher Jane McGonigal, who is also the author of Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World explains why such games work:

“Gamers spend on average 80% of their time failing in game worlds, but instead of giving up, they stick with the difficult challenge and use the feedback of the game to get better. With some effort, we can learn to apply this resilience to the real-world challenges we face.”


Jane McGonigal at TED 2010

How do Behavior Change Games work?

Source: hyerdashery on flickr

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 (video) and Payoff (video), typical goals include paying off a credit card debt or buying a house, while on Fitocracy and SuperBetter (video) typical missions include eating healthier or working out.

Most behavior change games track progress by asking players to complete virtual tasks (Urgent Evoke (video), World Without Oil (video), Code Academy and DuoLingo (video)) or self-report on their progress (RecycleBank (video), Fitocracy and SuperBetter (video) ), while some automatically track data through sensors and feeds (Quentiq    (video), Nexercise (video), Zamzee (video), OPower (video), Mint (video) and Payoff (video)). 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 (video), Bunchball (video), 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.”

Behavior Change Games for Brands

Brands are beginning to create their own behavior change games, as marketing campaigns, smart phone or social apps and even sensor-enabled products, to help people change their behavior in an area that is aligned with the brand purpose.

Several brands are adding game elements or even creating social games to deepen engagement with their grassroots change movement campaigns. These are typically short term contests, tied to marketing campaigns or important events, with prizes for participation. For example, MTV created the MTV Fantasy Election (video) to  educate and engage young voters around the 2012 U.S. elections. Players created teams of politicians and gained or lost points based on their team’s performance on five criteria — civility, transparency, honesty, engagement and public opinion — calculated by using data from social networks and non-partisan civil society organizations.

Other brands are creating smart phone or social network applications that enable consumers to sign up for challenges, self-report on their progress, and get the support of their friends to stay fit. For example, GE has created a series of social apps including HealthyShare (video) and Fit Friendzy (video) as part of its Healthymagination (video) initiative to help players stay fit.

Finally, sports and fitness brands are creating sensor-enabled products and creating games and communities around them to enable people to automatically track their personal data and use it to change their behaviors. Nike with Nike+ has been an early leader in creating a behavior change game ecosystem, including the Nike+ community, Nike+ iPhone and Android apps (video) and several Nike+ products including the Nike FuelBand (video). Since 2006, Nike has motivated its community of 7 million people to achieve 13 million daily fitness goals, run 733 million miles, and burn 27 billion calories. Now, Adidas is trying to replicate its success with miCoach (video).

The Future of Behavior Change Games

We believe that we are only beginning to understand the potential of behavior change games to create meaningful change for individuals, communities and the world, and also their many risks. In the future, behavior change games that tap into the power of games, networks and data will become pervasive across business, civil society and government organizations and permeate all aspects of society.

Game designer Jesse Schell, who is the author of the classic The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses, predicts in his visions of gamepocalypse talk:

“Games and real life are reaching out to each other with such force that we might come to a condition of “gamepocalypse—-where every second of your life you’re playing a game in some way.”

Jesse Schell: Visions of the Gamepocalypse from The Long Now Foundation

We expect the gamification enterprise solutions ecosystem to mature, and new startups to focus on niches like governance and public services, health and wellness, environment and sustainability, and education and learning. For instance, UBoost offers gamification solutions tailored for education and health.

We expect behavior change games to also become more focused on specific demographics, diseases or habits, to create customized experiences and close-knit communities. For instance, Goalpost has created a 12-week game to help people quit smoking and Zamzee (video) focuses on helping teens become more active.

Specifically, we expect healthcare and insurance companies to work with governments to explore behavior change games as cost-effective ways to manage, treat and prevent long-term illness such as diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease. As Dustin DiTommaso, VP of Experience Design at Mad*Powsaid:

“Each year, billions of dollars are spent to move our behaviors in a healthier direction to avert crisis such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other costly and painful afflictions. Leveraging the motivational dynamics of game play to energize and sustain people through behavior change is a challenging yet profound solution.”

We expect to see a new generation of innovative sensor-based gadgets designed to track data and trigger behavior change in niche areas. Products like the Withings blood pressure monitorFitBit Aria Wi-Fi scale (video), MyZeo sleep manager (video) and Changers solar charger (video) are early examples of this trend.

We expect brands to create their own behavior change game ecosystems, like Nike did with Nike Plus, or acquire innovative startups that integrate the power of game, network and data, like Intuit did with Mint (video). Other brands will sponsor third party behavior change games and make them available for employees and associates like Aetna did with Mindbloom Life Game (video).

We also expect more brands to partner with games to create dedicated versions for their employees, like Zappos did with SuperBetter. Zappos was a development partner with of SuperBetter from the game’s inception, and Zappos employees were the first to use SuperBetter to achieve their health goals.

Zappos SuperBetter on Vimeo

Finally, we expect more start ups like Goodify (video), Keas (video), Shape Up and Youtopia (video) to offer solutions for companies to inspire employees and engage them around health and wellness, and social service, and we expect these startups to specialize around narrow niches.

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This is a chapter from a MSLGROUP report titled “Now & Next: Future of Engagement” that I wrote with Pascal Beucler and Nidhi Makhija.

The report highlights the ten most important frontiers that will define the future of engagement for marketers, entrepreneurs and changemakers: CrowdfundingBehavior Change GamesCollaborative Social InnovationGrassroots Change MovementsCo-creation CommunitiesSocial CurationTransmedia Storytelling, Collective Intelligence, Social Live Experiences and Collaborative Consumption.

In each of these reports, we start by describing why they are important, how they work, and how brands might benefit from them; we then examine web platforms and brand programs that point to the future (that is already here); then finish by identifying some of the most important features of that future, with our recommendations on how to benefit from them.

Future of Engagement report on SlideShare

Future of Engagement slide deck on SlideShare

Future of Engagement video infographic on YouTube

Future of Engagement infographic on Visually