Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Three Dimensions Model of Persuasive Game Design

Hi! It's been a very long while since I last updated this blog. Not at a whole lot has been happening to write about because the research has been kinda stuck. I have also been writing entries to that other blog. I've been doing a lot of reading though, and there should have been some more updates about that stuff. Maybe later. This time around I just want to put something on paper.

I have been following the gamification discussion mainly through Twitter, and it pains me that it not much has changed in the past two years. Scores, leaderboards, badges and whatnot are still considered perfectly valid. Although there's no entirely unanimous research against them, the studies are kind of piling up. Although it can be argued that studies supporting rewards are also piling up, the mere fact that the issue is highly controversial should make us pause. We're often working in domains where mistakes can be quite harmful and if a method is potentially damaging, its use should be seriously reconsidered. There's that, and of course there's also the fact that it's not really game design, as has been pointed out by actual game designers in the debate. Awesome people around the world are making "gamified" applications that go way beyond the simplistic approach, and for that I commend them.

Somewhat recently I ran into some advice that had been given to companies that provide well-being programs to other companies' employees. Sure enough, the standard issue gamification bullshit was all there was. Obviously I don't want to take this route because a) I am concerned about the potential risks of using rewards and b) doing so would degrade me as a researchers and designer. However it does turn out that coming up with game concepts while avoiding the obvious routes is freaking hard. To help me in this task, I came up with a three-dimensional model to which all design should adhere to. The basic idea of the model is to help every player being able to feel like they are in the game. For instance if the game is cooperative, everyone should be able to contribute. I generally prefer cooperative games in this domain anyway, because competition has a higher risk of dropping players from the game.

Generally speaking there should be three different axes available for players to affect the game's outcome. The first two axes are directly related to whichever behavior is being reinforced by the game. I use the terms long term progress and short term progress. The former shows how far the player has come since starting to play the game or how much progress has been cumulated from the very beginning; the latter follows more recent trends in behavior and should generally be normalized (e.g. to make amateurs and professionals able to compete, we compare who has the bigger relational increase in the behavior). These two axes form the two core dimensions of persuasive applications. They generally provide rich feedback with the purpose of making the user more aware of their own progress and thus more motivated. The third axis on the other hand is what I think is really required to make a persuasive application into a game: decision making.

Using this model, each player can affect the game in three different ways: improving their overall behavior over a long time span (progress); improving their rate of improvement (improvement); making meaningful decisions in the game (strategy). The model bears similarity to some free-to-play games. We can consider the behavioral axes as something that is bought with currency because it comes from outside the game (e.g. physical exercise measurements) but gives the player some advantage. The last axis reflects how well the player does with what they get from the first two axes. Although there is a similarity, in general the two behavioral axes should not be treated the same as in-game payment systems in f2ps. A game that aims for behavior change should allow these axes to have more impact on the game. Unlike f2p games where "pay to win" is frowned upon, a persuasive game should be e.g. "exercise to win".

It is also noteworthy that the two behavioral axes are interrelated in most scenarios. The higher a player is in the overall progress axis, the harder it is for them to keep improving their performance. It means that players who are "ahead" will be stronger on this axis while players who are "behind" will be stronger in the second axis. Over time, that strength in the second axis will gradually move over to this axis. Notice that these axes are different, which means they should have different effects in the game, making the "ahead" players stronger in one way and the "behind" players useful in another way. When done like this, the poor performers will feel motivated to improve their performance because it yields quick returns all the while the good performers won't feel cheated or punished for "doing too well".

Finally, the third axis does not necessarily serve any behavioral change function on its own. It can do so, if the gameplay is related to the behavioral change goals (e.g. requires knowledge of good habits). Its primary purpose is to make the entire thing more interesting - it's what actually makes it a game. Being good or bad on the third axis is not related to behavioral change goals of the game but simply the player's own interest in the game. It's the glue that actually makes the entire system work. The third axis needs to have significance because otherwise players are likely to lose interest in the game (i.e. it's really just a system for tracking progress - nothing wrong with that, but don't call it a game!). Regardless of your target audience, this is very likely the hardest axis to work with because it requires brilliant game design. However, your target audience is very likely to make it even harder.

So there you have it for now. This model is my design philosophy for behavioral change games and so far I can only tell that designing games that are just games is nowhere near as hard.

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