Games Nudge!

April 2nd, 2010 1 comment »

When we were asked recently by Matthew Budman to nominate our favorite business book for The Conference Board’s quarterly magazine, our mini-review ended up at the top of his list. We chose Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s extremely readable practicum on behavioral economics: Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. We think the points they make regarding social policy are valid and want to extend the conversation to point out that game designers already have extraordinary instincts for the same concepts and further, that game designs are an excellent way to deliver important nudges. The takeaway is that whether we are designing games to help make employees more productive and engaged or to deepen their connections with customers or designing serious games to nudge social behavior, we need to be aware of the game designer’s role as choice architect in possession of some of the most powerful tools in the trade.

Nudge begins by reviewing the research showing the frailties of human choice. There’s a battle between our personal Homer Simpson, making quick and dirty decisions based on rules-of-thumb and biases such as short-termism, and our inner Spock, the ultra-rational calculator of cost, risk and benefit. The core of Nudge is that those who present decisions for other people to make are “choice architects” whether they like it or not, and that small differences in the way alternatives are presented have profound consequences for the choices people make. Thaler and Sunstein drive these ideas home with convincing examples ranging from the little daily decisions influenced by placement of food in cafeterias to feature-design in home mortgages, retirement plans and health insurance. Since Sunstein is now the regulator’s regulator in the Obama administration, watch for these ideas to show up in all manner of government approaches to changing behavior.

Nudges can take the shape of prompts, reminders, background information, narrowing of choices, defaults that must be overridden by opting out and so on. Some are as subtle as the way the problem or question is framed in the first place. It’s clear that the power of choice architecture can be used for good or not-so good purposes. As we take pains to point out in our own book, powerful stuff like the engagement of video games can also be dangerous. Fortunately, Thaler and Sunstein also provide a normative philosophical and ethical framework for how good choice architecture should be applied, under the name of libertarian paternalism. They argue “it is legitimate for choice architects to try to influence people’s behavior in order to make their lives longer, healthier and better… as judged by themselves [the choosers].”

So what’s this got to do with game design? Consider the riff in this post by the celebrated game designer, Raph Koster: “…we have carefully designed the games to always be prompting players to do something. We use eyelines to tell players to go someplace, we push quests on them with glaring icons and popups, we put constant reminders up that they could be gaining experience and levelling up all over the place, in the [n]ame of giving them greater guidance…games have developed incentives to get you to go do stuff. The payback for this is direct jolts of fun. Users are perfectly capable of taking actions on their own and getting fun. But if your objective is to have users get that jolt often, then you force them to have fun. You throw them into situations where they have to take action. You make them get off their lazy butts and make tough choices.”

Raph is actually reciting these common game design elements to make a different point about need for down-time in entertainment games, but you get the point that game designers are masters of choice architecture!

So for those interested in applications of game ideas outside of pure entertainment, we have to start thinking of ourselves as choice architects, too. To develop this idea further, we’ll turn to the list of 10 ingredients of great games, game elements that can be used to nudge, described in Chapter 4 of our book.

Before we do, lets first take a quick look at Thaler and Sunstein’s own rubric, six principles for carrying out good choice architecture that spell out N.U.D.G.E.:

iNcentives: Even though most of Nudge is about dealing with the non-economic behavior of actual humans, the authors still believe in supply and demand and the role for economic incentives. They point out that incentives only work if the chooser notices them and that good design needs to make the incentives “salient.”

Understand mappings between choices and welfare: This is economist-speak for connecting the dots between the options that people have and the results that they get. To design for this, you need to give people information about outcomes in terms they comprehend.

Defaults: Opt-in and op-out policies have a huge impact on choice as most people take the path of least resistance

Give feedback: The “G” and “E” in this cute mnemonic are inconveniently in the wrong order but nevertheless make a wonderful point. We should design choice systems that are fault tolerant, and give people the opportunity to fail and try again.

Expect error: A key theme in the book.

Structure complex choices: Neither brute force examination of all the options or simple rules of thumb is adequate for many complex decisions. Choice architects must decide how to present the options, the mapping and so on to break the problem down, knowing that subtle variations in structure can have large influence on how people choose.

Here’s how each of our ten ingredients for games can be used by choice architects to deliver one or more of Thaler and Sunstein’s principles:

1. Self representation with avatars

We’ve written about the engagement that happens when you project yourself onto a mini-me on-screen. Whether in a 2D or 3D virtual environment, manipulation of an avatar brings more attention to the task than most user interfaces. That extra engagement might help people make difficult choices that involve a lot of cognitive effort. Furthermore, when people interact via their avatars, the social dimension of electronic communication moves to a higher level. Building interactions with other people into a choice architecture is important when social nudges are needed. Thaler and Sunstein list several ways to change behavior of individuals by showing them what others are doing with examples ranging from littering to use of alcohol or energy.

2. Three dimensional environments

Did someone say “choice architect?” Raph’s “eyelines” evoke the exquisite power of visual design to shape choices when people are immersed in a virtual environment. The opening scene in any videogame, the first moment when the player is expected to start making moves is always chock full of contextual clues about what they might do next. The good ones leave lots of choices open but gently nudge players in a direction that will be fun. We can imagine using the same ideas to create a 3D environment that could help guide seniors through the baffling trade-offs required to select a plan under Medicare Part D. (Let’s hope Part D is not the template for the roll out of our newly reformed system).

3. Narrative context (great stories)

Massive multiplayer online games that retain players for months on end and hundreds of hours of play always have an epic story in the background. Whether its worlds in collision or the rise of an evil empire, the narrative sets the framework for the big challenge or problem that must be solved or defeated. Implicit in the narrative are values regarding right and wrong that set the stage for deciding what’s better or worse. Many of the most difficult decisions faced by citizens (and employees) are made without salient reference to the stories that comprise our lives. For example, many people don’t really have a clear storyline about how they want their retirement to play out or about how to live with (or finance) serious chronic illness. Maybe the choice architects who must present us with insurance, retirement planning and advanced medical directives can better help us frame our own epic stories. A game context would be an ideal setting to play this out.

4. Feedback

For many important choices, the relevant feedback comes way too late to learn and adjust. Nudge cites an ugly mortgage balloon payment or having too little (or too much) money in retirement as examples. We know from our work with games that great ones give feedback in ALL time scales relevant to humans, ranging from second-by-second visual and auditory stimuli to satisfying interactive results on the sub-minute, multi-minute, multi-hour and weekly time scales. (BTW, social interaction is essential for the longer time scale reinforcement.) Games are an opportunity to embed rich simulations of difficult one-off choices where the player can fail and “re-attempt with new knowledge”, as one of our survey respondents put it.

5. Reputation, ranks and levels

Games designs incorporate what we call “a vector of accomplishment” that reveals to the player where he or she ought to be heading. Awareness of this path is delivered over time through all kinds of nudges (and shoves). Success at early levels of the game leads to visible rewards in the game that accrue to one’s reputation and status. One of the most important rewards is the right to move on to higher levels with more difficult and complex challenges, and even greater rewards. Another great game designer, Chris Crawford argues that challenge itself is a more important motivation to play than the end goal. To the extent that practice and familiarity are important in getting better decisions, level design in a game could help provide the engagement for extended repetition and experience.

6. Marketplaces and economies

While Thaler and Sunstein offer a convincing case that humans are pretty bad at making many kinds of market decisions, we offer the corollary: people really like to participate in markets anyway! Social games today are teeming with marketplaces where all manner of synthetic currencies and virtual goods are exchanged. As a departure point for our chapter on virtual money, we used Edward Castronova’s delightful ideas about how to create a fun economy for multiplayer online games. Game economy design is an extremely powerful (and precise) way to nudge players towards particular behaviors and, when successful, can provide the engagement to keep people on task for those problems that require practice and acquisition of knowledge.

7. Competition under rules that are explicit and enforced

While Chris Crawford thinks challenge is the key motivation in games, it is conflict that makes challenge personal. Problem solving in the context of another independent decision-maker — a human opponent — is vastly more difficult than trying to optimize your own outcomes in a complex world running on autopilot. Another great behavioral economics book from 2009 is Michael Mauboussin’s Think Twice, which includes thoughts on decisions where the there are counterparties — not surprising given his role as an investment strategist at Legg Mason Capital Management. A good choice architect would recognize the importance of getting the rules right in order to facilitate decision-making by players in a serious game where there are opposing (or at least non-overlapping) interests.

8. Teams

We’ve already mentioned how avatars can spice up team-work on difficult problems or motivate players to engage in a setting where peer-influences can operate. With or without avatars, game design options that create the reasons for teams to come together and the balance of individual and group rewards are a rich palette for informing all manner of decisions.

9. Parallel communication systems that can be easily reconfigured

Facebook, texting and tweets are rapidly taking “market share” away from email among millennials, but the real story is that when it comes to choosing communication channels, people want different horses for different courses: synchronous or asynchronous, broadcast or narrowcast, attributable or anonymous. Decision-making will be better when people have the tools they need to seek (and give) advice, float trial balloons, and advertise success.

10. Time pressure

Its amazing how a little bit of urgency creates engagement. Deadlines create suspense. A ticking clock ups the ante. Maybe some decisions can actually be better made in the blink of an eye; that can be easily arranged in a game. How could you take advantage of time pressure for decisions that benefit from better mapping of choice to outcome or that need to be practiced in order to fail and learn? By using tick-tock and deadlines to increase engagement in the behavioral building blocks needed for a multi-step approach to a big problem. Time pressure combined with feedback and rewards for mastering the intermediate stages can keep people driving forward and do wonders for procrastination.

That’s our take. We are interested to hear how you might extend this list so feel free to drop a comment here.