Most of us have a long list of things we’d like to do—get more exercise, keep a cleaner house, spend money more responsibly, and deal with e-mail more effectively. But it’s notoriously hard to change behavior when it comes to such tiresome chores. On the other hand, a compelling computer game can inspire you to stay up late at night trying to complete a tricky, and essentially pointless, task.
Several successful startup companies, including Foursquare and SCVNGR, have harnessed the principles at work in games—so-called “game dynamics”—to motivate people to perform particular location-based tasks. And there is growing interest in finding other ways to harness game dynamics.
However, one startup’s experience shows that game dynamics can be an unpredictable, and sometimes blunt, tool. Baydin, which makes plugins for Outlook and Gmail, is testing an e-mail game designed to help people achieve “inbox zero”—the state in which the user has dealt with all of his or her messages.
“We’re trying to make the behavior around e-mail better,” says Alexander Moore, the company’s CEO. Moore firmly believes that game dynamics can nudge people to manage their e-mail more effectively. But, he says, the lingering question is which behaviors should be encouraged.
Baydin’s e-mail game, which is available in prototype form for testing, plucks 30 e-mails out of a user’s inbox and asks the user to deal with them somehow–by archiving, deleting, forwarding, or replying to each of them. Another option is to “boomerang” an e-mail, setting it to reappear in the inbox at a later time. There’s a time limit to decide what to do with each message, and the user is awarded points for each decision made or action taken. Users can then share scores on Twitter, trying to top other users or set a new personal best.
Moore says Baydin plans to give the plug-in away, and figure out a business model once a user base has been established. “The e-mail game is the core of something big, but we’re still figuring out exactly how [it is],” he says. He’s not the only one who believes this. The company is funded by well-known Silicon Valley investor Dave McClure.