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Reward and punishment: A prototype Gmail plug-in from Baydin encourages users to manage their e-mail by awarding or docking points for good behavior.

Tuning the way the game influences users has proven challenging. Moore says he’s stumbled across several examples of the prototype inadvertently encouraging bad habits in users. For example, giving too many points to users for deleting e-mail led some to go on deletion rampages, zapping e-mails that actually required a response. “It’s really easy to incentivize behavior that you don’t want to incentivize,” he says.

But these unintended consequences have also convinced Moore of the power of the game. He says he was shocked to see how effectively turning the onscreen timer red (it flashes red and starts docking points if you take too long) motivated people to hurry up. “We didn’t think it would be as powerful as it is,” he says.

The idea of influencing people with games has been getting a lot of buzz, says B.J. Fogg, who directs research and design at Stanford University’s Persuasive Technology Lab. But few games have successfully changed behavior in the real world, he adds. Fogg believes that games can only change behavior when they support habits that players can easily continue even when they stop playing.

To effectively change people’s behavior around e-mail, Fogg suggests, Baydin will have to identify “the smallest behaviors that matter” and encourage users to practice them. For example, he says, clearing the inbox is too large a task, but it might be useful to encourage people to focus on responding to high-priority e-mails.

The key, Fogg says, is identifying which behaviors to encourage and removing any barriers that prevent users from practicing them.

Moore agrees. He says companies have shown how easily game dynamics can lock people into using a product. It’s time to start looking at other ways the principle can influence behavior.

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Credit: Baydin

Tagged: Computing, gmail, game dynamics, plug-ins, Defrag 2010, e-mail management

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