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Social Games that Sway Behavior

With the rise of social networks, game designers are finding new paths to desired outcomes.

Can your social network make you healthier? It’s a question that health organizations are asking more and more as a wave of new gaming experiments aim to persuade players to think and act differently while having fun.

To your health: Healthseeker, a Facebook game that launched this summer, encourages users to take on healthy “missions.” When players complete the actions, they are rewarded with points, virtual gifts, and approval from friends in their social network.

In June, Vancouver game consulting company Ayogo launched a Facebook game called HealthSeeker that awards “life experience” points or virtual gifts when players with diabetes make small lifestyle changes. For example, it might assign a challenge such as not putting sugar in a single cup of coffee and then reward the player for completing the mission.

The challenge of this kind of game isn’t to convince people of something but to get them to act. “People are already emotionally committed to their health,” says Michael Fergusson, the founder and CEO of Ayogo. “They know they need to eat better and exercise.” But approaching that challenge all at once can seem overwhelming and thankless. “We pay them to take healthy actions,” says Fergusson. Reinforcing those small actions could turn them into habits that add up to better health.

“The game is an ongoing exploration for each player,” adds Manny Hernandez, cofounder and president of the Diabetes Hand Foundation, a nonprofit social-media group that worked with Ayogo and the Joslin Diabetes Center to develop the game. “We hope that through that it can become a very strong source of support for the player,” he says. So far, more than 3,000 people have signed up.

Businesses see value in the concept. “We were really trying to utilize the game players’ own online social network as a source of inspiration and support,” says Susan Holz, a public-affairs and communications representative at the German pharmaceutical company Boehringer Ingelheim, which funded the project as part of an initiative to encourage creative online games related to diabetes.

The real power of the game lies in the principle of reciprocity, the tendency to do something positive for someone who did something positive for you. Game designers take advantage of reciprocity by making it easy for users to send gifts to friends (“You just accepted this pig” in FarmVille, or “Thank Don by sending a free mystery bag back!” in Mafia Wars). Even if users know that the cost of a gift is minimal–often no more than a mouse click–“in general we found people will value the thing they receive,” says Fergusson.

In HealthSeeker, a user can send a “Kudo”–a virtual gift designed to be interesting or amusing–to reward friends for completing a task such as going a day without chocolate. When they receive a Kudo, users feel rewarded and acknowledged for doing something difficult, Fergusson explains. They will also feel a subtle but powerful obligation to return the favor, he says: “That obligation drives the loop of social games.”

The game also draws on the power of social networks in other ways. Users can accept challenges from friends, which Fergusson says makes them more likely to take on the recommended mission (the average player is working on two active missions; players who have accepted a friend’s challenge average four). What’s more, users tend to return to the game more frequently when their friends are also playing.

While it’s too early for HealthSeeker to have gathered more than anecdotal evidence of the game’s success, other games have shown conclusively that they can alter behavior–even more than expected at times. MovieSet is a website that chronicles movie production to generate advance buzz for largely unknown films before promos hit TV or radio. When it launched a behind-the-scenes Web show last year, it initially attracted few viewers. The prerelease excitement that MovieSet craved wasn’t there.

So the company turned to Ayogo, which created an online trivia game with answers hidden in the show itself. Players could test themselves, invite friends to take the quizzes, and compare scores. Successful players were rewarded with more video trailers of the MovieSet films. What would have been given away for free now had to be “earned.”

It worked. Within a month, MovieSet’s overall Web traffic skyrocketed from 24,000 to 125,000 unique visitors, according to Ayogo. The average visitor watched five trailers, up from one or two, while video views rose to 500,000, up from 30,000. The rest of the site benefited as well, with traffic to pages not featured in the game growing from 24,000 viewers to 45,000. What’s more, users readily volunteered valuable information on their movie-watching habits–an alternative way to win the trailer clip if they failed to answer the trivia questions correctly.

The psychology is simple but powerful: not only do people like to win, but they don’t like to feel like they’ve lost something, even if it’s just a chance to watch a trailer.

The movie game ultimately resulted in over a million views of promotional videos without requiring the producers to pay for any traditional marketing. “It was a very successful mechanism for jump-starting our traffic,” says Colleen Nystedt, the president and CEO of MovieSet. “It helped build the audience both for the hosted show and the films being discussed.”

More and more industries are finding that social games can reward users while helping a company or a society achieve a critical goal.

“Games are stylized systems of social interaction that incentivize engagement and behavior,” says Kati London, who serves as the senior producer at the New York-based game consulting company Area/Code. “That potentially makes them great engines for influencing and producing behavior change.”

Area/Code was hired by the Discovery Channel to produces games meant to stimulate new thinking about energy while promoting the network’s programs. Area/Code created a Facebook game called Power Planets, in which users are assigned a planet. Players gain points by creating buildings and developing energy sources. They lose the capacity for earning points when pollution increases or natural resources are depleted. Every few days, the planets are shuffled among the players.

Rather than explicitly promoting conservation, the designers wanted the game to make users feel the effects of risky environmental decisions by tapping into their sense of social responsibility. “You make choices about how to keep your inhabitants happy while maintaining a healthy planet, but then you pass your planet to another player on Facebook and you get someone else’s planet–which may or may not be left in a good state,” says Allison Rand, a vice president at Discovery. “The response was much like the real-life feeling of treating your planet poorly and leaving it to your grandchildren to clean up.”

The game, sponsored in part by Shell, was also meant to promote the Discovery series Powering the Future, which aired in July and gave viewers codes that unlocked powers in the game. Power Planets was the most popular game across the Discovery websites while the show was being promoted and aired, according to Rand, and the most popular game in the history of Discovery Communications’ Science Channel.

As social games grow increasingly popular, more and more companies are recognizing their inherent power to persuade. “This idea of gamification is spreading broadly,” says Ayogo’s Fergusson. “I hope that we can make the world better and more fun at the same time.”

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