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How Many Points for Inbox Zero?

“Game dynamics” is all the rage—but can it help you deal with e-mail overload?

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.

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.

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.

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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