When is it all fun and games, and when is it manipulation?

Apr 16, 2010, 9:00 AM, Posted by Paul Tarini

Note: See yesterday’s post to learn more about what the Pioneer team has been working on lately with Debra Lieberman and the Health Games Research program.  

Earlier this week I tweeted a link to a piece on VentureBeat featuring Norwest Venture Partners’ Tim Chang thoughts about the “game-ification” of life.

I shared the link with Debra Lieberman, national program director for our Health Games Research program. Debra is a passionate researchers who’s devoted much of her career to understanding how and why games can be effective and useful tools. She had some very thoughtful observations:

“I have noticed for a long time that many aspects of life are already made into games...with reward points for frequent flying and incentives for customer loyalty at all kinds of retailers (discount coupons, gifts). I am often asked to respond to surveys with the enticement that I will be entered in a sweepstakes as a reward. Contests are everywhere as an incentive to get people to share ideas. I like Tim Chang's observations that teams and a sense of loyalty to them can be very motivating.

The "gamification" of life can get us to do things just to gain rewards and avoid punishments (such as the taxes on junk foods, as the blog describes). But we must not forget the importance of intrinsic motivation. In the past it seems to me that we chose to do things because, at least to some extent, they were inherently valuable to us and our motivation came from internally-driven needs and interests, not from external rewards, points, and prizes. We need to help our kids figure out what they want to accomplish so they can reach for their own goals...and not be so manipulated by the extrinsic rewards offered with coupons, reward points, and prizes...and extrinsic punishments.

Health games can be designed to focus on and bring out the player's intrinsic motivation. Research tells us that people who are intrinsically motivated are much more engaged and interested in the task (e.g., developing the knowledge and skills they can gain from the game) than those who are trying to figure out a way to win the prize. An interesting experiment would be to compare one group in which each individual set their own healthy eating goals and developed their own plan and were shown the health rewards they were actually getting this way...versus a group that was given healthy eating goals and was spurred on by external rewards (e.g., pay them to do it). Then, see what happens when the study ends and the external rewards go away. I bet the people in the rewarded group will revert back to old eating habits while those in the intrinsically motivated group will be more likely to sustain the healthy eating habits.”

We hope developers take Debra’s insights into consideration when designing games that encourage healthy living habits. External rewards can lead to a temporary shift in behavior, but to create lasting change, motivation must come from within.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Pioneering Ideas blog.