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Gamification can change behaviour. I have proof.

This post has been on my mind for a while now, and a recent article on the topic from Policy Horizons Canada finally brought this to the top of my “blog topics” list (which seems to have a leaking hole in it these days…sorry about that).

As always, I like to start with a definition:

Gamification is the use of game design techniques and mechanics to solve problems and engage audiences. Typically gamification applies to non-game applications and processes in order to encourage people to adopt them. Gamification works by making technology more engaging, by encouraging users to engage in desired behaviors, by showing a path to mastery and autonomy, and by taking advantage of humans’ psychological predisposition to engage in gaming. The technique can encourage people to perform chores that they ordinarily consider boring, such as completing surveys, shopping, filling out tax forms, or reading web sites. Available data from gamified websites, applications, and processes indicate potential improvements in areas like user engagement, ROI, data quality, timeliness, or learning.” – Wikipedia

For anyone involved in the field of social marketing or the field of behaviour change communication, gamification is something you should treat seriously and fully consider adding to your current efforts. In fact, you may already be doing so without knowing it, as the premise is not new. What is new, is the potential of gamification for inducing behaviour change now that world smartphone penetration and growth rates are through the roof (developing countries included). If you like cliche buzzwords and phrases, gamification is about to hit the “tipping point”.

The Policy Horizons Canada article I mentioned above has lots of great links for you in terms of gamification examples. However, today I’d like to talk about two specific examples from my personal experience. Both of these examples have actually changed my behavior in a relatively short period of time. It doesn’t look like i’ll be reverting back to my old habits either.

Example 1: My FitBit  

At first glance, the FitBit (shown in the photo above)  looks like a souped up pedometer. The magic however is in what happens with the data it collects. Essentially here’s the low down on how it works:

  • I started off by getting a FitBit and filling out my personal profile (including fitness goals) on the FitBit website, which syncs to my device.
  • The FitBit application then created targets for me (caloric intake, activity level , etc…)
  • I wear the little FitBit everyday, everywhere I go, even when I sleep (no questionable wireless signals are transmitted unless I’m near a computer).
  • When I am near a computer, the FitBit automatically syncs with my profile on the FitBit website which resides on the cloud
  • It tracks my sleep patterns, calories burned, steps taken, distance,  floors climbed, and a few other things
  • I input what I eat and drink every day into my FitBit profile on the cloud via any device connected to the internet (FitBit has convenient , easy to use smartphone apps for this, I use the iPhone one)
  • The data is aggregated and can be filtered, mashed-up and easily compared to anyone in the FitBit community who is also sharing their data

So where is the gamification element?

My FitBit displays a flower at any given time. The closer I am to my targets for the day at any point in time, the taller the flower. For example, if it’s afternoon, and I’ve only logged 1000 steps, burned 500 but yet consumed 1600 calories, my flower looks like a measly little weed with a single petal. If on the other hand it’s morning and I’ve been on the elliptical for 1.5hrs and already burned 50% of my calorie burn target for the day, the flower has a full 6 petals and fills the whole screen. I now find myself checking the FitBit at various points throughout the day to see where my flower is at. Every time it’s low, I make a conscious effort to alter my behaviour. For example, if I’m at a cafe meeting a client, I will make a coffee (latte vs. Americano) and food decision (yogurt vs. cookie) based on my FitBit flower. If I’m about to meet a client whose office is on the 12th floor, I look at my FitBit to see if I should be taking the stairs. Sometimes I’m fine, and reward myself with the elevator. Remember that you get to set your fitness goals. If you set them ridiculously high, you’re likely not going to be rewarding yourself!

There is also a social gamification component. This is my favourite part. I can compare my FitBit data across the FitBit community and create detailed reports by age, gender, activity level, etc.. If at the end of the week I find myself in the bottom 30 percentile of my age group for sleep quality, I will make a conscious effort to address that. If I find myself equivalent to 50% of the daily activity level of folks belonging to my demographic while training for a half marathon (which I’m actually planning for May), then I really need to up my steps. If more than 50% of my daily calories are consumed after dinner then I need to adjust my eating patterns. If I happen to be at the top of the leaderboard within my group of FitBit community contacts, then I get rewarded with various badges (e.g. top calorie burner, most flights of stairs climbed, etc…). The acknowledgement feels nice, but at the end of the day what I think most people want to avoid is being at the bottom of the pack. The mere threat of that is enough to induce behaviour change in most active people belonging to this niche community. The potential behaviour modification possibilities go on and on. This is the era of “big data” getting personal.

Example 2: Fuel efficiency display on my Nissan Rogue SL
This one is really simple.
  • Every time I refill the gas in my car I reset the meter tracking my fuel efficiency.
  • As I drive the display shows my actual fuel efficiency along with my average fuel efficiency since the last re-fueling
  • I now compete with myself (or my wife if she’s driving) every week to see if I can attain a lower average.
  • As I drive if I notice i’m above the average in that moment or my average is higher than last week, I will consciously modify my speed or driving style to be more efficient.
The social gamification element here is not present in the Rogue, however I have heard that certain other manufacturers are now linking this data to the cloud so that you can compete with others in the same vehicle community. Exactly in the same manner as I do with my FitBit. This is clearly the direction all of these features will go in the future. The key element needed for mass adoption will be to allow individuals to be in control of their privacy and data sharing settings at all times. Once that is solved, the possibilities are endless. Think of the industry and government linkages that could be made here. If I’m one of the top 100 most fuel-efficient drivers in my vehicle category over a period of one year (using statistically backed data), the government could offer a tax break or Nissan could offer a free oil change to further entice my behaviour change. You get the point.

Those are just two examples of gamification that have directly affected me. Again, be sure to take a look at some of the examples in that Policy Horizons Canada article on gamification. I’d also love to hear your stories and thoughts surrounding this topic. Have your behaviours been altered in any way as a result of gamification?
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  1. The one thing I’d add is that the main objective for using the tool has to be highly motivating for gamification to work. FitBit works for you because fitness is a very motivating goal. A case where it doesn’t work for me is location-based, social apps like Foursquare where users “compete” for badges based on check-ins. I used it a lot when it first came out but now rarely do because the goal – checking in so my Foursquare ‘friends” can see, or leaving tips about places – doesn’t motivate me enough.

    • Ana

      I find Facebook checkins much more useful. For example, when attending an event, there have been times where friends showed up because they knew I was already there (via my checkin), but they would have otherwise not come. Or, where I’ve checked in at a restaurant and friends have recommended dishes I should order. I guess it depends on what proportion of your facebook friends are “real” friends, then checkins can be beneficial because real friends are more likely offer you useful advice since they know your tastes/interests. And you’re right, Foursquare badges really aren’t motivating. What is motivating on Foursquare is when Starbucks had 50% off frappuccinos during the summer but only for the Mayor of a location – this is a good incentive and I definitely had to “compete” to earn this reward.

  2. Agreed, the core principles of social marketing still apply (i.e. segmentation, targeting, positioning, etc…). Choosing the right audience is a big part of successful behaviour change initiatives.

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