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Gamification: Profiles, points, stories

Gamification continues to be a hot topic in health tech. Everyone wants to design applications and devices that are fun and engaging to use, but it doesn’t seem to be easy. (Well, neither is game development. I read a couple of years ago that less than one in ten games actually produces net profits to developers.)

Sebastian Deterding’s excellent presentation about user experience design and game mechanics covers several challenges in gamification. One challenge is that fun is usually something that we’re not obliged to do and that doesn’t have a serious consequence. When health comes into a picture, boom! There’s our serious consequence. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle can be fun (seriously, it can!), but circumstances can often make it too difficult or too boring, disrupting the flow experience.

Just adding points doesn’t work in long-term and it definitely doesn’t work for everyone, since motivations differ. The earliest player profiling was done by Dr. Richard Bartle based on the early MUDs (multi-user dungeons, sort of what World of Warcraft is nowadays, although MUDders would probably skin me for saying that). He distinguished four profiles: Achiever, Socializer, Explorer, and Killer. Achievers are the ones who want to collect points and achievements, whereas Socializers like to hang around and chat. Explorers head out to the game world with the goal of discovering every location and turning every stone to see wondrous sights. And Killers, well, just enjoy killing. Especially other players.

Might not come as a surprise that my primary type is an Explorer. I tend to think in terms of narratives, stories, and wonders of the world when considering what is an engaging experience for me. (Games are not different from books and movies in that regard… or from real life.) But people certainly have very different mentalities and reasons for playing games – immersion is just one facet. Others include e.g. taking a small break during lunch, winding down after work, challenging one’s brain, or having fun together.

Achieve your goals, learn new things, share experiences with friends. That’s what everyone basically wants, and that’s what we can practice with games and game-like applications.

It’s a bit hollow if we just want to hook people into using our applications by stuffing them with addictive features. Ideally, the purpose should be to increase people’s awareness and help them learn skills. Thus, this post about Madden NFL game is pretty interesting. The game educates players about the seriousness of concussions through gameplay: players benefit from modifying their behavior (playing style) to avoid head injuries. A good example of nudging towards a healthier attitude without being preachy, and actually simulating the consequences of unhealthy behavior. I could imagine that many games could subtly do something similar, if they were designed with health promotion ideas in mind. And perhaps player profiling could be applied in wellness applications to determine users’ motivators to offer right kind of content.

Went exploring recently, found a new favorite place.