Games, Gamification and Behavior Change

Despite the ubiquity of gamification in our lives and our marketplaces, games are often overlooked as a serious social change tool. However, emerging research is showing games, and gamification, to be more effective at driving learning outcomes, and gamification and game design are emerging as more accepted strategies for SBC.

“Games can be a better way to engage people in learning and the type of thinking and emotional responses needed for the adoption of new behavior.” Karl Kapp

“On its surface, gamification is simply the use of game mechanics to make learning and instruction more fun. […] Underneath the surface is the idea of engagement, story, autonomy, and meaning.” Karl Kapp

Gamification can be an effective way to engage people in program learning and the change process; elements such as scoring, leaderboards, and interactive formats can increase interaction with key concepts and application to life.

Going a step further, creating games for SBC can build on transferable skills for behavior change—confidence, decision-making, strategy—while delivering program outcomes.

What’s the difference between gamification and games?

What is Gamification?

Gamification is the use of game mechanics in non-game contexts.

For example, using a competitive mechanism (leaderboards, and other public “scoring” or awards, etc.) to motivate individuals or make learning more fun. With social media, the internet, and related technologies, applications for gamification are widespread, often providing real time feedback and a social component across multiple users.

In spurring behavior change, gamification can be used to make the process more motivating or fun, but is ultimately about hacking how our brains work for our own best (or sometimes worst) interests. In this sense, gamification is not merely dressing up a program or idea in flashy colors or a “fun” format (though that might be a good idea depending on your audience and communication channels)—gamification gets our brains going and keeps them engaged in the thinking, feeling, and action required for sustained behavior change. Gamified elements allow our brains to engage in the type of thinking and emotional responses needed for the adoption of new behavior.

Gamification, or gamifying elements of an application or intervention, is also different from designing (or playing) a game. Many innovation processes are now gamified in everything from personal health (i.e. Fitbit, Noom) to social media (i.e. polls and quizzes, live reactions, etc.). And for good reason. While these features may make certain apps or products more fun to use than others, they are not games themselves. The purpose of using the game mechanics is not to create the space of game play, but to use these elements to increase motivation, engagement, interest, use in what may not be seen as an inherently “fun” activity (like losing weight, or learning the rules of the road) and even provide a “fun” way of practicing core skills and knowledge.

We often use gamification in our interactive approach to data collection, which you can read more about here.

What are games?

“What games are, in the end, are teachers. Fun is just another word for learning.” Raph Koster

Games are a structured form of play that have four defining components: (1) goals, (2) rules, (3) interaction or feedback, and (4) voluntary participation (McGonigal). Underneath these components are ideas of story, autonomy, and meaning that might encourage players to explore new spaces of thinking and behaving.

Games have many elements…

  • Content (images, text)
  • Rules and gameplay
  • Storyline and characters
  • Settings and guides
  • Decks, pieces, boards, etc. (the physical parts of the game)

Game makers or players can manipulate these components to create different uses for games and game experiences. Games can be made challenging or easy, single or multiplayer, competitive or collaborative, the list of game design variables is long!

The key is that the game must be fun!

Good game design ultimately creates an experience that is fun. Learning and mastery are fun, but without play, they can be drudgery.

If a game stops being fun and becomes only about its content, it very quickly ceases to have the agency and voluntary participation that makes it a game. Game design applies a complex web of psychological and social lenses and theories, ultimately creating a game that is fun for its intended player.

A designer may also choose to harness its powerful approach to learning and skill development. Games might encourage us to explore new spaces of probability, thinking, or skill. Games provide a set of boundaries within a “safe” environment to “try new things out” (Karl Kapp, 2012).

Game playing and gamification are distinct and not always combined, nor do they need to be. Taken alone neither gamification nor play/fun make a game. You can gamify things to make life interesting and increase engagement. You can, and should, have fun and play. A game is made by combining gamification + play + fun (and a few other things, too).

Co-creative design process

Even more than other types of communication and change media, games require a co-creative process to ensure relevance and fun. The game design process is an opportunity for user-centered co-creation.

Designing a game requires…

  • Collaboration, patience, many iterations
  • High quality user-research
  • Expertise in visual design
  • Expertise in writing (storytelling)
  • If digital, also requires tech expertise
  • May also require content area expertise

An example….

In 2019, Picture Impact developed a game to increase the health-seeking behavior of adolescent girls and young women in Zimbabwe. Learn more about the game we developed and why games are a good fit for positive youth development.

1. Reality-checking, is a game the right fit?

Design process: What is the game environment? Are games relevant? Desired? To answer these questions we tapped into the market research, surveys, and key informant interviews that project partners were doing to inform the broader education-entertainment activity. We also did web-based research on the history of games, the context of the girls, and talked to teens in the US context about the kinds of games that were trending at that time.

The results: We found that Zimbabwe has a game-playing history particularly with strategy games and games of chance. There are also traditions of song and storytelling, and more recently a rich community of authors and a history of literature. Teens and young people are hungry for stories. They wanted their own teen culture reflected back to them (comic books, romance novels, images of popular culture).

2. The guardrails (aka, design parameters)

Design process: Designing without parameters is not only dangerous, like a windy mountain road with no guardrails, it is also quite difficult. The design parameters create more freedom than limitation. They anchor us firmly to the specific people who are going to play the game, and the context for that play. Design parameters help us locate ourselves in a wide expanse of all that is possible, and help us deliver something that is meaningful and useful.

The results: Here are some of the design parameters we arrived at (and how we got there).
We decided the game needs to be:

  • Small and easy to not only carry, but travel with and set up. Teens are meeting in a variety of places and may not have access to storage space. It is ideal if it can fit in a pocket, backpack or handbag and can be played in a variety of settings (and on a variety of surfaces!).
  • Playable without all of the pieces. Individual pieces can easily get lost, when this happens it needs to not ruin the game.
  • Inexpensive and able to be produced in-country. Games often have multiple pieces and can have special printing and finishing needs, making them too expensive or too hard to reproduce.
  • Appealing to teens. It couldn’t be too simplistic or child-like, nor too boring. Teens have a very specific aesthetic. Could we find a style that would be engaging?
  • Aligned with the current market for analog (non-digital) games. In 2019, (in the U.S.A.) teens and young people were primarily playing party games (large group format) and deck-based games, such as Cards Against Humanity and Superfight. Games with high social interaction also matched the development needs of teens.
  • Easy to expand or adapt. This would allow us to build a base game and add or change content for different needs, and play and use it in a few different ways.

Considering all of these needs, we pursued a deck-based game.

3. Thinking with our hands (aka, prototyping)

Design process: This stage is about generating ideas and trying them out by making very low-fidelity prototypes (sticky notes work great for this). To expand our thinking, we sourced and played as many deck-based games as we could and analyzed the game play; we looked for existing storytelling games, existing picture-based games. And we went back to the basics, looking at the White Box, SCVNGR’s game mechanics deck, and our library of game design books and articles for guidance and inspiration. But mostly we used our own experience as people who love to play games and were guided by our primary design parameter: is it FUN!?

The results: Once we had the basic idea down using simple paper, words and stick figures, we contracted with three different artists to illustrate a few dozen ideas, which allowed us to play with the potential look and design of the cards. We printed (glued and cut by hand) 10 sets of our prototype for play testing with adolescents and young people in Zimbabwe.

4. User testing and play testing

Design process: We did not do interviews. We did not do focus groups. We gamified the testing and did it in their space. The workshops we designed were interactive, activity-based, and appropriate for a variety of groups across ages, co-ed and single-sex, with in-school and out-of-school youth. We used competition, prizes/rewards, physical movement, and highly generative activities. We were told they were also really fun! These workshops gave us an abundance of critical design information and grounded us in the context of the users and where they would play the game.

We tested …

  • Illustration styl
  • Taboo subjects
  • Who are their influencers?
  • Content (images)
  • Ability to tell a story
  • Story prompts
  • Game play mechanics
  • Scoring and incentive structures
  • And…was it FUN to play???

The results: We came back with lists of new potential content, ideas about scoring (friends have a hard time awarding competing friends with points), we learned that the game play facilitators (especially the grown-ups in the room) really wanted to control the play and the teens’ learning process by instructing and judging for correctness. We also heard young people say, “Is it?” as a catchphrase meaning everything from “is that true?” to “that’s crazy!” and thought that might be a fun name for the game.

5. Using feedback, we refine and build

Design process: What we brought to Zimbabwe to play test with youth worked surprisingly well. We didn’t need to redesign the core game and could focus on refining the deck and developing the package and supporting materials.

The results: We made changes to improve the playability of the game, adding image cards and prompts. We adjusted the scoring and developed guides for play. We also considered the distribution channel and ways to use this context to not only improve game play, but also to strengthen game play facilitators’ (such as peer educators, community volunteers, guidance counselors, parents and others) understanding of positive youth development, balancing gender dynamics, and the importance of play.

6. We have a game!

Design process: We’ve arrived at a minimum viable product (MVP). Though it is a limited product, this represents a significant step in game development. The MVP has 52 image and 16 prompt cards, the bare minimum number of cards in a deck to make it playable and fun for a handful of plays (2-4, maybe more depending on the size of the group). It also has a consistently applied and engaging style, a box, quick-play guide, scoring with crowd choice awards, and a discussion guide for game play facilitators. This is a strong start toward a fully developed game.

The results: A limited production of 1,000 sets were made and distributed via one youth program in Zimbabwe (the DREAMS program). This smaller run and targeted distribution is a great “test” environment and there is valuable information to be harvested that will make the move from programmatic use to a consumer market easier. Learn more about the game itself and how it supports positive youth development.

7. Next: Getting it market-ready

Design process: Here we are, back to the start of the next iteration. Moving from MVP to a product ready for market would mean developing many more cards (a deck of 500+ images and 100+ prompts is ideal), developing a brand and marketing. We would need to explore (at a minimum) funding and sales models (BOGO, expansion packs, product/brand placement, co-licensing), distribution channels (where would people expect to purchase it and find the game, what are unexpected ways to sell/distribute the game, how could youth benefit from selling/distributing the game), and game promotion (social media, celebrity endorsement, incorporation into a graphic novel, movie, radio show or podcast).

The results: We’re open to ideas of where to take this next. We will keep you updated, or contact us with your own idea.

Download the full version of our poster on game design for youth SBC.