Persuasive games: ends vs. means

Ford Fusion Dashboard
At Institute for the Future, we've started a project looking at the future of persuasion and how technology affects behavior. The researchers are blogging on the subject here, mostly as a way for us to share examples, initial thoughts, and essays-in-progress with each other (and anyone else interested in the subject). Today, my friend Mathias Crawford wrote a very thoughtful and provocative post about persuasive game designed to, say, persuade you to eat less, exercise more, or increase your productivity. In his essay, Mathias suggests that the real potential for persuasive games isn't just to change behavior but also to help us understand why we behave a certain way. From the essay, titled "Ends vs. Means and Persuasive Games" on IFTF's Persuasion blog:
As (Carnegie Mellon professor Jesse) Schell points out (in a videotaped speech making the rounds this week), persuasive technologies like the Ford Fusion dashboard, are already being designed with game-like feedback in mind. To him these technologies fall short, however, because they are being engineered by people who are not game designers. If game designers would start to design reward systems that aimed to improve behaviors, we'd have feedback mechanisms that are much more enjoyable, and as a corollary that are much more effective.

Though I agree with his conclusion - that there is a clear need for people with game design expertise to design things that can help people improve behaviors - by focusing on creating technologies that aim to achieving measurable ends, Schell misses a much more important use of persuasive technologies: namely, technology that aims to influence means.

"Ends vs. Means and Persuasive Games"


  1. While watching Schell this week (it really is a great talk, even if I don’t agree with everything) I started to think: what if the pervasive points system he was talking about became the replacement for money.

    Sure, it starts to get a bit like Cory’s wuffie, but maybe that’s where we are headed. A world not too unlike an RPG where we level up our education and spend brownie points based on merits.

  2. I can see this really backfiring.

    “Sorry, I can’t come out tonight. I have to drive around the block 500 times to grind my fuel efficiency.”

  3. I liked the speech, and just like #1 I didn’t agree with everything. I had the money thought too. As he was mentioning the “link sync high five” I wanted to vomit at the idea of it. Imagine all of the services and goods you could get for watching X amount of ads, and eating X amount of Ramen…it would be like a giant depressing scripted loop.

    I kinda didn’t like the way he mentioned these games aren’t being made by “Game Designers.” I knew what he was going for but I if someone makes a game and its entertaining I don’t care what they call themselves. I’m fairly certain the people/cultures responsible for most classic word and card games wouldn’t call themselves “Game Designers.” It’s a minor gripe. I also didn’t like the iPad knock(side note I own an android phone, if that is relevant) It’s shortsighted and doesn’t fit in with what hes saying, really minor… :)

  4. It was a great talk. I agree with many of his observations, and few of his conclusions. But it was thought provoking.

    As regards his game-points as behavior influencers model, it is pretty horrifying, and I would argue, pretty much already here.

    Those points are called money. They can be exchanged as paper tokens, but mostly they just appear on your bank statement. It would be a short hop from there for the bank to implement a leaderboard.

    The kind of behavioral mods exist in the form of ONE DAY SALES EVENT: SUNDAY, SUNDAY, SUNDAY! Also coupons, rebates, cash-back credit cards, buy-one-get-one-free, going out of business, employee stock purchase plans, stock options, targeted marketing, weekly flyers ad nasuem.

    The main refinement in his scenario is largely to do with sensors that allow a tighter feedback loop on point (cash) distribution.

    Imagine a pixelated boot, stamping on a human face – forever.

  5. Video games from real-world behaviors are shaping up to be this decade’s interactive tabletop, which was last decade’s internet-enabled refrigerator.

  6. Will everything in this world have to involve some sort of immediate feedback and/or short term reward? I swear this is why everyone runs out and buys GPS when all they do is drive to the corner store – it turns driving into a videogame.

    Everyone is already grumbling about the Gen-Y’s or whatever they’re called. Coddled. “Not everyone gets a medal.” Will nobody do things *just because they should*?

  7. All I can say is that from my personal experience this CAN work. The first (and only) road trip taken with a Prius was pretty amazing. There is one display mode that pretty much had my attention during the whole time – the fuel efficiency monitor. I found myself automatically trying to ‘maximize my score’ by gunning for the highest possible efficiency, and was able to maintain a good speed while not driving as fast as I would normally tend to do.

    While the design was a bit clunky, I thought it was a great idea, one that could be better developed. A great positive feedback program.

    1. “There is one display mode that pretty much had my attention during the whole time – the fuel efficiency monitor.”

      I don’t mean to pick on ceabaird in particular but… I’d hope that the “display mode” that holds driver’s attention is the one showing the road, surrounding cars and rest of the environment.

      While I’m all for encouraging motorists to drive efficiently, I don’t think distracting them with compelling games will have a net positive effect on the world.

      1. Don’t worry. The Prius displays are no more distractive than changing the radio station. They’re almost a heads-up display. Then after a couple months apathy sets in, the novelty wears off, and you don’t even look at them anymore. (At least that’s been my experience with it over the last 8 months of daily driving. And no, I haven’t had any problems with the brakes.)

        On a more general note: I’ll take the clunky, cold, pure data display of my Prius over the cheezy, feel-goodie silliness of the Fusion tree-thingy any day.

  8. I hadn’t read about the Fusion dashboard before but it makes me want to drive until the vine withers and bursts into flame – awesome cubed compared to driving on the bell when I was in Japan.

  9. I have an idea for a persuasion game that works like this.
    Outfit sports cars with e-pass or wifi type devices designed so that every time you speed more than 20mph over the limit or run a red light it sends a signal to the nearest cop.
    Here is where the fun begins. If you have a GPS unit it will automatically show you the location of nearby police and the best route to avoid them. The game is to make it to your destination the fastest without getting pulled over.
    To get high scores you will need to break some laws. But it’s all in good fun. See you on the streets!

  10. I’m a little creeped out by that guy’s vision of the future. Maybe I should hold off that iphone purchase for a little longer.

    The daily life he’s describing sounds like a totalitarian control system instead of some fun games that also happen to nudge us into behaving a bit more social.

  11. The thing that bothers me with this, or any other “game” hoping to “persuade” us, is the same thing that bothers me with advertising. Somebody, somewhere, has decided this is what is right, and good, and what I should be doing. But who are they to determine what I *should* be doing and who are they to play mind games with me to try and persuade me into that?

    We already see it done with all sorts of brand name clothes and “as seen on TV” products. People flock to buy things that they don’t need and pay several times what they are worth because of the meaningless name attached to it. All because of the millions of dollars poured into advertising to make them think that these things matter. We pay these marketers a lot of money to brainwash us.

    And I don’t see this “be green” game being any different. It isn’t there to provide entertainment, it’s there to entice us to do things we wouldn’t normally do. If I race my wife to the hospital because she’s about to have a baby, do all the leaves fall off of the tree? Am I supposed to feel guilty for this? And if I drive 50 in a 90 zone, endangering myself and those around me, and the tree grows healthy, have I really done anything to help the environment or the rest of mankind?

    It’s all so misleading. A more efficient vehicle has much more effect than your driving habits on your overall fuel efficiency. Driving a normal speed is not going to damn us all to hell and driving slower is not going to stop global warming. And I don’t appreciate my car trying to guilt me into saving the environment. If they really wanted to help save the environment, they should have sold me a bicycle that was made with recycled cars.

  12. From Ford’s press release about the Fusion’s “SmartGauge with EcoGuide” instrument cluster:

    “Long-term fuel efficiency can be displayed in two ways – either as a traditional chart or using an innovative display that shows “growing leaves and vines” on the right side of the cluster. The more efficient a customer is, the more lush and beautiful the leaves and vines, creating a visual reward for the driver’s efforts.

    Additionally, the real-time system feedback allows drivers to assess or modify their driving habits to achieve maximum fuel economy. A shutdown screen reviews important information from the latest trip, including fuel economy performance and comparative data from previous days.

    Ford collaborated with IDEO and Smart Design, two world leaders in helping consumers connect with technology, to develop the instrument cluster.”

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