Nava Ashraf’s article in the Harvard Business Review on the application of Behavioural Economics into health program design has much to offer in terms of application design in general. There are six principles and notions that are worth capturing and reviewing in terms of their impact on game design:
Present Bias. This describes our tendency to value the present over the future; present gains over future ones, current costs over future ones. One of the best examples of this is the struggle smoker’s face in quitting, whereby the cost of not having a cigarette (withdrawal) is higher than the perceived cost of the future health implications. Understanding this helps us understand the challenge people face when considering saving or paying off a loan, versus using the money on a purchase they can make today. In game design, recognising this bias to ignore future value over present directs us to consider how we might attempt to neutralise this impact by improving the value of actions generally directed at future benefits, incorporating more short term rewards, fun and other mechanics to overcome this bias.
Limited Attention: Increasingly bombarded by media and life’s demands, the cognitive resources available to apply to the myriad of today’s challenges are ever diminishing. Due to this overload we become increasingly dependent on reminders, hints and triggers to get stuff done. We just don’t have enough mental horsepower to remember all the things we need or want to do. Under this paradigm the fun stuff will always have a tendency to get prioritised over the hard or boring. Recognising this forces us to think about ways to overcome this attention deficit. This can include reminders, feedback and fun to get over the attention barrier.
Commitment Devices: Rather than gadgets, commitment devices are contracts that participants make to formalise their pledge to an outcome. Using the smoking example again, getting smokers to put up a bounty that they can redeem at the end of their program if they have quit or forfeit to a charity if they fail has proven very successful in delivering additional leverage and getting people to quit. The application of the pledge also overcomes some of the sunk cost bias that forces us to make current choices that justify past ones. e.g. having paid for the movie ticket you are more likely to go than if you just schedule some time to go to the theatre. Pledges don’t have to be financially based. Committing your pledge publically is often as strong if not stronger than pledging money that can always be written off.
Material Incentives: Intrinsic benefits are always more sustainable than extrinsic rewards as they don’t require a constant up levelling as the novelty of the extrinsic reward wears off. That said, immediate material rewards can be valuably employed to overcome the Present Bias. Benefits on the program or game may be some way off. This is again true with smoking but is equally true in financial goals that are equally subject to procrastination. Material incentives can be used to neutralise this impact, rewarding the player early when the final, intrinsic reward can be a ways off.
Defaults: This approach is commonly used in software installation and getting people to sign up to organ donation programs. By setting default choices to what you want people to do, rather than what you don’t want them to do, you can create a simple but effective mechanism that plays on the Limited Attention rule. Organ donation programs are ten times more successful when being an organ donor is the default on a driver’s license application. This was demonstrated in Austria where the default is to be an organ donor and participation is 100%, compared to Germany where the default is not to participate and participation is 12%. Setting payment parameters are good examples of how defaults can be set up within games to limit what the player has to think about.
Pro-social Motivations: We are inherently social beings. This means that we have needs to be accepted and gain approval from others as well as having strong desires to help others. Integrating social networks provides plenty of opportunity to leverage these needs and use as motivation to play and win.
Each of these understandings provides plenty of opportunity for game designers to consider what they want the player to achieve and how they might go about guiding the player towards that outcome. By understanding what people are inherently inclined to do we can improve our chances of delivering game outcomes.