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How Games Can Save The World

2014 January 22
by Greg Satell

“There’s a time for work and a time for play.”  “Work hard, play hard.”  “Once you finish your homework, you can go out and play games.”  Most of us were brought up to believe that there is a stark divide between play and productivity.

Yet it’s becoming evident that the distinction isn’t as clear-cut as we were made to think.  Games, after all, are simulations that stimulate us and help us to build skills. The fact that they are fun increases, rather than diminishes, their effectiveness.

Marketers have learned to use game mechanics to engage customers, particularly with loyalty programs.  But if games can be useful in getting us to buy more stuff, why can’t they also help us to build new skills and lead happier, more productive lives.  A slew of new startups are attempting to do just that and it may prove to be a powerful model.

The Art of Play

Every game begins with a theme, a basic narrative that helps explain the players’ objectives.  Many role playing games, for example, portray a hero on a quest.  Sports games thrive on competition.  Others, like building games, give the player a specific mission to complete.

Yet whatever the basic theme, games need to be fun and have a clear vision that people can relate to.  I spoke to Ofer Leidner, President and Co-Founder of Happify, and he outlined three key guidelines for making games that engage and entertain:

1. Easy To Learn, but Hard To Master:  Games shouldn’t be intimidating, but inviting.  A compelling theme can help with this, but it’s only the start.  A game also needs to have a simple interface, clear objectives, and an accessible learning curve for the skills required to play.  Some have training levels to help players learn the basics.

However, what gives a game staying power is that it takes time and effort to achieve true mastery.  Levels increase in difficulty, relics and other prizes become harder to attain and there are always new skills to learn.

2. Progression and Feedback:  Along with mastery, comes recognition.  To remain engaged, players need to recieve continuous feedback about how they are progressing. This can come in the form of level advancement, badges and other forms of rewards.  The feeling of achievement is crucial to providing a compelling game experience

3. Extensive User Testing: Leider stresses that you really don’t know whether a game is good until you actually see people play it.  So he recommends extensive user testing and constant tweaking, even after the game has been launched.

While these game mechanics have been well known for a long time, they’ve mostly been deployed for entertainment and simple fun.  That’s beginning to change.

The Science of Happiness

In the late 1960’s, Martin Seligman was studying depression and stumbled onto an interesting observation—people can be conditioned to feel helpless.  Once they begin to perceive a loss of control, that perception becomes a large part of their reality and can lead to depression.

It soon became clear that if conditioning can lead to depression, then it can lead to happiness as well.  That insight led Seligman to pioneer the field of positive psychology, which seeks to not merely relieve negative symptoms, but to promote better human function, performance and happiness.

Seligman has since become a leader in the field and has published widely.  When he came out with his bestselling book Flourish in 2011, Leidner and his partner, Tomer Ben-Kiki, read it and became intrigued.  They had spent the last 8 years building Oberon Media into a successful gaming company and were looking for a new challenge.

They decided to create a new company that would use their expertise in gaming to promote the ideas of Seligman and other scientists, which they synthesized into a simple framework they call S.T.A.G.E. (Savor, Thank, Aspire, Give, Empathize).  They then focused on those attributes to build a set of games designed to improve performance in each area.

Balancing Fun, Profit and Purpose

Creating games with a purpose is somewhat different than merely designing games for fun.  Success is not measured only in terms of how many people choose to play, but in how effectively you are producing the desired outcomes.  So Leidner and Ben-Kiki actively sought out the scientific community.

It wasn’t easy, because serious academics are often wary of having their work commercialized.  It was crucial for the pair to demonstrate that they were serious and genuine about furthering the mission, and not merely seeking to profit.  Ultimately, they were successful and gathered a top-notch team of scientific advisors.

And the scientists themselves found that Happify could help them improve their research. Happify randomly redirected users to volunteer to be part of a control group, so they can see how users respond to different activities and which are most effective in improving emotional well being.

Acacia Parks, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Hiram College says that “Happify allows us to learn things that we couldn’t find using traditional research.”  Those insights then get filtered back into new game development, creating a virtuous circle.  Happify is also working on a way to offer professional counseling through their platform.

“Fun” Doesn’t Have To Be A Dirty Word

Productivity doesn’t have to be boring or harsh.  As Guy Vardi, CEO of SlateScience, a company that develops educational games puts it, “fun is the emotional response to learning.”  While we fret about the attention spans of millennials, they can spend hours focused on completing a task in a game.  Why shouldn’t we put that time to good use?

John Havens, the founder of Happathon, says that “by creating a user friendly approach in the form of games, Happify is playing a crucial role in making positive psychology accessible so that more people can not only benefit, but also to connect to the academic community and to others who also want to improve their well being.

As for me, I can’t help but thinking that games are unlocking something important.  While Happify has chosen to focus on positive psychology, Luminosity has built a similar model to improve cognitive skills and iPad games have already become an important part of my four-year-old’s educational experience.

“Play your games first and then you can watch TV,” we tell her.

– Greg

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