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Playing with Fire: Ethics and Game Design
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Playing with Fire: Ethics and Game Design

December 1, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

Healthseeker and Socially Responsible Games

Each game designer must decide how to use these neurological tools. They can either be used purely for the enrichment of the game developer or to mutually benefit the game player.

One of our games, called Healthseeker, can also fit into this “games for good” category. The game's intent is to help people living with diabetes make better lifestyle choices by doing small incremental actions and then getting rewards for them. The design idea is that instead of making the primary goal getting one person to do a thousand healthy things, we would focus instead on getting a thousand people to do one healthy thing. To do this, we focused on two things:

  • Instant gratification rewards for healthy activity, in contrast to the usual approach of making long-term health your reward for doing healthy things.
  • Making those instant gratification rewards something that you can use -- to reward the healthy behavior of other players.

The game design is simple, yet fun. There are Lifestyle Goals, Missions, and Actions that players can select. The lifestyle goals are represented by colored bars that appear as a player starts making progress in the game.

This helps players measure their progress. Missions help reach each Lifestyle Goal. Missions are made up of healthy Actions that a player can take in their day-to-day life.

As a player completes Actions and Missions, they level up in the game and get access to new, cooler Actions and other virtual goods. Experience Points are collected when sponsoring a friend to play a game, inviting friends to join Missions, by completing actions, sending messages and writing on the public wall within the game.

Points and badges accumulate over time and help the player advance to different levels. Players can also record their progress and thoughts about their day on their Fridge Door, a wall that displays supportive and inspirational messages from anyone playing the game.

The game utilizes the player's own social graph and uses their friends as sources of inspiration and support as they push beyond intention to live their actions. The gameplay mechanics are familiar to players of popular casual social games. Using achievements, virtual prizes, and gifting to create instant rewards for healthy behavior, this allows for bridging the gap between a player's intentions and actions.

Our design reflects our (we think, safe) assumption that incremental actions, no matter how small, are more effective in trying to achieve a goal, than doing nothing at all, and that neuroplasticity will help habituate these new behaviors as you play. By using game mechanics, we are directly triggering psychological reactions in the brain and in this case, the side effects are beneficial to the player.

Let's look at another game called Evoke. The game is a ten-week crash course in changing the world. The goal is to help empower young people all over the world to come up with creative solutions to our most urgent social problems through gameplay.

Earning online mentorships, scholarships and seed fund investments -- even having the opportunity to become Certified Evoke Social Innovators -- the game is relevant to our discussion because in this case, the game designer's motivations about what they're asking the players to do are transparent, it's to try to save the world. Why not use technology to do something good in the world? Overall though, the same game mechanics that help people habituate and modify behaviors in Healthseeker are also at work here.

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