Video Games Modifying Behavior Towards Good

Ayogo wants to design video games to make you a better a person.

Video Games Modifying Behavior Towards Good


If anything qualifies as Twitter bait, it would be my latest feature on neuroeconomist Dr. Paul Zak in the July issue of Fast Company. By ginning up a special experiment for me, Zak learned that social networking (like what you do on Twitter) triggers the release of a generosity-trust chemical in our brains called oxytocin (A.K.A. “the cuddle hormone”). After the story’s publication, I wondered if any companies were purposely designing products to modify users behavior and heard about Ayogo, a Vancouver-based games maker. As Ayogo’s founder, Michael Fergusson, put it, the company “develops casual social games that are deployed on the web (in various locations) and on smartphones. We build games that are purely for entertainment, working with some of the biggest and most successful gaming companies in the world, and build what you might call ‘serious’ games that are intended to have a positive social impact.” Fergusson was gracious enough to answer some questions.

PENENBERG: Some people claim games are bad for you—for instance extremely violent ones like Grand Theft Auto. Others, like Steven Johnson, author of Everything Bad Is Good For You, say they can actually be beneficial. You, on the other hand, believe that games can actually modify behavior—and for the better, right?

FERGUSSON: Yes, I do. It’s demonstrably true. What I would say is not just that games can, but that they do modify, and are modifying, your behavior. Furthermore, this genre of casual social games in particular are very powerful motivators of behavior, and I think it’s very worthwhile for everybody to understand how this happens and how this technique can be used to the benefit of us all.

PENENBERG: How do games alter behavior?

FERGUSSON: To answer that question, it helps to take a minute and talk about how our brains work. As Gary Marcus pointed out in a fun little book called Kluge, our brains are tuned for survival in the broadest sense, and that sometimes this leaves gaps that can be exploited. For example, when we see a sequence, such as the number of minutes between sightings of a circling predator, say, our brain automatically attempts to predict the next item in the sequence based on what it saw before. Now, in the “wild” there are actually very few truly random occurrences, so it turns out to be a pretty useful tendency in the general case for a primate brain to have. When we successfully predict the next member of a sequence, our brain gives us a little biochemical reward. We feel good, get a sense of accomplishment. Very useful—it has reinforced a successful survival behaviour. Flash ahead to the present day, and we get the same sense of satisfaction from successfully guessing the next roll of the dice—which is actually totally random occurrence, and a successful guess in that circumstance provides little or no survival benefit. Our brain, however, can’t tell the difference. This is part of the explanation of why people love gambling, despite the rational (mathematical and financial) arguments against it.


PENENBERG: From a game-maker’s perspective, how do you design games that will change a user’s behavior? What do you think about when you are designing these functions within a game?

FERGUSSON: Well, the first point to make about this is that we’re not trying to do huge things like make smokers into non-smokers, or basketball fans into soccer fans. We’re trying to motivate very small actions by giving very small rewards, and design those rewards to leverage what we understand about how our brains work. We have great respect for those who work to help people make big, important changes to their lives (defeat addictions, build world-class athletes, etc.), but our expertise is in the very small: small amounts of motivation to spur small actions in small periods of time for small (virtual) rewards.

PENENBERG: How about some examples?

FERGUSSON: We recently released a game called Healthseeker that we developed for an organization called Diabetes Hands Foundation, working with Joslin Diabetes Center (affiliated with the Harvard Medical School). The idea we were designing around 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 behaviour of other players
Our premise is that these two compulsion loops, one of pattern completion, and one of reciprocal social obligation would reinforce each other and make our game more effective in producing action.

An earlier example from a different industry is a game we produced for MovieSet, which creates promotional microsites for pre-release films. (The company has since switched its business to focus on movie production tools, but the game was called Behind The Scenes.) The goal was to get potential audience members to view video promoting the (not-yet-released) film, to know that the film was coming and to formulate a positive impression of the film. The approach they were taking was to put the video clips on a website and use SEO to drive traffic there. You can see the problem: these are films nobody knew they cared about yet. We build a very simple trivia game that used the videos as a reward for correct answers. This simple change increased views of their videos tenfold in the first three months. They didn’t need to love the films (yet), they needed only to love movie trivia games. Additionally, we gave players to chance to earn a “re-take” of an incorrect answer by sharing some information about their movie preferences and so on, gathering for the company valuable customer intelligence they could use to optimize their site.


We didn’t come up with this idea on our own, of course. It was Mark Twain’s first, from Tom Sawyer “He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it—namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to obtain.” Players didn’t know about the movies, but they sure wanted to see the videos after they became the tangible manifestation of their success in the game.

We also use many of these same principles to help customers who specialize in “hard core” console games to expand the audience and and enhance the game play of their mainstream titles. I’d love to talk more about that work, which is very interesting, but we have some pretty strict non-disclosures in place.

PENENBERG: Can you apply what you’ve learned about designing games that can modify behavior to the world at large? What could, say, politicians or economists or business learn from you?


FERGUSSON: That fun is functional. One of the most powerful evolutionary traits is play—there’s no mystery to me why the more sophisticated the intelligence of the animal, the more likely we are to see play as a key behavior. We learn better, we socialize better, we work more productively and gain greater satisfaction from that work, when we play. And there are so many opportunities to use this to make the world a better place. How does your recycling box reward you for putting things inside it? How can we make composting or cycling to work more playful? What if process of getting a healthy snack from a vending machine was more fun than for getting a chocolate bar? I know there’s a lot of talk about taxing junk food to discourage consumption, especially by kids. I would love to see some thought put into making healthy food more enjoyable through play. Governments have proven they’re good at using these play instincts to generate revenue through the lottery. I would hope that they would see an opportunity to use those same mechanisms to motivate healthy behaviour that benefit both society and the individual.

Is there a cosmic point to all of this? Can you theorize about what happens to someone when she becomes immersed in a social game?

FERGUSSON: I think of these games like the matrix, directly lighting up areas of the brain. Obviously, by manipulating the system from the outside, the control is less precise, but that doesn’t make it less significant. I know that may sound a little sinister, but that’s only because we aren’t always fully aware of our own behaviour and how it can be manipulated. The more aware we are, the more actively we participate in the process, the more confidently we can use social games for healthy entertainment, and hopefully also for learning, growing, and connecting more constructively with our fellow humans.

PENENBERG: Is there a way I could have made this Q & A more fun and engaging, like framing questions as if it were a game?  

FERGUSSON: How about a drinking game? Every time one of us gets caught using jargon or buzzwords we have to drink. It might serve a dual purpose—getting more entertaining nearer the end of the interview.

Or, briefest answers being our true objective: answer in haiku.


Actually, I’ve often thought most interviews could be livened up by using the yoda translator. Or, as Yoda might say: “Often thought most interviews could be livened up by using the yoda translator I have.”  

About the author

Adam L. Penenberg is a journalism professor at New York University and author of several books