Not motivated? Make a game of it

Michael Pusateri is a 43-year-old senior vice president at the Disney- ABC Television Group, but he still doesn’t eat his vegetables. So in October he joined Health Month, an online game that allows him to compete against 16,000 other users in striving toward his goals — which include cycling 80 miles a week and going on a weekly date with his wife.

When he made progress, he earned life points and raised his ranking. When he failed, he lost points but could ask other players to take pity and “heal” him by giving him virtual “fruit.” The game prepared him for his first triathlon. “My wife has been after me for years to eat more fruit and vegetables and bring my lunch to work, and it was, ‘Next week, I’ll do it next week,’” says Pusateri, an avid video game player and father of two. “Just because it was on this dumb website I actually did it.”

Companies such as Health Month have begun to harness people’s innate craving for competition to turn the world into one giant virtual summer camp. Now that 97% of teens and more than half of adults play video games, companies have caught on to the medium’s addictive powers. Websites and apps are using virtual points, levels, leader boards, badges and challenges to motivate people to stay healthy, watch television or read a newspaper. “Games are starting to creep into every aspect of our day,” says Jesse Schell, a game designer who teaches at Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center.

In the tech world, gamification is now a full-blown movement, and the first Gamification Summit will take place in San Francisco in January, organized by Gabe Zichermann, author of “Game-Based Marketing.” But while some believe this phenomenon is a motivation machine that will dominate lives in coming years, others think it’s a manipulative fad that does not acknowledge how humans’ brains really work.

Games with a sales twist have existed for years. Sweepstakes, frequent flier miles and the punch card you get at the frozen yogurt shop are all games of sorts, and the “serious games” movement has brought video games into military training, workplaces and therapy. But new technology allows gaming to extend its tentacles even further. Blackberries and iPhones can record and monitor personal information at all times. Social games such as FarmVille — in which an estimated 54 million monthly users harvest virtual crops to rise to higher levels while collaborating with Facebook friends — have introduced video games to new demographics and shown that simple, low-cost games can be engaging even when the prizes are virtual.


Gamification got a jump-start from Foursquare and other location-based social networks, which turn every outing into a contest. When you go to a bar or restaurant, you “check in” to that location on your Foursquare app and eventually earn badges, such as a “Pizzaiolo” badge, which you get when you go to 20 pizza places.

Companies are now bringing this model into other areas of life. gives students badges for ordering takeout. The Philadelphia Inquirer and Huffington Post give badges for interacting with articles online.

Some of these games are standalone enterprises that make money by charging for apps or extra features, while others are created by existing brands to hook customers. An industry of third-party companies, such as Bunchball, Badgeville and BigDoor, help companies add these game elements.

A game can be particularly helpful in an area such as financial planning, in which it makes arduous tasks sexier. The personal finance site, which has more than 4 million users, introduced a “goals” feature, which makes a game out of buying a home or erasing your debt. “Personal finance is not necessarily the most exciting topic,” says Stew Langille,’s vice president of marketing. “We wanted to add a layer of fun.”

Epic Win makes a game out of to-do lists by spoofing role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons and World of Warcraft. Tasks are called “quests” and completing them gives “strength” or “intellect” points and unlocks unexpected “loot.” One Epic Win user, Lenore Tucker-MacLeod of Moscow, Idaho, says the game reminds her to do simple things such as eat her vitamins. “I find myself being more motivated than when I was writing to-do lists on a piece of paper,” she says.

One particularly ambitious startup is SCVNGR, whose mission is to “create a game layer on top of the world” (with $4 million in backing from Google’s venture capital arm). At every location, users can issue challenges, such as climb a certain tree and take a picture. “SCVNGR makes a compelling case to take six or 30 seconds to do something engaging, to have an experience that is something outside of your normal day,” says Seth Priebatsch, who founded the Cambridge, Mass.-based company.

New services such as GetGlue, Miso and Philo apply the Foursquare model to watching movies and television. If you’re watching “CSI” you can “check in” to “CSI” on Miso to earn “CSI” points or badges, chat with other people who are watching the episode and eventually jump to the top of the “CSI” leader board.

Somrat Niyogi, the chief executive of the San Francisco-based Miso, says that the site builds on the sense of competition that pop culture consumption already fosters. “It’s all about the statement, ‘I’m a bigger fan than you,’” he says.

Similarly, this winter Vail Resorts is launching Epic Mix, a program to gamify skiing. A radio frequency chip inside your lift ticket is sensed by 90 gates spread across Vail’s resorts, recording where you’ve skied and how many vertical feet you’ve racked up. The entire mountain becomes a game board on which you can earn points or surprise pins and share your achievements with Facebook friends.

“Passive consumers are a thing of the past, and you need to drive participation, engagement and loyalty,” says Rajat Paharia, a founder of Bunchball, which has created games for companies such as USA Network and Victoria’s Secret.

But how are virtual rewards able to motivate people? Who cares about some silly badge anyway?

Badges can be especially helpful in an area such as health and fitness, in which it’s hard to see your body change with the naked eye. “What badges become are tangible things that represent small change,” says Buster Benson, the Seattle-based developer who created Health Month. “It’s the bridge that will help carry you through that dead zone where you’re putting all this energy into something and not getting anything back immediately.”

Yet not all games are good, especially ones that simply involve racking up pixilated pins for completing straightforward tasks. Good games offer a finely calibrated balance between difficulty and reward, with some uncertainty and surprise thrown in at the right moments.

Some psychologists argue that extrinsic motivation (when people are driven by rewards) can actually decrease people’s intrinsic motivation.

One Stanford University study from 1973 involved preschool children who enjoyed drawing pictures. A group of those children was told that they’d get a “Good Player Award” for drawing more pictures, while other groups were given the award unexpectedly or given no award. Later, after the awards went away, the group that had been told about the award in advance became less interested in drawing pictures than the other groups did. This phenomenon, called the “over-justification effect,” occurs because people pay more attention to the reward and less attention to their enjoyment.

Sebastian Deterding, a PhD student at the University of Hamburg who is studying gamification, notes that its proponents “believe virtual games are motivating because they dole our rewards. … Whereas everything we know about the psychological value of video games is that they’re intrinsically motivating.”

Still, if the power of games can be harnessed correctly, it has the potential to affect energy consumption, workplaces, government intelligence and other endeavors. Microsoft and Cisco, for instance, already use games to motivate their employees, and schools such as Quest to Learn in New York City are increasingly integrating video games into classrooms.

Byron Reeves, a professor of communications at Stanford who consults for businesses, says that in the last couple of years companies have begun to shed their allergy to combining work and fun. “When you’re working in a call center, there is the stunning boredom of call after call,” he says. “The pain and the value is incredibly significant. If you can keep those call center workers two more months, that would be huge. If you could change energy usage by 1% in households, that would be huge.”

The San Francisco-based Kiva, a website that has facilitated more than $180 million in microloans to help bring people out of poverty, is considering joining the badge craze. The company reasons that if people are spending real money for virtual goats on FarmVille, why can’t they buy a real goat for a herdsman in Uganda? “It’s really important to us that we treat our borrowers with dignity: To them, poverty is not a game,” says Premal Shah, the company’s president, in an e-mail. “At the same time, the gamification of the Web is a growing trend and we’re exploring these options in order to remain competitive.”