Are Games Really That Persuasive?

Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a game designer with 20 years experience. He is the creator of leading game design blog What Games Are, and consults for many companies on game design and development. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Beyond the levels, badges, reward points and promised engagement increases, there are many behaviourist game designers who see games as persuasive tools for social change. They see a very wide range of possible benefits from games, such as education, health and awareness of social or political issues and so they want to use games to persuade players.

A large portion of these kinds of games are either funded by or affiliated with academic institutes. Others are related to charities and social-cause groups. Some of them are even funded through private enterprise or by angel/seed funders in search of venture capital. Often the pitch is that if said game can build a critical mass of users around it then it can be leveraged to do something else, such as buy branded goods or contribute to causes.

This idea that games can influence or persuade has actually been around almost since their inception. Even in the early days of micro-computers (such as the Commodore 64 or the BBC Micro), many games were produced for educational purposes. There was (and still often is) a worry on the part of parents that their children would only ever use computers to play video games, so the educational market convinced them that fun and learning could go together.

The root of the persuasive-game idea is that interactivity is better than passivity, and so by encouraging users to do stuff you likely imprint them with an idea more successfully. Largely this is assumed to be true because it sounds very positive on the one hand, and something that could be profitable on the other. The educational and computer-based training sectors rest upon it, as do the emerging fields of socially conscious games. If you show a man a movie about the buildup of trash around the world that’s one thing, but if you get him to play a game in which he cleans it up, he’s more likely to care about it. Apply the same thinking to everything from social engineering to brand loyalty, and that’s where gamification comes from.

But I’m not convinced that most of this stuff really works. In truth, I think most of it is a little deceptive.

What Games Do Well

Of course games can educate. Monopoly accidentally teaches its players about ideas like property rental, ownership, rates and income taxes. You don’t really realise it, but years later these ideas turn out to be useful. Scrabble teaches spelling and vocabulary without ever making a big deal of it. It’s just the skill you need to win the game, yet later you find that for some reason it’s imparted you with the knowledge to spell the word “quiddity.” Poker and a variety of other card games teach you various puzzle-solving skills and the beginnings of understanding probability. The Settlers of Catan expands your understanding of resource management. Risk teaches geography (every Risk player knows that there’s a place in Asia named Kamchatka).

Games also have a long and storied history of wry observation. Like all forms of art, a game world is always a warped reflection of the world around rather than a true reality, and this offers much opportunity for humour. Noted academic and game designer Ian Bogost created a satirical Facebook game named Cow Clicker, for instance, whose purpose was to satirise the dull stupidity of many early social games. Arguably it did not have the effect of turning people away from those supposedly dull games, but it became something in its own right instead. Players liked it, liked Bogost’s sense of humour and continue to appreciate the satire on its own terms.

Where games seem to fail is in actually being persuasive. An oft-cited example of successful gamification is a system in Sweden which turns the amounts taken in fines from speeding drivers and turns them into a prize lottery. Only safe drivers are eligible to win that lottery. In theory this system is supposed to first incentivise and then persuade drivers to drive more safely, becoming more aware of their own impact in their surroundings. But, alas, according to this report the rate of deaths on Swedish roads in 2011 was actually on the increase. The Swedish speeding lottery is interesting because it offers a cash prize, not because it makes drivers think more about speed.

Environmental games have questionable impact on whether users actually become more conscious of those issues, and all of the Facebook social farm games failed miserably. Health gaming solutions lose lots of players after an initial buzz, and are often cheated by players who love points but hate to run (Why actually run to play Zombies Run when taking the bus works so much better?). In these and many other cases the result seems to be that players might find the idea initially attractive, but the games don’t have much effect on changing their minds.

The “Persuasion” Story

So why do I say “deceptive”? Well there are two types.

The first is that there are quite a few people who have invested their time and careers in this whole idea. In academia particularly there is a great need among teachers to believe that the idea that games can be persuasive will eventually come true. Academia is usually the starting point for many meta-game ideas, from alternate-reality gaming to the supposed benefits that virtual worlds would bring, largely as a result of extrapolations on research. A lot of folks want games to get beyond a phase of merely being fun, and equate that with adopting more serious topics or a directed sense of authorship and stewardship. So there’s an element of self-deception involved in the hope that it will one day be true.

The second type is the story told in search of a sale.

Oft times the people actually paying for persuasive software are not its end-users. Advergames, for example, are bought and paid for by brands hoping to increase engagement or awareness through giving users something to do. And there are plenty of agencies who will happily take that money and deliver them a game that fits that story, but rarely has its intended effect. What tends to happen is that the game is not played, or played but not much attention is paid by users to the brand that paid for it. This is also the emerging reality of many gamification award schemes.

Similarly, most computer-based training software is not bought by its end users. A CBT solution to teach software skills or HR policies is something that a company buys in and then encourages or forces its employees to use. What employees actually think of it is often irrelevant.

Likewise, educational software companies have a decades-long history of making cute animal puzzles, branded character adding-up games and quest-into-history adventure games. The vast majority of said software does not engage its end users (children) to any great degree. But the people who buy it are parents and schools, and they are sold on the idea that if it’s interactive it must be better. While some noble companies strive to really make a difference in youngsters’ lives, there are plenty of others for whom cranking out this sort of software is just a means to a paycheque.

Find The Fun, Lose The Agenda

The primary reason why these projects fail is that they are terrible as games. They are trite, earnest, cumbersome, badly engineered and slow. Their core systems (the rules, actions and outcomes) are limited and have no sense of delight. They lack robustness, are very easily exploited as a result, and the user reaches her maximum mastery very early.

They’re just no fun. (My definition of fun is: The joy of winning while mastering fair game dynamics). On the other hand, there’s Fate of the World. A multiple-award winning game about climate change and resource crises, Fate of the World is a small-but-passionate success story. Its developers have recently launched an expansion pack named Tipping Point, and continue to build it out.

The difference between Fate of the World and many socially conscious greenhouse-effect games is that Fate is not trying to persuade users of anything. It’s nerdy and inaccessible, sure, but does not treat its audience like spoon-fed gibbons. It does not invite them to click on obvious solutions in the service of making a point (as many socially conscious behaviourist games do) or give forced-cheer award points for users behaving well.

Rather, Fate is a simulation. It’s absorbing, difficult and invites strategic thinking. It’s perfectly possible to lose, to get stuck or to realise that certain factors you had been ignoring are actually pretty important to success. You are welcome to screw its game world up however you like, and the game is deep enough to make the results of doing that interesting. And so, like Monopoly, you accidentally learn some stuff while you do. By avoiding preachiness and just focusing on the game, Fate is much more likely to teach players useful lessons.

They don’t have to be persuaded of anything.