The challenge of behavior change digital games

The 75 billion digital game industry is comparable in revenue to the combined television/film industry and is growing at approximately 33% each year (1) (2) (3). Anyone who has visited and probably lost money at a gaming establishment like Las Vegas knows that well designed games are so powerful they can even separate most people from their hard earned money. Yet, the power of gaming is just beginning to be harnessed for good, for example, to reduce teen drug use, bullying, obesity, and violence (4).

Many reasons exist for this failure to tap into the popularity and power of games to better serve humanity (husITa’s mission). One reason is that gaming is a new field for most behavior change professionals and few understand how gaming techniques can be used to serve humanity. We even lack a term to classify such games. Some current terms are healthy games, serious games, or persuasive games (5) (6) (7). Even the terms for digital games in general are evolving, e.g., computer games, video games, online games, social games, mobile games, etc. For this blog, I will use the term digital games for well-being (DGW).

Another reason for the lack of DGWs is that game design requires a team with diverse expertise, i.e., computer programming, graphics/animation, cloud computing, behavior change, and potential players who can help insure the game content is realistic and fun. These experts usually do not socialize together, thus making team formation and communications challenging. Also, much of the required expertise is scarce and usually expensive. For example, someone who knows how games techniques motivate humans has skills that are highly sought after by the game industry that pays much higher salaries than universities or human service settings. In addition, game development, marketing, and keeping a game current is expensive, so funding is a key issue.

Another reason for lack of DGWs is that the necessary tools and techniques are much more limited than for commercial games which can use hyper-action, sex, destruction, power, and violence to make games fun and addicting. It is difficult to make techniques, such as therapy, motivating and fun. DGWs must attract and motivate players with positive techniques such as healthy competition with friends, feeling good for doing the right thing, receiving praise, acquiring knowledge, or gaining a sense of accomplishment. Also, DGWs must usually gain funding from organizations like mental health clinics or schools that can use the games to solve a human service problem or improve well-being. These organizations have very limited resources to spend on DGWs, which some may see as frivolous rather than promoting well-being.

Whether a game actually works brings up the last point. One of the greatest difficulties for DGW s is measuring behavior change that shows DGWs actually improve well-being. One issue is that research designs that accurately predict whether behaviors have changed require large controlled samples with frequent follow-up measures over many years. Measures that predict behavior change with validity and reliability are difficult to find. Typical measures used by prevention researchers are improvements in self-esteem, attitudes, norms, and knowledge. Although knowledge gain, a commonly used measure that is easy to quantity, seem not to be a good measure. For example, the increased knowledge gained from playing a drug prevention game may simply make players smarter abusers rather than prevent future abuse. Additionally, these measures are typically validated in paper/pencil format and their validity may be challenged if the combined measurement instruments are too lengthy or if the measures are redesigned into a game format.

These challenges can be summarized as time, expertise, persistence, effectiveness, and money. One strategy to address some of these challenges might be modular development, e.g., breaking a game into many mini-game like apps that link together to build a more robust DGW (8). Readers may think of other strategies, which would be welcomed in the comments section below. While the challenges posed by DGWs are great, husITa members are well suited to address them since they typically have a good understanding of human behavior and technology and are interested in using technology to serve humanity. One thing certain is as our world becomes more digital, connected, quick paced, and flooded with information, people’s (especially kids’) interest in gaming increases while the problems that human services must address also increase. Thus, the need to incorporate gaming into human services continues to grow.


Dick Schoech: e: [email protected] | w:

Image credit | Flickr | Hans Olofsson



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