MAY 15th 2013 (Recap): Persuasive Game Technology

This event took a look into the pros and cons of game design and how it could be applied not only to inspire others, but also how the same process could be used in other industries. While Games can inspire others this does not necessarily mean productivity.

On Wednesday May 15th, the SVII community got together to discuss the topic of “persuasive game technology”–specifically, what design techniques that were originally developed for making games can be cross applied to other products and areas to make them better

Margarita Quihuis and Chris Bennett of the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab
Margarita Quihuis and Chris Bennett of the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab

We had a panel discussion led by Margarita Quihuis of the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab. She was joined by game designers Chris Bennett, also of the Persuasive Technology Lab, Andrew Mayer of Digital Entertainment Strategies, and Albert Chen, assistant professor of game design at Cogswell College–and by venture capitalist Stephanie Spong of Moksa Ventures. The event was held at the Palo Alto offices of Sheppard Mullin LLP.

Sheppard Mullin

They started with the question of what causes people to take any sort of action. Quihuis presented a behavior model created by BJ Fogg, which says that people take action when they experience the right combination of motivation, ability, and trigger.

When there is a reasonably high amount of motivation and ability, that is when someone is most likely to take a specific action, and the trigger is the thing that brings the action to mind. Of course, if the action is fairly easy, then there doesn’t have to be much motivation for them to still do it. Likewise, if they are highly motivated, then they will probably do it whether it’s easy or not (as long as it’s possible), but the combination of high motivation and high ability is most likely to get the most people to do something.

The food was generously provided by Sheppard Mullin
The food was generously provided by Sheppard Mullin

From a social movement point of view, this has implications on how you try to guide a movement. If you know that your audience is already highly motivated, then you should focus on helping them to have the ability to do something about it. If your audience already has the ability to do what you want them to do, then you should focus on helping them to be motivated. If you know that they are already motivated and have the ability to create change, then the area you should focus on is probably increasing the amount of triggers that will remind them to do what they already want to do (and can do).

From there, they went on to address some basics of game design psychology. Different activities give our brains chemicals (neurotransmitters) that the brains like for different reasons, but the nice thing about game design (and by extension, the design of anything) is that those activities (or emulations of them) can be built into games to give the brain the chemicals that it wants. This is the reason that games can be so enjoyable–and addictive.

Margarita Quihuis, Chris Bennett, and Albert Chen (Cogswell College)
Margarita Quihuis, Chris Bennett, and Albert Chen (Cogswell College)

As an important side-note, it should be said here (though it goes without saying) that the power acquired through the knowledge of game design should be wielded carefully. As Albert Chen said, “It’s like the old Spiderman quote: ‘With great power…comes great responsibility.’” Game play taps into many basic human needs (story-telling, adventure, challenge, meaning, continuity, etc), so game designers over time learned a lot about human behavior through how people interacted with their games. This knowledge (power) can be used for good, for greed, or for evil (to be perfectly honest).

The main neurotransmitters that we’re talking about here are norepinephrine, epinephrine (a.k.a. adrenaline), oxytocin, and serotonin. Norepinephrine is released through the acquisition of knowledge, solving of puzzles, etc; epinephrine through competition and adventure; oxytocin through social connection; and serotonin through finding order, right and wrong, and purpose. Throughout history, these chemicals have been released and sought for through human endeavors and social interactions. With the invention of immersive games, they could all be acquired in the same place, which is rather a dangerous situation. (See above warning.)

But you don’t have to stop with acknowledging the dangers of game design. This great power also has the potential for motivating people to do good for themselves and others. Not only that, but it the power to motivate large groups of people this way. Those are the grandiose ideals of design which are easy to articulate but probably a lot harder to actually implement. However, there are also smaller good things which can be accomplished through game design.

Stephanie Spong of Moksa Ventures
Stephanie Spong of Moksa Ventures

One important aspect of game design which can be fairly easily incorporated into the design of other products is the idea of core loops. In game design, a core loop is something that the player does over and over again in the game (a small self-contained sequence that can be learned quickly but provides continual satisfaction for the player). In designing other products or systems, such a structure can be used to help motivate people to come back over and over, like they do for games that they love.

Two companies that exemplify the effective use of this design pattern are Starbucks and Facebook. Starbucks is designed to make you want to come everyday, make it a habit. This way, they get a permanent customer and the everyday customer feels like his day is missing something if he doesn’t visit Starbucks that day. Likewise, Facebook is designed to be a multiple times a day habit. The loop is that you go to the website, look at the new things on the news feed and perhaps read some connected things that leads you to. Then you come back again 20 to 30 minutes later.

The Facebook loop provides one with all four of the brain chemicals mentioned earlier. When you read the news feed, you learn new things (norepinephrine), you feel connected to your friends (oxytocin), you may play a game or engage in debate (epinephrine), and your sense of order is satisfied by the regular rhythm of coming back. This is not to say that hyper-frequent Facebook visiting is healthy; but because of our brains habits, it at least feels healthy and good at the time.

The Starbucks loop has similar brain rewards–plus, of course, caffeine, which is another chemical it likes (though the human body can’t produce it like it does the neurotransmitters).

Andrew Mayer of Digital Entertainment Strategies
Andrew Mayer of Digital Entertainment Strategies

One of the idea posed by the panel was that game design allows companies to be “post-scientific” about their data collection, because they can collect data about what in their games people like more (and therefore play more) without needing to know why it works (thus the “post-scientific”). But this was also disputed, because it was pointed out that such a mind-set leaves a company vulnerable when a certain technique stops working. If the company didn’t know why it worked in the first place, then they will have no idea how to modify it if the need arises.

When using game design techniques to modify behaviors, whether it is of an individual or a group, Quihuis stressed that it is important for whatever goal you are pursuing to be “crunchy,” which is a word that is used to mean “tightly defined and able to be measured.” In other words, the goal has to be fairly concrete. For example, if there is a company that would like to help it’s employees stay in better shape, it needs a goal that can be measured, like, “we would like 90% of our employees to take a 20 minute walk every day.” When a goal is framed in concrete and measurable terms, then it can be tracked and you know how effective your strategies are in taking you toward that goal.

And now, for a not so subtle parting salvo
And now, for a not so subtle parting salvo

May 15th 2013: Persuasive Game Technology

How can video game mechanics like those found in like Epic Mickey, Bioshock Infinite and Mortal Kombat help create or improve products and services in different industries? This event will take a look at this topic and pick it apart.


Utilizing Game Technology to Improve Products and Services

Join Margarita Quihuis, Stephanie Spong, Chris Bennett, Albert Chen, and Andrew Mayer for a discussion on how the use of game mechanics can help companies solve problems and create a deeper connection with customers. 

presented by SVII and Sheppard Mullin

Sheppard Mullin

How can mobile and social technologies combined with game mechanics create and improve products and services in the real world?

At this event, we will explore game mechanics and how they can be used to improve digital products, going beyond pure entertainment, to solve real world problems. This new trend is gaining in popularity and brands are reworking their digital resources. Solutions have appeared in a rich assortment of industries, including health, education, finance. Game mechanics can be used to facilitate communication, leverage common interests, create change, and locate missing persons. Some refer to this trend as serious games. Bottom-line: the use of game mechanics allow companies to solve problems, forge a stronger connection with their customers, and create a better user experience.

This event will take place at the offices of Sheppard Mullin:

379 Lytton Avenue
Palo Alto, CA 94301
time: 7pm


Tickets on sale now: $20
Margarita Quihuis
Margarita Quihuis, social expert

Margarita Quihuis (Moderator). Quihuis’ career has focused on innovation, technology incubation, access to capital and entrepreneurship. Her accomplishments include directorship of Astia (formerly known as the Women’s Technology Cluster), a technology incubator focused on women entrepreneurs where her portfolio companies raised $67 million in venture funding, venture capitalist, Reuters Fellow at Stanford, and Director of RI Labs for Ricoh Innovations. She is a member of the research team at Stanford’s Persuasive Technology Lab and directs the Stanford Peace Innovation Lab where she conducts research in Innovation, mass collaboration, persuasive technology & the potential of social networks to change society for the better. Recently she joined Social Design – a new marketing consulting firm dedicated to bridging the worlds of online engagement and offline movements. With offices in Silicon Valley, San Francisco, and Washington DC, we’re enabling businesses, government agencies, and NGOs to grow by deliberately empowering the people they serve.

Stephanie Spong
Stephanie Spong, venture capitalist and gamer

Stephanie Spong is a gamer, geek and venture capitalist with over twenty years of professional experience in financial, operating and consulting roles and a passion for the game sector. From her experience at Goldman Sachs, Citibank, McKinsey and Monitor, she brings seasoned business judgment and financial skills, and as Managing Director of Razorfish’s Los Angeles office, she gained valuable operating experience and immersion in the digital media space.  Most recently, at EPIC Ventures she established a strong reputation as an early-stage technology investor, serving as the President of the New Mexico Venture Capital Association (2007 – 2010) and board member of the Invest Southwest Capital Conference and the Rocky Mountain Venture Capital Association.  During 2010, she chaired the Phoenix-based early stage Invest Southwest Capital Conference as well as the Venture Capital in the Rockies Fall Conference in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Chris Bennett
Chris Bennett, game designewr

Chris Bennett is an award-winning Game Designer who combines creative ideas with social networking to reach millions of players with his credited games. With over 17 years of experience in the entertainment software industry, he has been instrumental in expanding hit brands like Diner Dash, which is one of the top-selling casual games of all time with over 1 billion downloads. Chris has talked about games and game design for broadcast coverage in media including NBC TV, NPR and the San Francisco Chronicle. He is called on by organizations such as Stanford and USAID for his game design expertise.


Albert Chen
Albert Chen, game design professor

Albert Chen is Assistant Professor in the Game Design and Development program at Cogswell College in Sunnyvale, CA.  He has led students in the development of serious games using game engines for the Boeing Company, Neurosky and Ericsson.  As Associate Director for Cogswell’s Engineering Simulation and Animation Laboratory (ESAL), he led a team that was awarded the Boeing Performance Excellence Award in 2008. Prior to joining Cogswell in 2007, Mr. Chen was a professional game developer for over twelve years and worked for EA, LucasArts, Factor 5 and the 3DO Company.  He has a BA in International Relations from UC Davis and is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Cogswell College.

Andrew Mayer
Andrew Mayer, game designer

Andrew Mayer has spent the last two decades involved with every facet of digital entertainment, and has brought his unique insights and skills to such companies as Sony, Time Warner, PlayFirst, EA/Bioware, Zynga, 2K Games, and many more. He provided the original concept and design for the wildly successful “Petz,” which has fueled a boom in digital life forms that has remained a world-wide phenomenon since its creation in the mid-90s. Since then he has integrated interactive entertainment into many major brands including Batman, Scooby-Doo, Diner Dash, Tonka Toys, Reader Rabbit, The Ellen Show, and many more. Over the last decade he has been intensely focused on new platforms and the growing mainstream audience, including casual, social, and mobile devices.

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