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Negative Emotions in Advertising and Game Design

This ad from Exec showed up in my inbox today. Total turnofff for me – and TARGETING FAIL for delivering this to a female. However, I’m curious to know the conversion rates on this ad — Exec may indeed be hitting a sweet spot/ pain point for their target market.

As we all know, negative emotions can be strong motivators. Advertising is rife with manufactured problems that are solved by the product being sold. Very smart people  advise us to use the Seven Deadly Sins to understand addictive products, and  tout the use of negative emotions to drive action.

Is that the experience you want to deliver to your players? Being driven to action by negative emotions? Not me. I don’t respond to that – and I don’t want to build products that embody that kind of manipulation.

So what’s the alternative? Can you motivate people and build habits WITHOUT using guilt, envy, pride, lust, gluttony, and shame to goad them into action?

I think there’s a clear alternative – and I’ll write about that in my next post. But first, I want to know what YOU think. If you’re a product designer, have you discovered a way to use positive emotions to drive behavior? Or are negative emotions (like the Seven Deadly Sins) the “gold standard” for building successful products? And is there a difference between how males and females respond emotionally to product design? I look forward to hearing your ideas and experiences in the comments.

How Social Comparison Leads to Unhappiness

I recently posted about Happy Habits – and got a surge of interest in the Positive Psych finding that Social Comparison reliably makes people unhappier. So I wanted to dig deeper, and share some of the growing body of research behind this statement. For example,  unhappy people make more frequent social comparisons than happy people,  and are more emotionally affected by the comparison. Olympic bronze medalists are happier than silver medalists – bronze medalists compare themselves with all the people who competed but won no medal at all, while the silver medalists compared themselves with the gold medal winners and tortured themselves with the belief that they could have won the gold.  Sonja Lyubomirsky has done some pioneering work in this area, and her book The How of Happiness includes a good, consumer-friendly overview of the science

Here’s the motivational reality: social comparison can be effective at manipulating action through negative emotions. Social comparison motivates people to strive for MORE – in sports, in conspicuous consumption, in the ongoing quest to be odor-free.  Social comparison drives a ton of advertising – and is woven into gamer-culture, both offline and online. But just  because it’s motivating doesn’t mean that it always works – or that it’s the right technique for your produc,  brand or service.

In game design, social comparison can take many forms: leaderboards, races, battles, competitive messaging. These techniques hook into our competitive instincts – they urge us to be the best, to dominate, to win, to BEAT OUR FRIENDS and show them who’s on top.  While some people enjoy this zero-sum mentality, many people (myself included) aren’t motivated by pummeling, beating, dominating, or otherwise besting their friends. For gamers like us,  zero-sum mechanics are a turn-off; we prefer the positive, connected emotions of partnering with friends and developing relationships.

It all comes back to knowing what your audience likes and responds to, and designing experiences they find compelling and pleasurable. If you’re designing for a bunch of hardcore gamers or a hard-driving sales team, then a zero-sum approach featuring points, leaderboards, and battles could be a great approach. If, however, you’re designing for  transformational consumers who want to feel more empowered,  connected and  supported in their goals, then a non-zero-sum approach featuring personal progress, social feedback and collective action might be more successful – and more fulfulling for your players.

Social Engagement: who’s playing? how do they like to engage?

Many people are familiar with Bartle’s Player Types: Achiever, Explorer, Socializer, and Killer. These canonical descriptions evolved out of social patterns that Bartle observed in early MUDS (multi-user dungeons AKA text precursors of MMOs like World of Warcraft). Many game designers (myself included) use this model to plan, design and tweak multiplayer games like MMOs.

A key value of Bartle’s system is to raise awareness that different people enjoy different types of fun.  It’s also useful for de-bugging some of the more simple-minded thinking around gamification – particularly the limited appeal of Achiever-style point, badges and levels. Here’s a great video of Bartle exploring the limits and over-application of player types, and offering some actionable ideas for applying player types in practice to gamified systems.

In practice, I’ve found that Bartle’s Four doesn’t generally work well for casual, social and serious games and gaming systems. So inspired by this model, I’ve developed a different twist – “Social Engagement Verbs”  that captures the motivational patterns I’m seeing in modern social gaming and social media.

Compete (similar to Bartle’s Achiever)
competition drives social gameplay AND self-improvement (competing with yourself to improve your own metrics). People who enjoy competition assume everyone likes competition, but that’s just one among many motivators – and often not the best, especially if you’re serving a female audience.

Collaborate (similar to Bartle’s Socializer)
collaboration and collective action are a purposeful, non-zero-sum way of socializing. From Facebook “likes” to Kickstarter projects, collaboration  is driving many of today’s most innovative and influential social systems. People who enjoy collaboration like to “win together” with others, and be part of something larger than themselves.

Explore (identical to Bartle’s Explorer)
Exploring content,  people, tools, and worlds can be a rich and rewarding activity. People who enjoy exploring are motivated by information, access and knowledge; stand-alone points won’t mean anything to them.

Express (a replacement for Bartle’s Killer)
self-expression is a key driver for modern social gaming and social media – and a major motivator for engagement and purchases/monetization. People who enjoy self-expression are motivated by gaining a richer palette and greater abilities to showcase their creativity and express who they are.

I’ve tested and evolved this model with dozens of clients and students. Here’s one of example of how to “blow out” the model and identify the key social engagement verbs in your product, app or service.

As Bartle says, no model is the ultimate solution. Think of this as a useful starting point for thinking strategically about what motivates your players  – and for designing experiences that will delight and engage them by targeting these motivations. Don’t be afraid to tweak this model to make it apply more specifically to your audience and application – I do it the time.

Happy Habits: Engagement Design meets Positive Psychology

Recently, I’ve been immersed in a project that’s translating the science of happiness into a compelling, habit-forming digital service. I’ve been digging into the scientific literature on positive psychology and neuroscience correlates, and learning about the activities the reliably make people happier – and unhappier. It’s been illuminating – and tremendously helpful in my personal life. I’d like to share 3 key things I’ve learned from this journey.

1) Investing in Meaningful Relationships makes people happier

There are a variety of regular practices –  including gratitude, kindness, mindfulness, and empathy – that have been shown to improve happiness in clinical trials. However, the most robust and widely-cited finding is the impact of relationships on happiness. In a nutshell, people who cultivate meaningful relationships report higher levels of happiness. Thus, one of the most powerful happiness-boosting actions you can take is to put time into relationships that matter. So now, whenever I’m meeting friends or colleagues for lunch, mentoring up-and-coming designers, following up with part clients, or sitting with my kids,  hearing about their day, in the back of my mind I know that I’m practicing a “happiness habit” by spending quality time with people I care about.

2) Social Comparison makes people unhappier

In the age of Gamification Everywhere, social comparison (via leaderboards and messaging) has become a default technique for motivating and engaging people. But happiness science reveals that judging yourself in relation to others is a mental habit that leads to envy, guilt, regret, and defensiveness. After I reviewed the (rather extensive) literature on this topic, I became aware of this pattern of thought in myself, my friends, my colleagues – and the strength of the correlation hit me like a ton of bricks. Once you start comparing yourself to others, you’ve jumped onto a treadmill that never stops – there is ALWAYS someone else who is smarter/better/stronger/richer/more beautiful/more popular than you are.

For designers, the punchline is to rethink your use of social comparison as a motivator. Do you REALLY need  that leaderboard on your website? If your goal is to deliver happiness to your customers, that might not get you where you want to go.

3) Happiness is a Habit –  you CAN change the way you think and perceive the world

Since my academic background and ongoing interests include Psych and Neuroscience, I’m familiar with the research on brain plasticity – which boils down to You Are What You Think.  Brains turn out to be highly programmable – within certain limits, you can literally rewire your brain and stimulate growth and change through specific mental activities.

There are a collection of well-researched techniques or “interventions” for developing a positive life outlook and generating feelings of happiness and well-being. When people do these regularly, their outlook and mood improves. Creating an engaging, compelling digital service to deliver these interventions is hard – and we’re just starting to understand what Happy Habits look like in action. This is a topic I’m PASSIONATE about – I’ll share more detail in a coming blog post on the topic.

What do you think? Do these findings ring true for you? Have you discuvered tricks & techniques in your life & work that promote happiness? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

The Player’s Journey: Designing Over Time


I’ve been enjoying this lively Branch discussion around points, levels, and leaderboards in social software – and even more this thoughtful response by Tom Tunguz of Redpoint, who added a much-needed “over time” perspective to the discussion.

When I engage with Web developers building digital services, the most common mistake they make is thinking about their social stats and UI as static. A key lesson I’ve absorbed from years of game design is to Design Your Player’s Journey Over Time.  Great games are compelling because the player’s experience and expertise changes over time in meaningful ways. Games dole out just the right amount of challenge and learning to keep the player engaged and on the edge of her ability. In short,  games are compelling because they’re pleasurable learning engines – they offer up skills to master, and reward you with greater challenges & opportunities. (Raph Koster write eloquently about this in A Theory of Fun for Game Design,  great background reading)

Progress metrics (points, badges, levels, leaderboards, reputation systems) are icing on this learning/mastery cake: very helpful to gauge where you stand, and how far you’ve come, but meaningless as a stand-alone system without the learning engine to keep you truly engaged.

Design Over Time thinking also can help you grow a successful community. The features that propel a digital community will CHANGE as the community scales from 500 to 5000 to 50,000. The story of Digg’s leaderboard (referenced in this Branch) – which worked great when Digg was up-and-coming, then backfired when Digg got big and well-known – is an object lesson in how effective game design must scale along with community growth.

So when you’re creating your next social app, website or game, focus first on what your community needs to kickstart social – but pay close to attention to what’s working over time, and be prepared to change and evolve your social and gaming UI as your community grows.  Don’t be afraid to remove a stuff that’s not working! It doesn’t mean you’ve failed – on the contrary, it’s a natural part of growing a strong community.

What’s your experience? Have you seen these dynamics in action? Want to learn more about this topic? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Collaboration and Collective Action: the next wave of social gaming

What do Kickstarter, Minecraft, Rock Band, CodeForAmerica, and Foldit have in common? They’re leading examples of games and services that enrich people’s lives through collaboration and collective action.

People are quitting Facebook and opting-out of spammy social games because they’re tired of being manipulated and distracted by software that shortens their attention span and lowers the quality of their real-life relationships. Meanwhile, the audience for games is changing dramatically – it’s an all-ages, cross-gender market now.

The next big wave in social gaming will be driven by games that are universally appealing AND especially attractive to females – and that doesn’t mean pink, fellas 🙂  It means making non-zero-sum games and services – experiences where you WIN via collaboration, collection action and teamwork.

For more gaming market stats and an explanation of zero-sum game theory, you can watch my  TEDx talk

Where are today’s great examples of collaboration and collective action? What games & services have enriched YOUR life and relationships through collaboration and collective action? I’d love to hear your stories.

The Difference Between Addiction and Fulfillment

As a social game designer, it’s my business  to design systems that drive sustained engagement. But when does engagement spill over into addiction? Usually that happens when someone does something TO EXCESS – and it leads to negative impact on their lives. It’s not the thing itself, but the USE PATTERN that determines addiction

Most people who play World of Warcraft, League of Legends, Farmville or Bejewelled don’t become addicted – just as most people who visit Vegas don’t become slot machine zombies. However, ALL these experiences are  designed to drive compulsion; it’s up to the player to know when to walk away.

Recently, during a challenging time in my life, I started playing Bubble Safari (match-3 games are my preferred source of escapist gaming crack). It’s a charming, absorbing game – filled with progress indicators and accessible rewards for sustained engagement. I found myself playing late at night, first thing in the morning – whenever I wanted to get a quick hit of accomplishment and flow (and avoid something messy and challenging).

Last night, after we got the kids to bed, my husband wanted to talk about our loan refinance — but I was so absorbed in playing my game that I told him to wait. He looked at me, shook his head, and said “Face it – you’re an addict.” FAIL. Game Over. When a game starts interfering with your real life commitments and relationships, it’s time to walk away.

So I’ve been wondering – it possible to design games and services that enrich your real life – that make it more FULFILLING? I think it comes down to the habits that you’re building, and how they affect your life. Fulfilling Habits make your life BETTER; Addictive Habits make your life WORSE.

It’s a little tricky:  many habits that enhance your life – a glass of red wine with dinner, a gambling weekend in Vegas, a quick match-3 game to take a mental break and escape the complexity of everyday life – will make your life worse when done to EXCESS.

So I made a chart to wrap my mind around these ideas. Take a look. What jumps out at you?

The habits on the left – gambling, porn, junk food, violent media, heroin –  are innately PRONE to driving addictive behavior, because they promise more than they deliver and activate your nervous system in an unbalanced way. Whereas the habits on the right – love, friendship, building, crafting, learning, exercising, sports – are fulfilling when done regularly (and not to excess).

What kind of games and services do YOU want to build? How do you feel about addiction in software design? I’d love to hear what you think.

The downside of addictive tech

We live in a world filled with increasingly powerful digital distractions: immersive online games, addictive social feeds, endless texts & notifications, Gamification Everywhere – we’re surrounded by software that’s designed to grab our attention and keep us hooked.

But we humans are adapting to these new and powerful forms of stiimulation. There’s a growing movement of thoughtful, tech-savvy people who are articulating the downside of an always-on lifestyle, and advocating for mindful use of technology.

Joe Kraus takes a weekly “media break” with his family – and notices that he can concentrate longer afterwards (this is part of a larger Digital Sabbath trend)

Sherry Turkle paints a vivid picture of teenagers who don’t know how to connect outside of texting and facebook — and advises us to look critically at the skills and mindset we’re modelling for our kids.

Howard Rheingold advocates for mindful digital literacy – and wrote a guidebook to help people do this better. Jim Stogdill put himself on a Paleo Media Diet to fight his self-diagnozed addiction and reclaim his brain and life.

Jason Hreha questions the product culture of building software explicitly to drive compulsion and addiction.

What about you? Are you tired of feeling manipulated and distracted by software that lowers the quality of your real-life interactions? Do you want to use – and build – software that makes REAL LIFE BETTER? I know I do – and I think there’s a big opportunity to create games, apps and services that deliver a FULFILLING (rather than ADDICTIVE) experience. More on that soon.

Emerging from Product-Development-Land

Image by diverjon on Flickr

It’s been a year or more since I’ve blogged much – I’ve been heads-down, working with clients on designing and launching products. I’ve learned a lot about mobile design, collaborative tech, positive psychology interventions,  and lean product dev, and I’m eager to summarize and share what I’ve been learning and seeing.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be writing a series of posts about what’s been catching my eye, and where I see the social software industry heading. I’m looking forward to engaging with YOU and learning from your questions, ideas and stories.