Knight Blog

The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Can Games Change Attitudes and Behavior?

Sept. 22, 2010, 8:43 a.m., Posted by Knight Foundation

Knight Foundation today announced a grant to Area/Code Entertainment to develop two games that bring together the communities of Macon and Biloxi. Trabian Shorters, Knight Foundation's vice president for communities, explains why.

I'm a member of the first generation in human history to play video games.

"Pong" was a hideously simple video game that ushered in the era of mind-grabbing, time-stealing, life-changing games that I grew up on. But not just me. Nearly all of my friends poured thousands of dollars into video arcade games, 25 cents at a time, in the hopes of being immortalized on "high score" boards.

25 years later, that matters in ways that we would have never imagined.' Games are more than a pastime.' In fact, I'd argue that when it comes to changing people's behavior, games can be more useful than typical social science.

Take the web site Couchsurfing, which lets strangers from all over the world visit each other and sleep on the sofa or in the spare room. Of the millions of times that people have done this through the site, the ratio of positive to negative experiences is not 50:50, not even an impressive 10:1. The ratio of good experiences to bad ones is something like 10,000:1.

If that doesn't blow your socks off then consider that, according to Joe Edelman of Citizen Logistics, the "typical" host greets their guest at the airport. Often times, they take their 'guests' to dinner and to visit local sites.

Why are they so exceedingly kind to total strangers?

Because the site is set up on game concepts. The visitors "rate" their hosts. The hosts "rate" their visitors. Scores are cumulative and visible on the scoreboard. The better your scores, the more privileges you earn from the system. These simple ideas that let people compete is often all that it takes to get them to change consistent behaviors.

Why does any of this matter to us 'nonprofity' types?

We look at issues like disaster readiness, and the lack of a sense of community ' issues that have garnered millions to help solve them ' and yet they remain. In Biloxi, Miss., even after Katrina, the 2008 National Mason-Dixon Hurricane Poll found that 67 percent of the respondents did not have a hurricane survival kit. In Macon, Ga. people appear to get along just fine. However, students and the townies and the blacks and the whites may not know each other that well ' even 'though they walk the same streets.

Today, Knight Foundation announced it has given a grant to'Area/Code Entertainment, a game developer, to work with community folks on designing real-time, real-life games for addressing these persistent problems.

As a nerdy guy, its relatively easy for me to accept that games and game concepts are powerful motivators. I literally learned how to put a computer together because the more powerful computers could play the more powerful games.

All game design is about figuring out what you want the player to do and then creating incentives for them to do it of their own free will. If you must twist a player's arm in order to get them to play your game, then the game will fail.

Conversely if we look at changes we want a person to make in their behavior, and we then apply the rules of game design, we come up with elegant solutions like Couchsurfing, Wikipedia, eBay or in our case a game in Biloxi called "BattleStorm" and a game in Macon called "Macon Money."

Macon Money launches next month, though you can get a preview by watching our video about it above. BattleStorm, meanwhile, will launch in 2011.

I'm looking forward to sharing how it all plays out.