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Not motivated? Make a game of it

The Internet is prompting some people to get it in gear. The rewards include virtual badges and group encouragement.

December 26, 2010|By Zachary Pincus-Roth, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Epic Win turns to-do lists into role-playing games.
Epic Win turns to-do lists into role-playing games. (From Tak Fung )

Michael Pusateri is a 43-year-old senior vice president at the Disney- ABC Television Group, but he still doesn't eat his vegetables. So in October he joined Health Month, an online game that allows him to compete against 16,000 other users in striving toward his goals — which include cycling 80 miles a week and going on a weekly date with his wife.

When he made progress, he earned life points and raised his ranking. When he failed, he lost points but could ask other players to take pity and "heal" him by giving him virtual "fruit." The game prepared him for his first triathlon. "My wife has been after me for years to eat more fruit and vegetables and bring my lunch to work, and it was, 'Next week, I'll do it next week,'" says Pusateri, an avid video game player and father of two. "Just because it was on this dumb website I actually did it."

Companies such as Health Month have begun to harness people's innate craving for competition to turn the world into one giant virtual summer camp. Now that 97% of teens and more than half of adults play video games, companies have caught on to the medium's addictive powers. Websites and apps are using virtual points, levels, leader boards, badges and challenges to motivate people to stay healthy, watch television or read a newspaper. "Games are starting to creep into every aspect of our day," says Jesse Schell, a game designer who teaches at Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center.

In the tech world, gamification is now a full-blown movement, and the first Gamification Summit will take place in San Francisco in January, organized by Gabe Zichermann, author of "Game-Based Marketing." But while some believe this phenomenon is a motivation machine that will dominate lives in coming years, others think it's a manipulative fad that does not acknowledge how humans' brains really work.

Games with a sales twist have existed for years. Sweepstakes, frequent flier miles and the punch card you get at the frozen yogurt shop are all games of sorts, and the "serious games" movement has brought video games into military training, workplaces and therapy. But new technology allows gaming to extend its tentacles even further. Blackberries and iPhones can record and monitor personal information at all times. Social games such as FarmVille — in which an estimated 54 million monthly users harvest virtual crops to rise to higher levels while collaborating with Facebook friends — have introduced video games to new demographics and shown that simple, low-cost games can be engaging even when the prizes are virtual.

Gamification got a jump-start from Foursquare and other location-based social networks, which turn every outing into a contest. When you go to a bar or restaurant, you "check in" to that location on your Foursquare app and eventually earn badges, such as a "Pizzaiolo" badge, which you get when you go to 20 pizza places.

Companies are now bringing this model into other areas of life. Campusfood.com gives students badges for ordering takeout. The Philadelphia Inquirer and Huffington Post give badges for interacting with articles online.

Some of these games are standalone enterprises that make money by charging for apps or extra features, while others are created by existing brands to hook customers. An industry of third-party companies, such as Bunchball, Badgeville and BigDoor, help companies add these game elements.

A game can be particularly helpful in an area such as financial planning, in which it makes arduous tasks sexier. The personal finance site Mint.com, which has more than 4 million users, introduced a "goals" feature, which makes a game out of buying a home or erasing your debt. "Personal finance is not necessarily the most exciting topic," says Stew Langille, Mint.com's vice president of marketing. "We wanted to add a layer of fun."

Epic Win makes a game out of to-do lists by spoofing role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons and World of Warcraft. Tasks are called "quests" and completing them gives "strength" or "intellect" points and unlocks unexpected "loot." One Epic Win user, Lenore Tucker-MacLeod of Moscow, Idaho, says the game reminds her to do simple things such as eat her vitamins. "I find myself being more motivated than when I was writing to-do lists on a piece of paper," she says.

One particularly ambitious startup is SCVNGR, whose mission is to "create a game layer on top of the world" (with $4 million in backing from Google's venture capital arm). At every location, users can issue challenges, such as climb a certain tree and take a picture. "SCVNGR makes a compelling case to take six or 30 seconds to do something engaging, to have an experience that is something outside of your normal day," says Seth Priebatsch, who founded the Cambridge, Mass.-based company.

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