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Motivation For Change, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Game Layering

First-year student David Bellona makes the case for gamification and its implications for people designing experiences.

Remember Captain Planet and the Planeteers? I do. Twenty years ago, I spent my half-hour of allowed TV time watching an anthropomorphized Mother Earth team up with Captain Planet and teenage sidekicks fight eco-villians [sic] and evil corporations. In retrospect, the concept feels a bit contrived, but I can appreciate the value in making the arduous task of saving the planet entertaining. Reducing, reusing, recycling, and being “green” — it all should be fun, right?

Wrong. As adults, saving the planet can feel like a drag. With every purchase, we have to continuously ask ourselves what is the right (or wrong) choice in sustainable living. Where does this product come from? What is its carbon footprint? Will the materials biodegrade or recycle easily when I’m done using it? Because being green entails highly informed consumption, this constant internal dialogue can actually increase bio-cost, a concept I learned about in Paul Pangaro’s “Intro to Cybernetics and the Foundations of Systems Design.”

First-year student David Bellona makes the case for gamification and its implications for people designing experiences. Green banner with Nintendo Wii figures with white text that reads: The Power is Yours
First-year student David Bellona makes the case for gamification and its implications for people designing experiences. Green banner with Nintendo Wii figures with white text that reads: The Power is Yours

In fact, our decision-making comes at such a high cost that it is easier to avoid asking these difficult questions than it is to answer them. The majority of us choose the former, dodging the environmental issue. All the while, any individual green choice is encapsulated in a linear system of consumption or what Annie Leonard, creator of The Story of Stuff, describes as the “Materials Economy.” Coupled with difficult personal decisions, knowing that one is adding only a little green droplet into a seemingly endless sea of unsustainability can deflate anyone’s motivation to do good.

Given the lack of success by government and industrial initiatives to generate change from the top-down, innovation seems more and more likely to come from the bottom-up. Recent interaction design movements like gamification might offer promising new avenues for developing systems that promote sustainable lifestyles, precisely because they tap into personal motivations beyond altruism.

That’s right, I said it, gamification. 2011 (and the latter half of 2010) is the year of adding game mechanics to just about everything. And I’m not the only one who believes so. Derek Chan, a second-year at the MFA Interaction Design program, is developing his thesis around game design. Seth Priebatsch started his company, Scvngr, which aims to “build the game layer on top of the world.” Jane McGonigal even postulates that gaming can save the world by creating scenarios that people play to ideate solutions to wicked problems.

The promise of these examples are their proposal of using gaming to activate motivations currently underutilized in traditional problem solving. Chris Fahey introduced fellow classmates and myself to Clay Shirky’s theory on cognitive surplus. Rather than creating games for inane activities like getting points for drinking more Coca-Cola, why not use games to motivate unused, individual brainpower to collectively save the planet? For example, city and state municipalities could use Scvngr to build games that work in concert with current e-government initiatives such as 311 or See-Click-Fix.

During my studies at the MFA Interaction Design program, I’ve learned that interaction design is, in part, about enabling the user to achieve a goal. Beyond improving efficiency, designing an experience that motivates individual/personal achievement for a greater good can be very powerful. We all know the doom and gloom consequences of living unsustainably all too well; it’s time we made saving the planet fun again.

David Bellona, Class of 2012

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