Can serious games encourage persistent behaviors?

Approximate Reading Time: 2 minutes
Image: Monument Valley

Image: Monument Valley

Studies on the use of reinforcement have shown that unpredictable reinforcement schedules lead to behavior changes that persist the longest.  Since games are driven by cycles of player actions and corresponding feedback, is it possible to provide unpredictable reinforcement in a serious game? Are there other ways a serious game might encourage lasting behavioral change?

The first part of the answer to this is, it depends. I think unpredictability in the game’s behavior can be good, but I would think unpredictable reinforcement is something you would have to design very carefully. I suspect Tetris would not be as much fun if the levels of blocks sometimes disappeared for no reason or if they occasionally failed to disappear when they were completed. I also think I’d be quite annoyed with a game that only gave me the points I had earned sometimes.

Unpredictability is different. Some games make use of unpredictability as part of what makes them fun.

One of the ways that “unpredictability” is implemented is through random actions – most card games start off by shuffling the deck, for instance. It is part of why gambling is so attractive to many people. In classic behavioral training, intermittent reinforcement elicits a far stronger reaction than if that reinforcement is guaranteed. Some degree of randomness can have a very strong positive effect. Too much and the player feels they have no control at all; too little and it can become too predictable and that can lead to boredom. Like so many other things in game design (and educational design too for that matter), it’s the Goldilocks Problem.

Henry Jenkins said “Games, like other media, are most powerful when they reinforce our existing beliefs, least effective when they challenge our values.” (Henry Jenkins, 2006) What that tells me is that we are fighting an uphill battle. That’s not to say we shouldn’t try, but I think it would be overly optimistic to think we can move mountains with a single game.

Henry Jenkins, I. (2006). The war between effects and meaning: Rethinking the video game violence debate. . In D. Buckingham & R. Willett (Eds.), Digital generations : children, young people, and new media (pp. 19-31). Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

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