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More addictive than drugs?!?

People scoff at the notion of game addiction, but there are documented cases of people dying from exhaustion playing games. Usually after hearing about such extreme addiction people will extend sympathy and look for treatments. But us "evil psychologists" might see an opportunity. How can we learn from games? This newsletter will help you improve your interface by looking at it like a game.

Toyota Prius
Toyota Prius

Why you should look at games

I've been trying to make excuses to look at games for years. Here are two arguments that might make sense to your boss.

1. Reciprocity
Games are something people appreciate. We'll talk later about the different types of Fun, but the point is that people value the experience. People pay to play. Why does that matter? Give someone something, and they feel a need to reciprocate. Make your user experience enjoyable, and the user will feel compelled to comply with your requests. This translates into conversion.

2. Investment
People voluntarily invest a lot of time and identity to games. It's common for serious gamers to play for hours on end, often building customized characters or otherwise associating their identity with the game. When people invest in something, they are compelled to like it due to cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance says that when someone invests in something, they'd feel stupid if that thing wasn't worth the investment. Since people don't want to feel stupid, they'll backwards rationalize that the thing was good, valuable, and worthy of their investment. Again, this translates into conversion.

Now that you know some of the value of looking at games, how do you get these payoffs? Let's look at how we can bring the selling power of games into the realm of e-commerce.

Toyota Prius

Situational awareness

Make a post on Facebook. You probably don't think about it, but your profile icon shows up just to the side. Other people will see that picture also, but why does it matter that you see it? Because that picture icon represents you. The lesson is that whenever possible, use avatars. The avatars don't even need to be a person's own picture. Think of the emotional impact when you're playing Mario Bros and Mario dies. You go, "Awww!" But how much do you look like Mario? Give the user an avatar and they'll feel a much stronger sense of situational awareness. And you get bonus points, because avatars let people invest their identity to leverage cognitive dissonance. As discussed above, cognitive dissonance is a process that results in people liking things they've invested in.

Go to a product page at and what's the first thing you look at? The picture. Why? It makes the object more real and immediate. If you're selling people a vacation package, give them a visual sense of the experience of that vacation. If you're selling people a financial package, then put the relevant information into a visual form with diagrams and charts. It's obvious that pictures matter, but they have to be used for a reason. One of the important reasons is this sense of situational awareness.

You say "control freak" like it's a bad thing

1. Flow
One of the most immersive experiences is what Csikszentmihalyi calls Flow. I'm going to talk about Flow from the games perspective, but check out last month's newsletter for more on Flow. The short story is that you get a feeling of control and efficacy when you match peoples' level of skill with the right level of challenge, and people have a strong desire for that feeling. Games are excellent at giving people that experience. Why? To answer that, we need to look closely at goals and feedback.

2. Goals
Goals need to be sequential. Imagine a side-scroller game like Mario Bros where all you do is fight the final boss. Fun game? The challenge needs to be experienced over time, which means laying it out sequentially. Do you want your user to fill out a long form of data? Break it up into a sequence of pages. This is also why it's good to break up text into short paragraphs or bulleted lists.

3. Feedback
Feedback seems easy, right? Well to start, it's surprisingly easy to forget to let the user know that their actions were successful. But there's more we can look at. Feedback is an opportunity to give people positive reinforcement. What happens when you finish a level in a game? Stars fly all over the screen! There's music and cheering! This drives people to want those goals again. Reinforce the actions you want people to take. Tell them they did a great job, give them a discount code for their next purchase, or show media that will emotionally stimulate them. Basically, give the research participant a food pellet, operant conditioning style.

4. Room for Error
What about failure? First, leave room for failure. Imagine playing a game with no extra lives, no life bar, and no save points. Maybe you get really good and can play for 3 hours without dying. But when an enemy finally gets you then you have to start all over. Seems bad, right? So let people make mistakes. And when they make mistakes, don't be too punishing. One of the most fascinating trends with games is that they're giving more and more room for failure, and focusing on that failure less and less. Games will frequently not have lives at all. Not because you die once and it's game over. Instead, it's because when you die you just start over from the last checkpoint. When users mess up by entering the wrong information or clicking the wrong button, try to give helpful guidance. No "fatal error" messages, please.

Toyota Prius
Toyota Prius

Do you really have to be so challenging?

Games have traditionally focused on challenge. Older games like Pac Man, Tetris, and Megaman are all purely about challenge. But look at successful modern games like World of Warcraft and you'll see some other types of fun.

Nicole Lazzaro's Four Fun Keys describes four different types of Fun: Hard Fun, Easy Fun, Serious Fun, and People Fun. Hard Fun is about challenge, which is what we've been talking about up until this point. Let's move beyond Hard Fun.

Easy Fun is about play without challenge. Usually Easy Fun is some form of exploration, which causes a sense of wonder and awe. Think of ways to let people explore. Check out for an example of Easy Fun in customization. My favorite example of this from games is the Nintendo DS game Electroplankton.

Serious Fun is about what you take away from the experience. In games, this usually means learning or exercise. So one way to take Serious Fun to an interface is to give people opportunities to learn. But you probably have Serious Fun easy. People are probably going to your interface to accomplish something. So if your user accomplishes their desired outcome then that's another way they get Serious Fun. You can heighten this feeling of accomplishment with some of the positive feedback discussed earlier.

People Fun is enjoyment of social experiences. There are a wide range of emotions resulting from People Fun, like envy, appreciation, resentment, love, etc. You can implement People Fun with chat rooms, forums, live chat customer service, Facebook, or any other social medium. And by the way, just slapping one of those "share" bars on every page does not do much to provide People Fun.

It's not enough to just pick one type of Fun. You should leverage multiple types of Fun. Nicole Lazzaro says that successful games have at least 3 of the 4 types of Fun. I'm going to give two quick examples, one from games and the other from e-commerce.

World of Warcraft has more than 11 million active subscriptions, each paying $15 a month.

  • Hard Fun: Quests and raids where you face challenge, leveling up your character along the way.
  • Easy Fun: A vast world to explore with scenic beautiful views, and it has a variety of modes of transportation you can use to just fly around and play.
  • Serious Fun: World of Warcraft doesn't have much Serious Fun, but you could add it if players could control their characters with an exercise device or learn about historical facts as they play.
  • People Fun: Opportunities to team up with other players and fight through dungeons, play against other players in special zones, and form large permanent groups called guilds. Notice that people playing World of Warcraft can seek out their chosen type of fun depending on their mood at the time.

I'm going to apply the same analysis to for illustration of a successful e-commerce site. What's it like to think about shopping as a game?

  • Hard Fun: The goal of gathering information is broken into sequential goals by breaking up the item descriptions into tight paragraphs with accompanying images. also lets users seek out more information about an item. They can also zoom in and see more images or click to see more technical details. This adds additional challenging goals to the sequence of shopping. And by making those goals optional, users can seek out an optimal level of challenge.
  • Easy Fun: Users can explore similar items, check out what pops up in the treasure chest, see recommendations from listmania, or bounce around the site in other various ways.
  • Serious Fun: Obviously, people will come away with whatever items they purchase. But they'll also often come away with more knowledge about the type of item in general or how to best use items. So there are multiple types of Serious Fun available.
  • People Fun: is known for their customer reviews. People get a sense of interpersonal interaction from those reviews. And you may have never clicked on it, but also provides discussion forums and communities.

Game over

I've given you some lenses to look at games. Here's an overall checklist:

  • Does the user have a sense of presence in the interface?
  • Are your goals clear, challenging, and surmountable?
  • Do you provide instant, gratifying feedback?
  • Do you leave room for failure?
  • Are there opportunities to explore and play?
  • Do people feel like they take something away from your interface?
  • Have you given people the opportunity to interact with other people?

Sometimes you get much more out of the principal of the lesson than the specific recommendation. Take a look at your interface with each of these questions and get creative. If you're looking for more reading, take a look at the book Funology by Blythe and his colleagues. Hope to hear from you in the comments!


Blythe M.A., Overbeeke K., Monk A.F., and Wright P.C., Eds. 2004. Funology: from Usability to Enjoyment. Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Cialdini, R.B. (2008). Influence: Science and Practice. (5th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Chiesa, M. (2004). Radical Behaviorism: The Philosophy and the Science.

Cooper, J. (2007). Cognitive dissonance: 50 years of a classic theory. London: Sage publications.

Ferster C.B., Skinner, B.F., and Cheney, C.D. (1997) Schedules of Reinforcement, (B. F. Skinner Reprint Series), Copley Publishing Group.

Isbister, K. and Schaffer, N. (2008). Game Usability: Advancing the Player Experience. Morgan Kaufman. St. Louis.

Lazzaro, N. 2004. Why We Play Games: Four Keys to More Emotion Without Story. Player Experience Research and Design for Mass Market Interactive Entertainment.

Message from the CEO, Dr. Eric Schaffer — The Pragmatic Ergonomist

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Reader comments

Jenny McDermott
Conklin Company

A long time ago I used the Lotus Office Suite. The Organizer had a feature everyone loved: when you deleted a file by dragging it to an icon of a wire wastebasket, the crumpled paper graphic representing the file burst into flame! That was immensely gratifying. It only lasted a few seconds and hence was not disruptive or too distracting. If we could apply that type of functioning to various user actions we might get the fun without inappropriate or irritating actions.

Atul Saraf

Thanks Noah, this is very interesting! I don't have a good example of use of gaming in a business application but since it's Friday a wild thought came to my mind. Why not change the way people interact with a regular timesheet application. I have never met a single person who ever wanted to fill this in without grumbling. But applying what you wrote about it has a serious opportunity for better compliance. As a timesheet user I would love to see where I stand among my colleagues in filling up the time sheet. What about a simple meter showing my compliance rating and star points accumulating every time I open my timesheet application. I could also get bonus points for adding comments on what did I do in vague categories like Administrative work. The simple fun could just be in the way we enter the data. Instead of asking users to type hours we can provide interesting ways to input the data. For example three clicks in a mine sweeper like row adds 3 hours against that project, or a slider control with your avatar building a wall, visually showing how much work you did within a project.


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