How We Play vs Who We Are

How We Play vs Who We Are


Growing up, like most kids I was an avid player. From video games to cops and robbers, cardboard forts (oh how I loved it when we bought new appliances!) and the occasional sport, play was an integral part of my childhood. As with most adults, play has become a much smaller part of my daily routine, confined to different activities such as socializing and travel. Though no less creative per se, this kind of adult play seems to use less of our core imagination than when we were children.

There is renewed interest in the power of play, with health and innovation researchers pointing to its value in improving our lives and corporate performance. Though often conflated with games, play is an integral element in Gamification that is used broadly to deliver the surprise, delight and creative expression that users seek. But a fundamental question about the nature of play – and a core tension in Gamification as a result – remains: are we the same people in play that we are in our “regular” lives? Put another way, can we predict people’s real-world behavior from the way they play, and vice versa? This kind of knowledge would be very useful for everyone from child psychologists to marketers as they look to discover both user preferences and predilections.Perhaps because our childhood play activities seem so unstructured compared to adulthood, few of us believe that play can be predictive. But there’s increasing interest in this concept, and a number of startups and scientists advancing the state of the art.

Playnomics is one such startup. Based in San Francisco, the company has developed an analytics platform that is able to deeply track engagement for users playing games. With a simple code snippet, the company can identify a wide range of player metrics on an individual and aggregate level, looking at everything from viral referrals to actions per hour. Playnomics’ system can apparently predict that a given consumer is likely to want to play a card game now, enabling highly relevant offers to be displayed. The company believes the technology can also be applied to Gamification, and their initial models suggest they can predict broader desires from how you play – divining that you might be in the market to buy a car or discuss your finances, based on certain in-game actions. While the concept may seem far fetched, Target achieved some notoriety just a few months ago for apparently predicting whether or not teenagers are pregnant based on their shopping behavior – so perhaps Playnomics’ vision isn’t that far fetched. While Playnomics aims to revolutionize analytics and offers in the Gamification economy, they’ll face stiff competition from entrenched competitors such as Badgeville and Bunchball who also offer full-range analytics as part of their Gamification platforms. The latter recently announced a personalization feature set that certainly seems to be walking down this path – we discussed it in greater detail here.


On the design and academic side, a debate is now emerging. Experts such as Richard Bartle, Nicole Lazzaro and Nir Eyal are just a few of the dynamic thinkers convening at GSummit in June to discuss the various aspects of this important question. Here’s a summary of their perspectives and insights that can be helpful in framing the discussion:

Richard Bartle, whose famous player types are used broadly by Gamification and game designers, is also among the greatest skeptics of their applicability outside MMOGs. His Achiever, Explorer, Socializer and Killer types have both been revised (for greater detail) and frequently derided for their oversimplification of drive in play. In the course of designing Gamified systems however, the Bartle player types are frequently used to help define the audience, segment it, and deliver non-game experiences that are meaningful. This approach seems to have been successful for many gamified sites and apps, so the question remains: if the Bartle types aren’t proxies for how people behave outside of games, why do they seem to work, and what other options do we have? Join us at GSummit and catch Richard’s talk to find out more.

Another leading thinker on the question of play-life overlap is Nicole Lazzaro, renowned game designer and researcher behind the seminal “Four Keys to Fun“. Nicole’s spent her career helping folks understand how to bring emotionality to games, and how to decode what’s fun to consumers of all ages. This understanding of what’s fun and emotionally rewarding seems like it should be translatable from games to real life, especially when consumers play games as their principal form of entertainment. But is that just a function of time, or do people that love “hard fun” (challenge and mastery in Lazzaro’s model) in games also love it in real life? And how can we use this knowledge to change behavior? Join Nicole’s session at GSummit to learn more about these motivations and how they apply to engaging design.

Nir Eyal – entrepreneur, advisor and author/blogger – brings the life/play question to a whole new level with his matrix for behavior change design. Whether he’s advocating for companies to create “crazed” consumers, or highlighting the differences between amateur and addict behaviors, Eyal believes the intersection of who we are and what the organization wants out of us, leads to the ideal recipe for driving outcomes. His work suggests that gameplay behaviors are the result of core drivers and system design – rather than a leading indicator. How does that jive with what we know, and what we think we know?

Bartle, Lazzaro and Eyal are just three of the voices in the discussion. Ultimately, anyone who designs for behavior change, whether focused on Gamification or not, has a vested interest in understanding the ways our play and “real” life intersect – if such a distinction is even meaningful. So other key thinkers, like Jon Radoff (author, designer and visionary creator of his own player typology), Jeff Ma (famous MIT blackjack expert and protagonist of Bringing Down the House), Nadya Direkova (Google UX and Game Designer), James Gardner (Author of Sidestep and Twist and expert on large organizational Gamification) and Andrea Kuszewski (researcher on the neuro-cognitive drivers for behavior) all have their perspectives. Throughout the conference and beyond, I’d expect this question to be top of mind for so many folks, as we work to discover not only how to change behavior, but how to understand it on a continuum of work, life and play.


Image (C) –  Frabuleuse


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