Q&A: Debra Lieberman, Director, Center for Digital Games Research, University of California-Santa Barbara

Q&A with Debra Lieberman, Director, Center for Digital Games Research, University of California-Santa Barbara

Debra Lieberman, Ph.D., holds an Ed.M. from the Harvard Graduate School of Education where she worked with Sesame Street researchers and producers to develop educational programs. She holds a Ph.D. in communication research from Stanford University and currently is a media researcher at the University of California-Santa Barbara, where her research focuses on processes of motivation, learning and behavior change with digital media and games.

NEFE: What makes an effective game or gamified experience versus just putting bells and whistles—such as badges, point systems and leaderboards—on existing content?

DL:Gamification is typically taking something that is not a game and adding those external rewards you just mentioned. If people are engaged in an activity already and you want to spice it up, you can add gamification. However, sometimes people get resentful if they feel like they’re being manipulated to do something they don’t want to do. No matter what the task, when you’re teaching people, developing their skills or supporting behavior change, it’s a good idea to tap into their intrinsic, internal, current motivations. What are their aspirations? What are their goals? What pleases them? How do they like to interact? Gamification often ignores that and instead uses extrinsic rewards such as the point or the badge or the leaderboard. That doesn’t last very long. People get bored with it. Not only may they resent being led by the nose with points, they may actually resist doing what they’ve been asked to do, according to some studies. However I’ve seen it done well when people already have intrinsic motivations and gamification adds another interesting layer. For example, in employee wellness programs where people say ‘Yeah, during my lunch break, I do want to walk’; they already feel good about walking and then gamification adds the fun of who’s up on the leaderboard and how many points they earned—It adds enjoyment, and that’s great.

NEFE: What are the some of the guiding principles for creating games that aim to enhance learning and change behaviors?

DL: In the health field, and I bet this is true with finances as well, knowledge does not predict behavior change. We all know what we’re supposed to do with our money and with our health, but sometimes it’s hard to do it. To improve behavior, a game can help develop a sense of self-efficacy—or self-confidence—by giving players a hands-on, learning-by doing experience where they get better and better at making decisions and allocating resources. This can enhance their sense of self-efficacy for carrying out those same behaviors in their own lives.

NEFE: What are some other ways that might help break down barriers to behavior change?

DL: Another big area is risk perception. Humans are very good at being in denial about their level of risk, what they’re susceptible to and how severe the outcome may be. A game can drive that home. If you don’t save for retirement, a game can show you what may happen in the future. Or if you don’t watch your weight, a game can show you what your heart might look like in 20 years. It can cause some people to stop being in denial. At the same time it can give them a chance to rehearse skills and decision making that will improve their ability to deal with that risk. Furthermore, games are often story-based and stories can tell us about risk. Characters provide role modeling. When players see what happens to game characters who are at risk, they may start feeling that this could happen to them too. They realize that they’re susceptible to the same consequences and that these consequences can be severe.

NEFE: And once the game helps raise awareness of that risk, then what?

DL: A game can help by addressing two kinds of efficacy. One is self-efficacy—the belief that I can do what I need to do to handle this—and response efficacy, which is the sense that the recommended solution is really going to work for me. For example, if people are afraid to invest in the stock market because they don’t believe their money is safe there, then anything else you’re trying to do to encourage them to save for retirement by investing in stocks will go by the wayside. To address this, you might make an entire game all about the response efficacy of investing in the stock market—which approaches are relatively safe and likely to be lucrative, and which ones are less secure. The game can show people what’s going on in the market now and project to the future, under various circumstances that affect market performance. You can also demonstrate response efficacy in a health game for various health behaviors and treatments, such as the benefits of healthy lifestyle habits or of taking medications. Someone may think, ‘All these healthy habits and prescribed maintenance medications ever do is keep me feeling the same, so why am I doing this? I have to work so hard and pay so much money and yet I don’t feel any different,’ without realizing that, ‘Hey, if I don’t do this, I’m going to start feeling worse and worse.’ And that way of thinking may also happen with saving for retirement. A game experience can help them see that the response—healthy habits, taking medications, saving for the future—is efficacious because it helps prevent future problems.

NEFE: Are there any best practices for how to reach different audiences with games?

DL: In addition to designing a game especially for a target age group, gender, income level, culture and so on, it’s a good idea to divide your audience into two important groups. One group already cares about the topic, such as personal finances, so they’re already involved. They see a cool game about managing personal finances and they want play it to learn more. But then there’s another group that hasn’t even thought about their finances or maybe resents being told that they should care about this topic. You need to think about how you’re going to approach them. For them, you might want to start with games that have just one goal—to get them to care about that topic. It’s too soon to take them through the whole process of saving for retirement: It’s overwhelming and they may not think they need to learn about it. If you look at advertising, many ads try to grab the uninvolved person. They use vividness; they use sex; they use shock; and also loud music, celebrity endorsements, anything that will grab attention. The ads attract our attention not because we’re interested in the subject matter, but because there’s something intriguing about the production and the presentation. Maybe all the advertiser wants from an ad like this is brand awareness or for the person to remember one thing about the product. And that may be an approach to use in media and games aimed at your financially uninvolved folks, who you may care about more than the involved folks who are already seeking financial information and planning ahead.

NEFE: Games are one part of the educational process, but that one-to-one human touch can also complement what you learn in a game.

DL: Absolutely. Games can extend the learning that happens face-to-face. Another important point is that many people love to play games and if you can make a game that’s so much fun that they want to play it during leisure time, you are reaching them with financial messages outside of formal learning situations where they have to participate. A game played during free time is all gravy—it supplements whatever education or counseling you might be delivering in a structured formal setting. I doubt that people would look at a financial pamphlet as avidly or for as long as they would play a financial game during their leisure time. A great game offers a real opportunity to enhance their learning in a way that does not take time away from the formal education you want to provide.

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Contacts

  • Paul Golden

    Media Relations Director

    Direct: 303-224-3514
    Cell: 303-918-3620
    [email protected]

  • Patricia (Pat) Seaman

    Senior Director of Marketing and Communications

    Direct: 303-224-3538
    [email protected]