Applying the ‘Hooked’ Model to ecology.
Last year, from 30 November to 11 December, governments convened in Paris for the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) to agree on a new global climate change agreement. At that time, ecology was a trendy topic in France for sure and many, environmental activists at first, hoped the conference would become a turning point, galvanizing both action and solidarity amongst all stakeholders — simultaneously helping to achieve the zero-carbon goal, while supporting efforts to adapt to the long-term impacts of climate change. But for most stakeholders, the event’s conclusion looked like an admission of defeat facing today’s environmental challenges. Yes, “saving the planet” is not easy task, or maybe…
“Or maybe”, because there’s this huge chasm between environmental activism’ efforts and the slowness of their advances on one side, and there’s this both incredibly efficient and surprisingly easy model of new-habits triggering that gamification embodies on the other side. Let me tell you a story to show you the power of gamification and how some simple tricks have been shown to achieve success where the COP21, years of environmental activism and politics have failed or so…
Level 1. The Zero Waste challenge
That’s not me in the picture. That’s Bea Johnson, today’s Zero Waste guru. For me, she’s to ecology what Michael Jackson is to pop music! Why? Because few months ago, I decided to jump into a challenge: the Zero Waste challenge. Basically, the idea can be summarized by “don’t use your garbage bins anymore”, replace it ONLY by a compost bin: no more plastic or whatever, only organic waste that will in the end be reused in a shared garden to grow vegetables. Wow… Not easy either right?
Well, actually, this was pretty easy, and more than that, it was fun! As a sociologist, I believe part of the pleasure I had jumping into this challenge was connected to its ability to re-enchant my “housewife condition”. By that, I’m not saying I’m a stay-at-home mom (I’m 25 and have a full-time job), I’m not saying either that this has to do with the fact that I’m a women (my husband is as happy as I am that we enrolled in the project!). All I’m saying is that, thanks to the Zero Waste challenge, doing the dishes or shopping for food seemed suddenly entertaining, engaging and rewarding.
Think about it for a minute: instead of doing the dishes because I had to, I did it with washing-up liquid I proudly did myself with eco-friendly ingredients in order to “save the planet”, and to play the Zero Waste challenge of course. Doesn’t it remind you of a game? There’s a goal of course, steps to progress from one level to another, for example the kitchen then the bathroom, obvious feedbacks (your trash bin becoming emptier and emptier weeks after weeks), and rewards, both material and symbolical. If you wish to evaluate the engaging potential of an experience, one great tool is Yu-Kai Chou’s octalysis framework, “octalysis” because it’s based on an 8 core-drives theory: meaning, accomplishment, ownership, scarcity, avoidance, unpredictably, social influence and empowerment, 8 significant levers for human motivation and engagement. If you use the octalysis to figure out why the Zero Waste challenge was kind of addictive, here is what you get:
So. In about 3 months, no more, I managed to reduce my waste by more than 80%, and that wasn’t because I’m a very moral person, neither because I was convinced in a sense by the COP21 or environmental activists talks. The key trigger was the fact that the Zero Waste challenge felt to me like some kind of game, like something both good and fun, like an addictive project. By that, I’m not saying that it would have had the same impact if the Zero Waste challenge was a “Let’s pollute more” challenge, but that the goal’s strength was part of a powerful motivational system more than just an ethic aim towards which we strive out of a sense of duty. By that, I’m saying that there’s a power of gamification as opposed to some kind of weakness of activism, political demand and protest.
Level 2. The art of manipulation
I know what some might think by reading last lines: gamification is powerful because it’s manipulative, proof of this is the fact that the Zero Waste challenge, as I “confessed”, felt addictive. Even Yu-Kai Chou himself admits there’s two sides in gamification as a science of motivation, one is called the “Black Hat” gamification, very addictive but short-termist because it’s making people feel bad about themselves, and the other called the “White Hat” gamification, less addictive but more strategic in the long term because it’s making people feel good about themselves. Moreover, greenwashing or environmental whitewashing means « donning the ecologists’ green garments », which has nothing to do with true and authentic environmental protection. McDonald green makeover of their fast food restaurants in France for example has left many people skeptical regarding the purpose of the manoeuvre: truly changing or fooling customers? That’s a rhetorical question…
But let’s try to answer the non-rhetorical question: would it be bad and not serious to make ecology game-like and addictive, and, as a philosophical question, was does freedom mean in an addictive experience? To answer the question, I would like you to meet someone: Carolyn, a figment of Thaler & Sustain’s imagination, the two authors of the hugely influential Bible of behavioral economics, Nudge.
“Carolyn is the director of food services for a large city school system. Hundreds of thousand of kids eat in their cafeterias everyday. One evening, over a good bottle of wine, she and her friend Adam, a statistically oriented management consultant who has worked with supermarket chains, hatched an interesting idea. Without changing any menus, they would run some experiments in her school to determine whether the way the food is displayed and arranged might influence the choices kids make. From his experience in designing the supermarket floor plans, Adam suspected that the results would be dramatic. He was right, simply by rearranging the cafeteria, Carolyn was able to increase or decrease the consumption of many food items by as much as 25%. Carolyn learned a big lesson: school children, like adults, can be greatly influenced by small changes in the context. Carolyn is what we will be calling a “choice architect”. Many people turn out to be choice architects, most without realizing it”.
So what’s sad isn’t that gamification, marketing or greenwashing are all arts of manipulation — or better would be to use the word “influence”; but that, even though everyone is a “choice architect”, only advertisers, marketers and politics are aware of their ability to influence and make an effective use of such a skill. So, what if we could influence people not to eat more hamburgers but to do good, and, even further, to do what they already want to do but don’t do by lack of confidence or because they’re not motivated enough to change?
Every mom damn know that you need to push your child just a little, to “nudge” him, so he would do something that he will finally love and be happy about: play an instrument, go to school, wake up in the morning, etc. Well, there’s no difference with adults, and that is what games and gamification in general are for, making something difficult and discouraging feel easy and fun. Like making fitness exercise at the gym club an opportunity to pick the sport coach up! Like choosing a great song to wake you up in the morning. Or like counting the number of white cars during a long car trip to the sea. Gamification systems are just more refined technics to create motivation. Conclusion: it’s more than okay trying to dig up some actionable core-drives in order to make eco-friendly habits more attractive, even though more addictive.
I promised you a philosophical part, that’s the one — if you’re not a huge fan of philosophy, I’ll see you directly at Level 3. If influence is everywhere, what about free choice? What does freedom mean in a conceptual model where the way you choose x over y is always influenced, nudged? What about rationality and someone’s ability to be free by consciously picking the best option?
I’ll start with an apparent paradox: games are both addictive and free, because you cannot force someone to play, without immediately removing and destroying the entertainment core part of the game. Where is the trick then? I believe the paradox only relies upon a false conception of free will and free choice as purely rational and upon the idea that freedom, as a transcendantal presupposition, can be reduced to the voluntary. As soon as one get that the voluntary is full of involuntary, that daily action and choices are made possible and efficient only thanks to “discernment savings” and “mental shortcuts”, that overthinking the whys and wherefores of an option is a sign of madness, not of rationality: then one understands how freedom can be in debt with the involuntary.
Thus said, what does “freedom” mean in such a conceptual system? I’m not trying to put you in a fearful malaise at the though of being daily involuntarily controlled. That’s precisely the problem: perhaps people who expect too much of freedom are led to contempt and despair. I think freedom has more to do with fulfillment, with one’s ability to achieve something without over-conscious effort, in a pure and effective gesture, like the smooth strokes of a marathoner; than it has to do with rationality and voluntary. From Tchouang Tseu in China to Paul Ricoeur in France and John Dewey in the US, many philosophers tried to grasp this “smooth experience of freedom” by describing it as…:
“The transition towards a superior regime, this moment when some kind of failover happens, when the work of conscience to artificially coordinate and control bodily movements suddenly leave room for a deeper “functioning of things”; by taking over, it relieves the conscience of most of its tasks and removes effort. In order to enjoy life, one must then learn how to give those mysterious forces free rain, because unconsciousness isn’t a possible source of error but the consequence of mastery” — Jean-François Billeter in Leçons sur Tchuang-Tseu, translated by me.
Level 3. The Green Gamification canvas
Now, let’s go back to ecology and gamification. Making the connection between those two terms is actually not very innovative: one of the most quoted case study in gamification talks or readings is Opower, an energy efficiency service allowing people to monitor their energy consumption and in the end reduce their electricity bill. Among all the implemented features, one turned out to be crucial for users commitment rate and, consequently, for the quantity of energy saved: the “you used x% less/more than your efficient neighbor” feature. More than just a virtual eco-hero, it’s a flesh and blood neighbor to which the user is asked to compare himself. Yes, social challenge is a powerful core-drive. But don’t be such a prude! That’s not only because people like to win, be the strongest and beat their neighbors, but also because comparison is sometimes the only condition to figure out where you stand. What Opower did was then nothing but adding a touch of gamification to the user experience: when reducing your electricity bill, you were actually enrolled in some video-game inspired car chases or heroes fight and, by that, had a greater understanding of your own situation by comparing yourself with others.
That’s what “green gamification” means: using the power of gamification to create eco-habits-forming experiences, products and services. As such, it’s not a critic of environmental activism and I don’t mean to be ungrateful towards those who fought in the past for today’s improvements. All I’m saying, is that the power of gamification can and should be used to “save the planet”, because it can often be way more efficient, faster and easier than education, politics or even morality combined.
“Fun is the easiest way to change people’s behavior for the better. Be it for yourself, for the environment, or for something entirely different, the only thing that matters is that it’s change for the better” — Fun Theory’s website.
Now, let’s get into the meat: how can you use the power of green gamification? This is where the “Hooked Model” is found to be deeply accurate. Nir Eyal is the man who came up with the theory and wrote a book about it, titled Hooked. How to create habit-forming products. I’m not gonna summarize it, it would be a bit long I guess, but here is an awesome less-than-5-minutes video summary.
According to Nir, what’s making us so “hooked” by Facebook news feed, our email inbox or IKEA’s products for example is the reward system. Wait. It doesn’t have to be a material or financial reward; actually, external and expected rewards, meaning rewards that doesn’t have to do with the pleasure you take at the experience itself, can sometimes backfire on users motivation. And here is one of the most famous scientific experiment that explains why. Psychologists Mark R. Lepper and David Greene from Stanford and the University of Michigan were interested in testing the “rewards as motivators” theory. They recruited fifty-one preschoolers aged between 3 and 4, split them in two groups, told the first one they would get a certificate with a gold seal and ribbon if they drew for 6 minutes and the second one just to have fun drawing for 6 minutes. After 6 minutes, the second group just continued to draw, because they actually liked it, whereas the first group, after receiving the expected reward, stopped drawing even though they were known as children who liked to draw as a hobby. Conclusion: expected rewards decreased the amount of spontaneous interest, because they turned an activity we usually like into some task we only accept to fulfill because of the reward. That’s why salary will never be the Alpha and the Omega of work engagement.
What the ‘Hooked Model’ is teaching us, is that reward isn’t a bunch of techniques or compensations, it’s a systemic experience that relies upon the core aspirations of human psyche: that’s why we call it internal reward. For Nir, there are 3 types of rewards. To draw the reflexion to a point and pave the way of “green gamification”, here they are and here is how we can adapt the list to build eco-habits-forming products and services :
- “The Reward of the Tribe”, meaning how one experience is making us feel accepted and included in a community. For green gamification purposes, I’ll talk about “The reward of the Kind”, meaning how one experience is making us feel connected and part of a greater whole, how some feedbacks are making the planet’s, specie’s and neighbor’s gratitude palpable and tangible.
- “The Reward of the Hunt”, meaning how, by staging levels, objectives and challenges, by using scarcity or popularity trigger, you’re able to create an adventure toward product ownership and the satisfaction of searching for it. For green gamification purposes, I’ll talk about “The Reward of the Grow”, meaning how, by sketching levels, objectives and challenges, by using transparency and accessibility, you make possible not only to access and own an object, but to be able to master its manufacturing process, how you’re able to create the satisfaction of making and growing things, of Do(ing)ItYourself.
- “The Reward of the Self”, meaning how one experience is giving you a sense of accomplishment and self-development, like when you just finished your To Do List and that you feel at ease, competent and pleased with yourself. For green gamification purposes, I’d suggest we talk about “The Reward of the Care”, to emphasize the fact that there’s no accomplishment without fulfillment, or to be more specific, the power of having accomplished something good for yourself is way stronger that the power of having accomplished what you just needed to accomplish.
Well that’s it for now. If you have questions about what I wrote or want to know more, please feel free to reach out via Twitter or email!
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