Changing the world through tailored interactive games

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

For Rita Orji, a computer scientist and Banting Postdoctoral Fellow at the David R. Cheriton School of Computer Science, her desire to help others crystallized when she saw firsthand how the HIV/AIDS pandemic was devastating communities in Africa.

“I grew up in Nigeria, and during that time many people believed that HIV/AIDS was a fallacy, that the disease didn’t exist,” she recounted. “Against this backdrop was the belief that contraceptive use was prohibited by faith. It was a battle between culture and religion colliding with the reality of many people dying from a preventable disease. It was then I realized I wanted to combine my training in computer science with my passion for helping people to change things for the better.”

photo of Rita Orji

Orji is leveraging the appeal and popularity of persuasive computer games to do just that.

Persuasive games, also called behavioural change systems, are interactive computer applications that are designed to motivate people to change their behaviour in ways that benefit them, their community or both. The innovative twist is that Orji and her colleagues at The Games Institute — Professors Chrysanne Di Marco at the School of Computer Science and Lennart Nacke in the Department of Drama and Speech Communication — have drawn from the literature on personality types to investigate how to design interactive systems that best motivate users.

“Personalizing behaviour change systems is key to sustaining motivation and behaviour change. A person’s personality type plays a major role in the persuasiveness of an interactive system and hence an important dimension for personalization,” she explained. “For example, a persuasive approach that works well for someone who’s extroverted and outgoing may demotivate a person who’s introverted and naturally more reserved.”

Orji and her colleagues consider such personality differences and couple them to the principal of social influence — using the persuasive power of other people — to tailor games that have the best chance of influencing behaviours in a desirable manner.

“In one of our studies, a participant highlighted that she needs a supportive and encouraging environment to do her best, to grow and to change. She said that competition drives people apart and demotivates her. But another person commented that competition energizes her and pushes her to do her best. The trick is to understand the user’s personality, then tailor the application by selecting the strategy that best matches the user’s type. The one-size-fits-all approach definitely isn’t the best,” she said

For those who prefer collaboration and cooperation to competition, providing a means for them to encourage each other is often the strongest motivator. “An interactive system can provide a means for them to work together or encourage each other to achieve their behaviour goals. For example, if I can see that you haven’t met your fitness goal today, I can encourage you to workout for 20 minutes or to take another 2,000 steps to reach your goal. I can also offer to work out with you. In that way, we can provide mutual encouragement to each other. The interesting part is that we don’t have to be in the same geographic location to collaborate.”

Others are driven by competition and the thrill of winning so a different approach is adopted by the interactive system. “If I see you have walked 9,000 steps and I have walked only 8,000, I may be motivated to walk more, especially if at 10,000 steps a person wins a virtual object — a trophy, for example. My goal is to win but the outcome is more exercise.”

For others still, comparison is the strongest motivator. “Interactive systems can provide an opportunity for people to see how they are doing relative to others like them. Seeing how you’re doing relative to others in your peer group — especially those who are more physically active or eat more healthily than you — can motivate you to exercise more or to eat fewer calories. It’s not so much a competition as a self-evaluation relative to others.”

Perhaps the most interesting feature of interactive systems is their ability to simulate so people can see the link between their behaviours and outcomes — in essence, to glimpse into the future to see how their choices affect them, their communities, and their environment.

“One of the problems with adopting healthy behaviours is that it’s difficult to see their micro impacts,” Orji explained. “Let’s say you took a 30-minute run after work, checked your weight at the end of the day and it hasn’t dropped. Or you had pizza and pop for lunch and checked your weight that evening and maybe it hasn’t increased. We have trouble visualizing the impact of these behaviours in the short term. Simulation provides a way for people to see cause-and-effect links over the longer term. If the system can show how changes in diet and exercise can affect an individual in six months, a year, five years or longer, it begins to click.”

Orji sees the potential of tailored interactive systems to change people’s behaviour all over the world but she acknowledges more work needs to be done.

“We have tailored interactive systems to personality type, but they could also be tailored to culture, to age, to gender and so on. Age provides an interesting example. When I was working on a healthy eating app I linked eating behaviour to development of disease. This link doesn’t always register with young people. For them it’s too far into the future to be relevant. But people over 40 see the connection between unhealthy eating and developing disease. Younger people are more attuned to their physical appearance, so that aspect might be the one the designer concentrates on.”

It is also important to consider the technological platform for delivering behaviour change systems. In many lower-income countries, smart phones are common so it makes sense to concentrate on designing effective mobile interfaces and applications, rather than applications designed for larger screens.

“In Africa, for example, almost everyone has a smart phone, so they wouldn’t need to buy another device. And young people love to play mobile games. This offers a great opportunity — to design something for devices that people already have and know how to use to change behaviour. My overarching goal is to build interactive systems that integrate seamlessly into people’s lives to make the world a better place.”

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