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The Identity Switch

In this article, game designer Sande Chen delves into the connection between a person's identity, emotions, and behavior change.

[This article originally appeared on Game Design Aspect under the topics of Social Impact Games.]

 

As I've written before, convincing someone to change one's beliefs or actions can be a very hard task.  Even when a person is confronted with the cold hard facts, that person may reject logic, especially when it impacts the person's identity and sense of self.  That's why studies show that persuasion may come easier with "moral reframing," in which causes are reframed or "spun" to appeal to that person's values.  When the person isn't feeling so threatened, then the person might consider the cause.

As Chip Heath & Dan Heath write in Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, there is an emotional component to motivating people's behavior.  Change happens not with the steps, ANALYZE-THINK-CHANGE, but more easily with SEE-FEEL-CHANGE.  That's why I have delving so much into emotional connection and empathy in my explorations of Designing Games For Impact.  For some behavior changes, the logic and argument for change is apparent, but there's an emotional block.  In these cases, more information on how to change or more data won't have any effect.  Inwardly, the person knows there's a very good reason to change, but still can't change the behavior.  Very often, the person is reluctant because the person's identity is wrapped up in the behavior.  Just how strong is the impact of identity?

The authors point to the well-known study, at least in our circles, of the efficacy of HopeLab's game Re-Mission. The intent of Re-Mission was to increase post-chemotherapy treatment compliance among teens.  After each level of shooting tumor cells in the game, players would receive educational "briefings" about cancer and recovery.  By playing through all 20 levels, the developers hoped teens would understand fully why they shouldn't falter in their treatment plans.
 

HopeLab at the Games For Change Festival 2013

 

Re-Mission did have its remarkable success and what was surprising that kids that played only 2 levels changed their behavior as much as kids who finished all 20 levels.  Perhaps those educational "briefings" weren't that important after all?  To puzzle out this mystery of behavior change, we should be looking at the identity switch that occurred in these teens.  Kids who have gone through chemotherapy don't want to be that "sick kid" who has to keep on taking medication.  Even though it was counterproductive, they didn't follow the treatment plan because they just wanted to be normal.  In Re-Mission, though, they got to play a superhero who was actively eradicating cancer.  The game empowered the teens and made them feel in control.

The next time you design a social impact game, think about the behavior change and how you want the player to feel.  Is it connected to the player's identity?  Is there an identity switch required for the person to activate that behavior change?  Sometimes, we don't need more factoids or logical arguments.  What we feel may be the biggest motivator of all.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

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