With games like Farmvile, Mafia Wars and Cityville, Zynga has helped expand the traditional game market and captured an absurd number of monthly active users in the process.  In December 2011, Cityville had 48.8 million monthly active users.  By comparison, in 2009 the console market in total was at 32.9 million.  In just the last three years, the number of ‘gamers’ in the US has tripled from 56 to 135 million.  With the continued proliferation of game options and platforms, there is no reason to believe this number won’t continue to grow as games wind their way more and more into our daily lives and routines.

Within this vast, diverse market, competition is growing increasingly fierce. Only a relatively short while ago, there was only a handful of facebook games.  Now, they multiply like fruit flies in a banana bowl.  In this fiercely competitive market, it is important to clearly identify not only who a video game is targeting (ie., market segment) but how a target market will interact with a game.

The benchmark for evaluating the market competitiveness of a video game is, broadly, fun. That is, the general objective is to achieve a game that people can’t put down.  If it keeps you engrossed until four a.m. and then you spend the next sleepy day at work or school anticipating getting back to the game and tackling the next level, it is likely to be a success.  A good video game is a lot like a good book you can’t put down.  But as games expand into ever-new market segments, increasingly for non-entertainment purposes such as education, a game you can’t put down may not always be the best marker of success.  By analogy, some games may be more like a newspaper, something you spend a little time with every day.  Other games may be like textbooks, something that’s good for you but that you’ll happily put down at the first opportunity.  And, even, some games may be like instructions and manuals, something that help you accomplish a task but not themselves intrinsically rewarding.

There will always be a place for games that engage players through temporary obsession.  Increasingly, though, the question might be how to engage players consistently across a sustained period of time.  This challenge is particularly pressing in games targeting players that may not be motivated to play in the first place, such as might occur in educational games.

The most common solution to questions of motivation is, not surprisingly, to focus on making games fun.  Indeed, that is one of the primary mantras of serious games: because games are fun, people will engage in activities they might otherwise avoid, like learning algebra.  The difficulty is that fun is in the eye of the amused.  What is fun for Bobby may be deathly dull and tedious for Susie.  As a consequence, using ‘fun’ as a guiding principle in designing games may introduce subjectivity where ‘fun’ is a slippery, shifting target.

Though clearly no game will be fun for everyone, I would argue that there are principles by which games engage players and that fun is a consequence rather than a cause of motivational engagement.  That is, rather than taking fun at face value and viewing it as a motivator . . . and designing games around someone’s subjective idea of fun. . . we might ask how games engage people’s motivational systems and how fun arises from this engagement.  From this perspective, instead of debating what is and is not fun, we might ask what does and does not engage people and how.

For a bit I’m going to focus on a different aspect of motivation.  Rather than looking at a game in isolation and asking ‘why would a person play this game,’ I am going to ask how a game comes to have a place in a person’s life and routine.   That is, out of all the competing activities a person can do from dawn to dusk, how does a game come to get their attention, effort and time?  Setting aside the goal of obsessive, all-night gameplay, I will argue that sustained engagement with a game requires transforming the game into a habit within an individual’s motivational structure.  In the next post, I will talk about ‘habit systems’ in the brain and their relationship to motivational structures.  Following that, I will identify principles of habit induction and argue that these principles may be useful to the design of many games, especially non-traditional ‘serious games.’

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