Mattias and I go way back; he even coordinated the EU project IPerG (integrated project on pervasive gaming) for six months while I was busy designing and staging Interference. Mattias has done his thesis in Economics at the Stockholm School of Economics, and I have been co-supervising the work since he started. Mattias has studied the persuasive effects of a range of pervasive games designed to spur awareness of electricity consumption. The games were developed at the Interactive Institute and Mattias’ role was to understand if the games managed to change people’s behaviour.
This is interesting work. Based on theories of dual process modelling and cognitive categorization, Mattias argues that the persuasive effect of pervasive games could be rather strong. The idea is that when you do something (such as switch off a lamp to conserve energy) you rationalize it to be consistent with your ‘cognitive heuristics’; your way of making rapid decisions without thinking too much about them. If it is not, you have to actively figure out how to describe what you did, and that will change your beliefs. You create new categories of actions and figure out new reasons for doing them. Even if the act originally was done to score points in a game, doing it may lead to changing your classifications and beliefs.
We know very little about if games have this type of persuasive effects. It is unlikely to be strong in computer games as you don’t do all that much – you sit in front of a computer and press buttons – and you must first re-interpret your actions as something else (such as switching off a lamp) before the aware thinking effect may kick in. But in pervasive games, most acts are done for real; you really DO switch off your kitchen lamp. This should make it more difficult to escape the persuasive effect.
So, did it work? Did Mattias find a persuasive effect? Mattias answers yes, but he brackets his answer. The effect was strongest for players that were positive towards energy saving from start and needed less persuasion. Some of the other participants didn’t really engage with the theme, but played the energy-saving games just to score points. What perhaps is most interesting is that Mattias also could document attitude changes also with the families of players, people who were not themselves playing the game but who got sucked into it second-hand as the task was to save energy in the household. The fact that the games were socially expanded created a secondary persuasive effect, a bit like passive smoking.
Mattias’ thesis is well-worth reading, even if the final part is a bit too heavy on statistical number acrobatics for my taste. There, Mattias tries to construct a theoretical model for the causes and effects of persuasion, which I do not completely trust. It is an interesting hypothesis, but at the very least it needs further verification.
A big congrats to Mattias! I am sure I will see more of your work in the future – not in the least since we are now in the process of applying for joint project funding.
Mattias’ thesis is called ‘pervasive persuasive games‘ and can be downloaded in full.