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Using an "In-Game Economy" in Your Learning Programs

behavioral science e-learning game design gamification motivation Feb 04, 2019

by Jonathan Peters, PhD
Chief Motivation Officer, Sententia Gamification

In-game economies are a common game mechanic in gamified learning programs; however, it is important to understand that people interact differently with economies based on their Motivation Profile. Without such an understanding, we risk unnecessarily stressing participants, and in some incidences, they may abandon our program.

Broadly defined, the game mechanic of economies involves some type of currency that is used to buy, sell, or trade inside the game. This currency can take different forms. At its simplest, a participant may use the points they’ve earned to “purchase” access to the next level. A more complex economy may involve an actual currency with which participants can purchase in-game items, such as weapons and adornments for their avatars.

For example, in my course, This Ain’t Your Grandma’s Grammar, I have dueling economies. The narrative for the program is Grandma loves grammar and also makes cookies. Throughout this instructor-led course, participants are rewarded cookies (not actual cookies, but chips that represent cookies) when they ask or answer questions, when their team beats other teams in challenges, and for different events throughout the day.

But grammar has changed since Grandma’s day. She used this thing called a typewriter (I know you’re too young to have ever seen one). In those days, when Grandma came to the end of sentence, she put two spaces after the period. Well, we no longer do that. So, when you choose to put one space after a period, you get one Boss Point. Boss Points are worth $1 extra an hour, or roughly $2,000 a year. Pretty cool, right?

Well, you’ve hurt Grandma’s feelings, so you lose five cookies.

So, throughout the day, you make decisions whether to please your boss or collect more cookies.

Now, using these economies as an example, let’s look at how differently motivated people interact with the game mechanic.

All of us have a core desire to collect, or what Dr. Stephen Reiss identified as the core desire of Savings. This desire is hard-wired into our survival mechanisms. For our ancient ancestors, storing food was a constant struggle. They couldn’t consume a whole buffalo in a single meal, and they didn’t know if they’d be able to kill another one before they were hungry again.

To survive the winter, they also needed to collect clothing and supplies. To hunt and cultivate, they needed to collect tools. And they experienced anxiety about losing what they owned to disasters like flood or conquest. The more they collected, the safer they felt. And their DNA was passed onto us.

Even the spendthrifts among us collect possessions. They may not adequately save for the future, but they have treasures of clothes that will last until they are out of style or they no longer fit. It could be said that a person who blows their money on meals and drink is collecting experiences. So, each of us has a desire for Saving, but the degree to which we collect and how we collect differs.

When it comes to the core desire for Savings, it is important to understand that collecting things like food, tools, and treasures has much more ancient history than IRAs. Besides the sense of security, we may feel knowing that we have enough money in retirement funds to live until we’re 100, there doesn’t appear to be neurotransmitter reward for putting money in a retirement fund. The most extreme hoarders often fail to save sufficiently for their futures. So, a person may have a strong desire for Savings may still be fiscally irresponsible. However, a person who does a good job at saving money for their future is probably highly motivated by Savings, especially as the size of their portfolio becomes large enough that small percentage increases represent a sizable jump (e.g. a 1% increase of $1m is $10,000 is large enough to excite even weak Savings folks).

Whether a person has a strong desire for Savings or a weak one, will determine how they interact with economies inside of gamified programs. Savers will want to collect. In the example of This Ain’t Your Grandma’s Grammar, they will enjoy collecting Grandma’s cookies. But the idea that a Boss Point results in the loss of five cookies is stressful. It doesn’t matter that they are now $2,000 richer (and they can afford to take Grandma to a restaurant and apologize), they are out five cookies. The cookies are tangible; the tokens are right there in front of them. It hurts to put them back into the jar. Therefore, they would rather continue to put two spaces after a period than give up the cookies.

My solution to this resistance was to change the language. Instead of losing five cookies, they were exchanging them to get a Boss Point. To represent Boss Points, I gave them a big disc. Now the Savings motivated folks can see and feel that they were ahead with a bigger disc instead of a few smaller tokens.

Weak Savings motivated people don’t mind losing cookies. In fact, their first question when they receive a cookie token is, “What can I buy with this?” They don’t value the stack in front of them. In fact, several times learners have bartered their cookies for real-world goods, in essence setting up an economy within the economy.

In this case, I let it happen because the side hustles made the program more enjoyable for the weak Savings folks, but if compliance with the game is important to you, you would want to add in-game purchases.

Which brings me to my final point: Self Hugging. We tend to create learning experiences that we enjoy, not necessarily what our learners enjoy. In this case, I am weak Savings. Collecting and saving don’t appeal to me (as my retirement accounts can attest). For me, losing Grandma cookies for Boss Points is fun. And since I’m also weak Honor, I’m less worried about hurting Grandma’s feelings. I can always buy her something with the extra money I’m earning (and not saving).

But my learner persona for this program is average to highly motivated by Savings. It was my responsibility to modify the narrative and program for them.

How are you using economies in your programs? What have you noticed about how people interact with the game mechanic differently? I’d love to hear your insights.

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