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Motivating with Games at UWaterloo

Diane at work

At the Games Institute at the University of Waterloo, we understand that games can be used to motivate players to part-take in real world (aka non-game) activities.

Games motivate by providing three things: the sensation of being and becoming competent in a skill, the feeling of being in control, and by providing social contact.

The interesting thing about games is that all this can be an illusion. For example, we often aren’t really in control in a game, we must play out a predefined story.  The skills we build in a game, like our monster-slaying or fireball-shooting abilities, often aren’t relevant to our skills we need in daily life. Also, the social contact we obtain might not be with other humans, but with in-game characters. By taking advantage of these illusions, we can use games to motivate people to both play our games and participate in out of game activities. In my past work, I looked at how games can make people feel more motivated by comparing the same game played on a touch screen monitor and with a mouse. 

Diane Watson is a PhD Candidate in Computer Science. She is the holder of the NSERC Alexander Graham Bell Post Graduate Scholarship.

We had participants play a simple shooting gallery style game very similar to Duck Hunt, where one clicked with the mouse (or tapped with a finger) on animal targets that popped up for points. We found that participants that played using their fingers felt more competent, in control and socially connected than players that played with the mouse. This is interesting because it partially explains why people like playing games on their mobile phones or tablets; something about touching the screen is intrinsically motivating.

Picture of DianeAt the University, my research has led me to create a game, called Reading Garden, which motivates undergraduate students to read the textbook that is assigned with their course. In the game, players grow and harvest flowers. The game has social features where players can visit and water other players’ gardens. Like many casual games, there is a special currency, which unlocks advanced gameplay mechanics, such as levelling up faster. To earn this currency, players must complete reading challenges related directly to assigned course readings from the textbook. This game has been now deployed in several courses in two different departments (Management Sciences and Systems Design Engineering) at the University of Waterloo; results show that the social play in the game is useful in motivating real-world textbook reading.  Student adoption of the game is positive, with most of the classes playing the game. One class in particular, had students ask that they can play the game twice to review game content. Furthermore, those that played a lot (over 100 hours) did not see any negative effects on their marks. In other words, the game was used by students as a study tool, but did not seem to be a distracter from other study methods.

In the future, I will be looking at other ways that games motivate. For example, games often involve creativity in how the story plays out (for example, Bioware games like Mass Effect) or over the world itself (for example, sandbox style games like Minecraft). I wish to explore how creativity can be used by games as a motivator of positive out-of-game behaviours, such as stress relief and coping.

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