How social games can rewire our brains for the better

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We've all heard the scolds talking about how games like Grand Theft Auto will turn a whole generation of kids into amoral killers. But that same concept can be used to explain how some social games are rewiring our brains to make us better people.

Ayogo founder Michael Fergusson recently talked about that very idea in a Fast Company interview. As one of the guiding forces behind diabetes-prevention game Healthseeker, Fergusson knows that games can subtly influence our behavior. "We're not trying to do huge things like make smokers into non-smokers, or basketball fans into soccer fans," he said. "We're trying to motivate very small actions by giving very small rewards, and design those rewards to leverage what we understand about how our brains work."

Historically, our brains have rewarded us for using past experience (seeing a predator every ten minutes) to predict future rewards (anticipating when the predator will return). Fergusson said these and other insights into how our brains work can be used in game design to create "compulsion loops" to do things that are good for us. "The idea we were designing around is that instead of making the primary goal getting one person to do a thousand healthy things, we would focus instead on getting a thousand people to do one healthy thing," he said.

Fergusson even sees these concepts extending outside the gaming world and into the real world of government policy. "What if process of getting a healthy snack from a vending machine was more fun than for getting a chocolate bar?" he asked. "I know there's a lot of talk about taxing junk food to discourage consumption, especially by kids. I would love to see some thought put into making healthy food more enjoyable through play." Yum!
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