Cigarettes: A UX Perspective; or, What my addiction teaches me about the value of *real* gamification

It’s new year’s eve. A time for resolutions, often ones common to the point of banality: lose weight, get organized, balance a personal budget.

Mine fits right in: quit smoking.

As I had my cigarette this afternoon, I thought about why smoking still exists today, despite all the research and quitting options. Honestly the cognitive dissonance required to keep up this gross habit is staggering. I count myself as a reasonable human being. What keeps me at this? What makes all the quitting options so unattractive? Essentially: why are cigarettes so satisfying?

The answer came surprisingly quickly. Cigarettes are a perfect game.

A month or so ago I stumbled on Sebastian Deterding’s Google TechTalk “Getting Gamification Right” (slideshare//youtube). I had always essentially understood what gamification was, and always thought of it with the perjorative connotation that many associate with it: a meaningless buzzword that companies, particularly startups, use and employ to seem edgy.

Fundamentally though, for as long as I’ve thought that gamification was some silly hype, I’ve also known it to be a wildly useful tool- particularly when employed to engage users in educational activities. Right after school I entered the NYC Teaching Fellowship. Teaching middle school science at a miserably disorganized neighborhood K-8 school in Harlem, my number one classroom management strategy was games. My number one successful content introduction tool, content exploration tool, assessment tool? Also: games.

Geology Jeopardy. Biology Jeopardy. Genetics Jeopardy. The day I found a PowerPoint template for classroom Jeopardy was a day that changed my teaching career forever. Highly diverse classrooms where kids threw chairs and set my shirt on fire (true story), suddenly became classrooms full of students who desperately cared about the order of the Sun, moon, and Earth that would cause a lunar eclipse.

It’s a nice story. But not terribly surprising. While, sadly the use of games to engage students in learning is still relatively small (due to the immense effort required to design them correctly – more on that later), most experienced educators are well aware of their value.

And that brings me back to my original point about cigarettes. And why quitting them is so hard. In spite of all the potential biochemistry that states otherwise, I propose a somewhat controversial hypothesis:

The problem with quitting cigarettes is a problem of design.

In his talk, Deterding explains the three fundamental properties of a good game:

  1. Meaning: To be effective, gamified applications have to connect to something that is already meaningful to the user – or wrap themselves in a story that makes them meaningful.

  2. Mastery: The experience of being competent, of achieving something. It turns out this experience is at the core of what makes any good game fun and engaging.

  3. Automony: A free space to play in, and something to play with.

Cigarettes are a perfect game:

  1. Meaning is the trickiest part of this comparision because it is often very personal. It’s too bad it comes first, but let’s get it out of the way. Like any addiction, people often pair cigarettes with an emotion or a behavior. Cigarettes make you cool, cigarettes calm you down, cigarettes help you focus. You already want to be cool, you already need to calm down, you already want to focus. Cigarettes are well integrated into a myriad of cultural narratives that are ubiquitous to the human experience. Pick one, pick them all.
  2. Mastery is an obvious one. Cigarettes have a start and an end. Packs have a start and an end. You can watch your progress as you smoke, and as you finish a pack.
  3. Autonomy: You buy your cigarettes. You have a brand. You can hold a cigarette, you can smoke alongside another smoker, you can share a cigarette.

Meaning is where the theoretical potency of cigarette addiction comes in, and while quitting can mean you have to relinquish something that you had come to understand as part of yourself and your routine, it’s something that can be relatively easily swayed by reasonable arguments: like cost, and cancer. Basic quitting strategies like patches and pills can satisfy this with a few cognitive leaps.

Mastery and Autonomy are where everything breaks down. Smoking a cigarette gives one a sense of completion. Frustrated by a project you just can’t finish? A bugfix that just leads to more bugs? Smoke a cigarette to remember that you can get something done. Literally, like getting that cigarette done. Irritated by your lack of authority at work? Buy your cigarettes and take a break. They are yours and you can do what you want with them.

Mastery and Autonomy are addictive in a very practical way. They let you choose what you want to do, and then they let you feel satisfied by doing it. You can watch your progress and you can know when you’ve finished.  Cigarettes do this fantastically by getting all that done in a quick timeframe: it takes at most 10min to smoke a cigarette. In a world where projects and relationships and job applications are often caught up in a rolling un-ending cycle, you can smoke a cigarette and feel like you’re in control and are capable of accomplishing something.

This is why quitting smoking, or any ‘rewarding’ addiction is so unattractive: you replace immediate satisfaction with a longer term behavior that lacks a conclusion. Once a smoker, you never “quit” smoking. You have simply stopped and not yet started again. This is why all AA meetings start with “Hi my name is X, and I’m an alcoholic”, even for people who have been sober for years. As realistic and ultimately useful this is, it is not satisfying.

So where does this leave us? How can we move forward?

I have two suggestions:

Firstly, quitting methods need to employ the game-like properties that make their target addictions so attractive. Assuming that the meaning is personal (i.e. get healthier, save money, etc), these methods should focus on providing the quitter with the sense of completion and personal choice their addiction provided them. Nicotine patches should have progress bars; they should be customizable like temporary tattoos. Those are shallow suggestions, but I’d bank on them improving success rates, anyways.

Secondly, this gets a bit more complicated. We don’t want people standing in circles outside of bars watching their vintage-inspired “I Love Mom” nicotine tattoo progress-bars change color with time. We want them to stop needing to do that, wanting to do that. This is where even the most disciplined quitters get tripped up and things need to get a little metaphysical. Fundamentally, everyone needs to understand that addiction, just like a game, provides an other-worldly sense of accomplishment and freedom. Other-worldly because the world simply does not work like that. The world has no beginning and end; you can’t win the world. You can’t control everything. Making quitting methods like games helps people immediately substitute the more harmful behavior for a less harmful one, but the real harm is the inability to suppress the desire for satisfaction and finality in a world that doesn’t come in modular units and packs. Games indulge these desires, but that successful indulgence is predicated on their finality, which ultimately means that they’ll run out. Expansion packs, holiday levels, sequels are all ways the gaming industry has dealt with this. A regular fantasy factory to put it simply.

So we can gamify addiction quitting methods, but that doesn’t get us too far. Gamification, in its commonest sense, is a great tool to engage users, but it takes a lot of effort, and in order to work well, it needs to end. As a result, it’s decidedly not sustainable. People like it specifically for the reasons it is not sustainable. People will beat your game. Or they will play til they realize that they can’t win (e.g. Foursquare) and then they’ll quit and find a new one.

My real resolution this year was to develop sustainable behaviors, and I think this is a great introduction to what I’d like people to take away from this post. I’d like to make a plug at a new version of gamification, that I’d like to call ‘sustainable design’.

When I think about what sustainable design could be, I think of a few things that currently exist:

Some might argue that these are like the badge idea and weekly score resetting/averaging behind Foursquare. True. But there is one key difference. All of the products about require that you act or make something, something that has meaning in the real world.

We need to take real-world generated meaning, and build tools that provide that meaning with a conduit that enables efficient mastery and autonomy. The real-world is hard. Making it easy, and faster, can make it more engaging and fun.

In the end, all these things are are content development platforms. And we shouldn’t be all that surprised. The best SEO is good content. The best strategy is a rock solid content strategy. There is no supplement for good content. A gamified content development platform eases the entry effort, it gives you an object to share, it let’s you make progress right away, and see your progress over time. You can get better at it.

Products like Branch and Medium (if they’d goddamn open it up to the public) are starting to get at this idea now. A whole blog is too hard and too-timeconsuming; conversations and impact on Twitter are to hard to visualize. I’m interested to see where this could go in other verticals. Platforms that teach you how to code and then let you make meaningful, personal, shareable products in a scaffolded way are something I’m excited about and have my eye on (Codecademy, I’m looking at you!).

Anyways. Despite the number of points I only skimmed and arguments I didn’t elaborate, I’m going to end this now. 2013 will be a year with no cigarettes, and more sustainable games. Happy New Year, and good luck with your resolutions!

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