Limits and Potential of Fun for Social Change

Last week I wrote about how fun may be important for efforts to advance the sustainability movement.  In Fun Theory and the Ethics of Marketing I distinguished the ethical problems with brand marketing (exploitation of human motivation to drive consumerism) from the prospects for using motivational psychology to engage the populace in strategic efforts to shift dominant paradigms in society.

It strikes me that we’ll need to dig deeper into the various types of “fun” to see where their ethics lay and whether they have the potential to make a positive impact on the world.  Let’s do a bit of that now.

First, some issues with any Fun Theory that we’ll need to be wary of.

What are people being motivated to do?

This is a central question to be asked by anyone developing a fun-based strategy.  Are you attempting to make a simple and relatively painless change in their behavior?  Is it something they are currently able to do?  Perhaps your goal, as in the example we saw last week, is to get people to take the stairs instead of the escalator.  The experiment took place in Stockholm where the people observed tend to be fairly healthy and fit.  They could easily walk up or down a few stairs at little inconvenience to themselves.  Others may have a harder time making a shift like this.

A deeper consideration is whether the shift in behavior involves a person’s core identity.  Personal beliefs are not at stake in the selection of stairs versus escalator.  Yet, the decision to take mass transit instead of driving a car could well be about who a person thinks he is.  Efforts to motivate changes in lifestyle will involve understandings of personal identity.  Taking this one step further, imagine you were to try motivating people of one political party to vote for a candidate from their opposition.  Issues of identity and worldview would come into play and complicate matters considerably.

Does it last? What is the role of novelty?

The study conducted by Fun Theory showed that 66% more people took the stairs during their experiment.  This suggests that adding musical interaction (the stairs looked and sounded like piano keys) lead people to take the stairs when they would normally have taken the escalator.  This might happen for a few days, but what about over the longer term?

Many studies in early childhood development show that infants respond to novelty in their environments.  Over time, the repetition of a stimulus leads to “habituation” – a decrease in responses to a repeated stimulus.  In other words, we get bored if the same thing happens over and over again.  The same is true for adults.  Once the novelty wears off, we become less enthusiastic about engaging in an activity.

Any effort to use fun to promote behavioral change will have to take novelty into account.  One way to do this is to introduce challenges that make the activity more interesting.  This is what video game developers must do.  Sustained play won’t happen if the game fails to challenge (or is so hard that progress happens too slowly) – two different forms of habituation.

Where is the new behavior heading?

Having the goal of changing behavior to improve society means that people need to be motivated in a sustained manner over time and that behavioral alterations are cumulative – they build on each other and lead to a new “normal” way to act.  This goes well beyond individual behavior.  If we want people to participate in the creation of energy, for example, (such as installing solar panels on their homes or growing biodiesel crops), we’ll need more than “simple and painless behaviors.”  In fact, we’ll need to promote a fairly complex web of behaviors.

How does complexity emerge?  What does it take to get people to engage in complicated activities dramatically different from what they do today?  For one thing, they’ll need to recognize steps they can take now.  This means they need to understand where they are trying to get to.  Without a vision of the better world, their actions will lack any coherent plan that can be thought of as a course of action.

Another thing they’ll need is a belief that their “better world” addresses concerns they have now about their future.  Will they be able to pay the bills?  Will they be taken care of if they get sick?  Is their future inspiring and challenging or tedious and dull?

This is where story-telling becomes really important.  As advocates for a different way of doing things, it is our responsibility to tell the story about where we’re going and what we expect to happen when we get there.  Futuring – exploring a range of possible futures with thoughtfulness and rigor – is central to this kind of work.

Potential for Fun to Save the World

Limitations aside, there is considerable potential for pro-active engagement with large numbers of people toward a common goal.  This is what multi-player games do.  Efforts to use “alternative reality games” – such as World Without Oil – demonstrate that people, in the right circumstances, will explore significant shifts in their behavior as part of a special kind of scenario testing.  In the immersive world of an online video game, thousands of people explored together the possibilities for living in a world where oil production and distribution has dropped significantly.

What happens in alternative reality games?  It’s what theater experts call “suspension of disbelief.”  During a play, movie or story-based game people participate in the imagining of a fictional world.  They let their guard down, cease to be skeptical, and explore the mythical world for the fun of it.  If the game is well constructed, there are possibilities for immersive learning and collective problem-solving that lead to changes in the real world.

What about the ethics of this approach?  There’s a lot to be said that I won’t go into for the sake of brevity (this blog post is getting pretty long).  A major consideration is the frame we operate in.  The problem I have with The Fun Theory is that their cool video has a stated goal of learning how fun can change behavior, accompanied by an unstated goal of creating positive brand associations with Volkswagen.  The dominant frame is one of brand marketing for the benefit of a company in its social “brand space.”

Instead, think about what it would be like if  fun were applied with the goal of addressing major challenges confronting humanity.  In this context, the dominant frame is one of collective problem-solving.  Such a shift in context leads to very different ethical concerns.  No longer about the motives of a company (Volkswagen may be attempting to advance social causes, yet their motives remain uninspected so we don’t know)… the emphasis is on the “game designers” and their objectives.  Are these game designers actually promoting social good?  Will their efforts lead to a broadly understood better world?  Do their games lead to solutions in the real world to our political and cultural challenges?  And, of course, do people actually change their behaviors in a manner that promotes a sustainable and just world?

What do you think?  How can fun be used effectively (and with ethical integrity) to help people think and act differently?  What other promising aspects of this approach do you see?  Other limitations?

Let’s talk about this.

Update – October 20, 2009

This TED Talk with Stuart Brown explores the vital role of play in human development and flourishing.


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Cognitive Policy Works specializes in providing organizations and individuals with frame analysis, policy briefs, strategic advising, and training.