How to make culturally appropriate persuasive games

We can use our love of games for behaviour change and to explore serious issues. But how do we design these games effectively, and what are the ethics of serious games?

Research suggests games can be used for serious purposes and as a tool for positive change

Rilla Khaled has experimented with using persuasive games to help people with things like quitting smoking. (Pippin Barr)

Games are so much more than entertainment: they can teach us about empathy, allow us to role play and can help us change our behaviour.

Gamification, or turning real-life events into games, is an ever-growing field of technology, especially when it comes to using games for personal or political influence, often called "persuasive games."

These games often rely on what's called "persuasive technology," or tech that rewards you for designated behaviours.

"My Apple Watch is a persuasive technology in the sense that it will tell me every hour if I've been sitting down, it will give me a reminder and it will say… how about you stand up," said Rilla Khaled, an associate professor of design and computation arts at Concordia University.

"But what's funny, though, is that in the moment that's motivating, I will stand up. But if I think back about why I care about being fit, and healthy, I don't think about my watch as being part of that," she told Spark host Nora Young.

The NEO//QAB app invites participants to take on different roles in order to engage in a dialogue about niqabs. (

Khaled said that these sorts of gamification get us to do things we might not be motivated to do purely by their intrinsic value. "So for instance, this would be like, I go for a run, because I want to get the Apple Watch award. I can get this shiny medallion."

And while gamification often works if, say, your goal is to gain fitness, it presents ethical challenges in other arenas, like business, she said. "The role of the gamification in the workplace is to keep employees motivated, but to also compete with each other," she added. And whereas someone can always take their smartwatch off and walk away from the game, if it's instituted in your workplace, they have no choice but to compete, which can be problematic.

Khaled has used gamification in ways to help people understand cultural differences. She developed a game called "NEO//QAB" where players could change the appearance of a woman wearing a niqab into almost anything else.

Khaled said this allows individuals to feel the power of the state—in this case, using the laws in Quebec that prohibit wearing the niqab in certain public spaces, including public transit. "What I wanted with this experience was to satirize, but also mirror, the control that Quebec has over what women wear in the public sphere."

She acknowledged that this sort of gamification has its limits, in that they allow someone to be immersed in a behaviour. "But the problem if we're thinking about critical reflection and learning is that theorists have observed that what we need is distance. In order to be able to really change your mind about something, you need to take a bit of distance from a position, and you need to sort of be able to also observe yourself." And that's sometimes difficult in gamification, she said.

Khaled said she sees gamification as a mechanism to effect change, but is aware of its limits. "I'm ultimately interested in how we can use technology as a support, as a way to teach us how to do the things we want to do, and to not be the reason for the motivation."