Behavior-Change Gaming – An interview with Michael Kim, CEO

As part of MP’s coverage of last March’s GDC conference, I discussed a few interesting sessions on the growing application of games, game mechanics, and player psychology to behavior change projects and interventions.  One such session included a wonderful presentation by Michael Kim, CEO/founder of Kairos Labs and found/organizer of Habit Design.   I recently followed-up with Michael, to hear more about  his current work in behavior-change gaming and to dive deeper into some of the ideas and research mentioned in his GDC presentation.

Jim Cummings (JC): Would you mind telling us a bit about your background [Microsoft and even earlier if appropriate]?.  How did you come to find yourself working at the intersection of games and behavior change?

Michael Kim (MK): I arrived at this interesting nexus of behavior-change, captology (or "persuasive technologies"), and gaming when my personal and professional influences collided. We have a lot of social scientists in my family; My dad is a Sociology professor (Stanford's Dr. Marc Granovetter was his thesis advisor), my wife's a Ph.D. research & clinical Psychologist, and I studied social computing at Yale & Harvard. I decided discontinue my Ph.D track when I was the first product manager recruited by Microsoft's Chief Strategy & Research Officer for their new Advanced Technologies Group, an internal venture incubator working closely with Microsoft Research.

It was the very beginning of the commercial Internet, and Microsoft was in a fierce innovation battle against Netscape, SUN, Oracle, RealNetworks, and just about everyone. We launched about a dozen new ventures in just a few years, like Internet Explorer, eCommerce, BizTalk, Interactive TV, Windows Media, MSN Messenger, Mobile & Voice services, Passport, .NET Web services (a precursor to iCloud and the Facebook platform) and many others. Those experiences basically taught me alot about the critical importance of design, platforms, and mobile. A common thread through each of these was inventing new ways for people to collaborate.  At the end of my tour at Microsoft, I was invited by the company's CPO to design and lead innovation planning for their New Consumer Products Group, which was part of the XBox/Entertainment & Devices division. Some of our projects included an early collaboration with Nike, MIT Media Lab, and Intel Research on a mobile Wellness device (think precursor to Basis), Surface (now called “PixelSense”, the multi-touch, gesture-based collaborative computing platform which merges the physical and virtual worlds), a mobile location-based XBox LIVE avatar game (think "Foursquare-meets-Tamagochi"), and precursors to what are today PInterest and Khan Academy. My introduction to "gamification" came when we incubated and launched XBox LIVE Marketplace starting from ground zero to now the world's largest gamification social network reaching over 40 Million players and $600 Million. Finally, when I began to get involved in KINECT exer-gaming, Facebook social games, and mobile apps, I thought that all the right technology pieces might now be in place to produce new kinds of real-world collaborative experiences that leveraged the Internet but made your real-world interactions better.

Around this same time, my wife’s clinical practice was starting to get excited about the results clients were seeing from some simple daily behavioral techniques based on review of recent academic studies and the work of Dr. BJ Fogg, Dr. Martin Seligman, Leo Babauta, and others. Many clients were able to master new behaviors that persisted beyond 100 days. We wondered, "Is there an app for that?" but were surprised there weren’t any, and so after meeting with BJ and Marty I became convinced the time was ripe for a new gaming genre for what I’ve coined "Behavior-Change Games", which are games (as opposed to gamification) which apply cognitive-behavioral techniques towards self-development. We formed Kairos Labs and announced the genre last year at the Game Developers Conference with BJ, Nike+, Jane McGonigal, Zamzee, and others which marked a kind of official big-bang moment for those of us in this sub-genre.

JC: Can you tell us a bit more about Kairos Labs - it's mission, it's projects, and what core ideas (whether sourced from academic studies or elsewhere) guide the work you do?  What kind of range of behavioral domains do your projects try to tackle?

 MK: "Kairos" in Ancient Greek means "the optimal moment when your effort converts to achievement." We’re seeing increasing evidence that your Wellbeing, Health, Mindfulness, Self-Efficacy, even Self-Concept  is a lagging indicator of how frequently you experience Kairos in your life. “Do first, and the feeling or belief comes later” in a way.

Our mission at Kairos Labs is pretty simple: "We build Behavior-Change Games to live better." We were selected this Summer among the top 1% of finalists for YCombinator's S2012 cohort, out of almost 10,000 applicants. Our first project currently in private beta is "Habitual", the first smartphone-based, massively-multiplayer social gaming network for teams to master the force of habit together. Our team is rather unique in that our prior experiences include working on successful smartphone, social gaming, and Cognitive-Behavioral projects with Zynga, Weight Watchers, XBox LIVE, Twitter, Facebook, Amazon, Starcraft II, eBay, Flickr, Ning, Yale Psychology, and University of Washington Psychology. We also seem to be unique in that we have actively practicing clinically-trained psychologists on the team who have applied the methods we’re developing.

Our influences come from many quarters, but especially from the works of Drs. BJ Fogg, Martin Seligman, Charles Duhigg, Leo Babauta, Karen Pryor; fellow game developers such as Raph Koster, Jesse Schell; many neuroscientists exploring on the role of the unconscious mind; and others. There are too many academic studies that have influenced our thinking along the way to reference here, but even if I did the fact that a minority of peer-reviewed studies have been found to have replicable findings is cause to not put too much faith simply in academic studies. Applied research can be more important, and we've had hands-on experience testing these methods directly with users in clinical contexts, which as I mentioned above is an invaluable ingredient for understanding how Behavior-Change Games can work.

JC: Gamification is often construed as a big tent encompassing anything the applies game mechanics to real world behavior.  Yet, you refreshingly note a clear distinction between behavior-change games and gamification.  Can you expand a bit more on that distinction?  (e.g., defining characteristics of each at a conceptual level, overlap or distinction between respective domains/audiences/applications, how "gamification" clients might differ from those of Kairos, etc.).

MK: I actually consider "gamification" to be the inverse: just one of several sub-entities within a larger universe some of us simply call "Playful" or "Gameful experiences". "Serious Games", "Alternative reality games (ARGs)", and "Games for Change" are subsets as well in this universe. I won't belabor the passionate debate which has been well-articulated by many others regarding "gamification" itself (if you're interested, I think Sebastian Deterding is a good place to start as is last Fall's intense reaction to O'Reilly's publication of "Gamification by Design"); some of these are well-founded critiques (e.g., see also Alfie Kohn's "Punished by Rewards", Dan & Chip Heath's "Switch", and Dan Pink's "Drive" as good basic reading for beginners to start).

To oversimplify, I consider "gamification" today primarily as an approach created by, and for, loyalty marketers to present extrinsic motivations for conducting certain non-native intrinsic behaviors, usually in the service of some business-related metric, e.g., clicking on parts of a website or becoming more engaged with a program's content. I'm not an apologist for gamification, but the fact that it does work in certain commercial and educational contexts shouldn't be seen as a threat to the Art of Game Design. True gaming industry professionals aren't terribly concerned by this and understand that, like any art or craft, you just can't "add water" to anything to make it into a successful game. Angry Birds after all took something like 50 iterations before it became what we know of today as "Angry Birds". Art itself is an act of remixing and gamification is simply one sector's remixing of game mechanics and techniques. It's a bit like asking whether Picasso was concerned about the integrity of Art when Paint-by-Numbers was introduced. :-)

"Behavior-Change Gaming" differs from gamification primarily along a few key lines:

1) It's primarily about amplifying or enhancing a player's native, intrinsic motivation(s) within the specific context of a designed sequence of experiences. You already start with the intrinsic motivation, rather than hope you end up deriving it through the brute force of behavioral instrumentation. The game mechanics and techniques serve to ultimately train and improve the player's native intrinsic motivation. "Help people do what they are already motivated to do", as one behavioral psychologist would put it.

2) Since many (if not all?) of these intrinsic motivations come from our desire to improve ourselves or our Wellbeing, these games tend to focus on self-development behaviors in, for example, exercise, diet, stress management, and psychosocial support. Being in Behavior-Change Gaming then requires deep applied background and expertise in how to effect successful personal behavior change and resiliency at an individual and group level, e.g., through experience in applied counseling, training/coaching, etc.

3) There are many different kinds of behaviors, but we think Behavior-Change Games are best suited for what Prof. BJ Fogg references in his "Behavior Grid" as "Path" behaviors, those that last indefinitely or become "habits", certainly beyond 30 days at minimum. Most startups in the QS, corporate Wellness, and mobile health spaces are focusing more on "Dot" or "Span" behaviors which is fine (e.g., "Fill out this employee health assessment survey once", "Join your co-workers in the July health challenge", "Try eating Kale for lunch once this month", etc.), but the complex art of game design can be best put to use for architecting sequences of sustainable behavior change, what we've coined "Habit Design (TM)", which is also the name of our ecosystem of 400+ affiliated companies and organizations, many of whom are beginning to explore game-based approaches.

4) From a delivery and behavioral training standpoint, the smartphone is the ideal captology platform for Behavior-Change Games. It seems obvious now, but according to one U.S. study last year of casual gamers, smartphones now exceed the video game console as the #1 preferred gaming platform among casual gamers, coming from almost zero just 2 years ago. And, 72% of these casual gamers indicated they wanted to see more games applied towards personal Wellbeing and healthcare. As I experienced with XBox LIVE and KINECT, as the smartphone platforms mature I think we'll see even more APIs and amazing scenarios for Behavior-Change Gaming developers to take advantage of, but they'll need a deep background and experience in native smartphone development, design, and user testing to do so.

JC:  What do you forecast as being the role of games in behavior change technology and interventions five years out from now?  Are there any current trends you think may further play out between now and then?  Do you foresee any particular growing pains that the shared community of theorists, consultants, and designers will have dealt with by then?

 MK: I think we can expect 4 primary trends in this area. The first is what I call "going beyond 'pretending'." I'm a firm believer that for Captology and Behavior-Change Games to succeed in bringing about sustainable behavior-change they must "embrace & extend" (to borrow Microsoft's old competitive mantra) existing human motivations, needs, and desires rather than expect that we will artificially adopt new artificial motivations, no matter how creatively they are presented. For instance, the current "Life as an ARG (alternative reality game)" meme and its many derivatives (e.g., the "Mission Impossible... for Health!" genre) attempts to reframe our comparatively mundane everyday reality into more like theater (humorous example here). While this might be temporarily amusing, it's appeal quickly fades since this isn't a natural human desire (unless you're Walter Mitty or Neil Patrick Harris, who has a humorous performance on the subject here). This is very tough: from a game design standpoint, in large part this is a challenge of crafting the ideal digital context in which to represent your behavior-change change experience. In the gaming world, we traditionally have turned to avatars for this; Many health gamification sites have portrayed avatars as trees, animals, flowers, even whole villages, but none of these make a meaningful emotional impact that drives sustainable behavior-change, I think. At the end of the day, the proof will need to be in the pudding: display, in a way I can emotionally connect to, how the game changed my life for the better.

A second trend may be the re-acceptance of Behavioral Conditioning, as this Atlantic article discussed last month. As one of the few companies that actually has tested Behavior-Change Gaming methods in a real-world clinical context and works with practicing, clinically-trained therapists, I'm constantly shocked by how poorly informed the industry and general public is on the role of Behaviorism in our everyday lives and modern psychology. Technologists for some reason love to focus on the "Cognitive" aspects of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (e.g., "cognitive reframing" of your current psychological challenges into a more positive, constructive framework) but they conveniently overlook or denigrate the "Behavioral".  I think smartphones have been playing and will continue to play an increasingly important role in this (again, as the Atlantic article outlines).  This means focusing on the more mundane, core mechanics of training rather than the motivational “rah-rah”emotional appeals of many self-help approaches. There’s a great saying, “You never rise to the occasion, you fall to your level of training.” Ask any teacher, coach, or parent and they’ll understand immediately.

The third potential trend is the growing influence of simplicity, mindfulness, emotion, and social "limerence" in design. Whether it's the design of the iPhone (as opposed to the PC), iOS apps (as opposed to Web apps), Cake Pops (as opposed to cupcakes), Nest (as opposed to your current ugly thermostat), Square credit-card processor, or micro-unit apartments in NYC, I think we can see in almost every market a design renaissance where "small is beautiful" (as an aside, I love the CBC radio show, "The Vinyl Cafe" motto: ‘We may not be big, but we're small’". We are overwhelmed by too much extraneous information, and designs that cut to the core will win. For example, check out Also, we will demand that these experiences leverage the wisdom-of-crowds and make us feel connected in real-time to others like us; I love the Waze real-time crowdsourcing traffic app for instance. And if you're up for something slightly NSFW, it seems the Europeans are clearly ahead of the game (haha) when it comes to leveraging limerence in gamifying even promoting safe sex! :-)

The fourth trend is what I call "Crossing the Muggle Chasm" for self-tracking and self-experimentation (or the "Quantified Self"). I strongly support QS to the extent that it encourages self-knowledge and personalized treatment, especially taking more responsibility over your own health as it's clear that the oncoming tidal wave of changes in the healthcare industry will force this upon us whether we like it or not. But, I do feel QS is currently appealing predominantly to "alpha male geek wizards" (as borne out by some analysis that has shown 80% of QS'ers are male) and will need to cross what I call "the Muggle Chasm", especially non-Silicon Valley residing women who simply are interested in self-help that lasts beyond 100 days. I was interviewed about this in The New York Times with regard to Nike Fuelband, but the same critique could be applied to any self-tracking device: there's little evidence to show that tracking itself creates sustainable behavior-change (or "habits"). Also, the recent critique of the supposed influence of The Hawthorne Effect by Prof. Steven Levitt raises some further questions about whether/how QS creates sustainable behavior-change or not.

Sustainable behavior-change is the focus of Habit Design, a national cooperative where we and 400+ organizations are sharing best practices in designing these habitual experiences, and would hope to build over time a framework for how all the rest of us Muggles can truly nurture better lifestyles and Wellbeing through habits. If your readers are interested in learning more, I'd recommend they join us, view some of our previous talks, or attend my talk at the upcoming Quantified Self Conference at Stanford on the subject.


Behavior-Change Gaming – An interview with Michael Kim, CEO by Jim Cummings, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

2 Responses to “Behavior-Change Gaming – An interview with Michael Kim, CEO”

  1. Sebastian says:

    Hi Michael,

    a great, sweeping, and differentiated view – much appreciated.

    Two quick comments.

    (1) Different problems, different solutions.
    In medicine, no-one believes that any treatment will successfully alleviate an ailment for everyone. Same in psychotherapy: Sometimes your issues *are* certain ill-formed overgeneralized thoughts and thought loops, and cognitive therapy works swell. Sometimes, you really need to learn and habituate a new behavior, or desensitize to a stimulus, and behavior therapy is the way to go. Sometimes, lacking self-awareness, access to emotion, or self-clarification are issues – and then, psychoanalysis, gestalt or schema therapy might be indicated. And usually, it's a mixture for every client. I think working on how to establish habits is a very, very important link in the chain - but it's one link, not the whole chain. Awareness matters. Understanding matters. Emotion matters. And so on. Which leads me to

    (2) “Help people do what they are already motivated to do”
    My own inclination is to go for intrinsic motivation, but there's a subtle difference: Intrinsically motivating experiences can be scaffolded, nurtured, afforded. Even if I had always felt like a loser at dancing, had strong aversions (from social anxiety) and little skill, if you create the right circumstances and the right scaffold, I might make early experiences of success, learning to notice and enjoy my growing competence at dancing. That, to me, is "amplifying" existing motivation, as you put it. That is a different thing, though, from "work with the motivation people already bring to an activity." That's something BJ says a lot ("put hot triggers in the path of motivated people" and the like), and to me, while figuring out how to do that well is important, it's also a bit "reaping the quick wins". For these people *are* already motivated. That's also a bit the “alpha male geek wizards” issue with QS: QS works and is adopted by people who bring tremendous motivation and ability to the matter. But if you try to solve public policy issues like obesity or sustainable living on a large scale, you don't have the luxury to pick the audience that is already most likely to respond well anyhow. You have to find a way to work with people who are *not* yet motivated in the least. Do you think what you're working on right now would also address the circumstances and needs of these people? Or what would be needed in addition?

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