Electronic Gaming: A good Habit?

For good or ill, we are slaves to our habits. No matter how much we may want to change a behavior, once it becomes a habit, our will seems to fade into irrelevance. We may want to get in shape, but that bag of chips somehow finds a way around our best mental defenses.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging technology, neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists discovered that our habits are etched into our brains and are activated without our conscious awareness. Our executive mind may have put us on a diet, but our habitual mind grabs that brownie without the slightest remorse. Amazingly, up to 95% of what we do every day is under the control, not of conscious intention, but unconscious habits.

For companies trying to sell products and services to customers, this information is counterintuitive to say the least. Most theories of marketing and consumer behavior assume that customers are making conscious choices, and market research relies on customers being able to tell us what they did, why they did it, and what they’ll do in the future. But brains scientists have confirmed what market researchers have long suspected—customers are unaware of all of these things.

This means, most companies are fighting the wrong war on the wrong battlefield. While they try to win the conscious mind, it is the unconscious, habitual mind that drives most of what we buy and what we use.

This past July in Los Angeles, thousands gathered for E3, the Electronics Entertainment Expo where consol makers and game developers congregate to plot their assault on this $18 billion industry. For one company, this year’s event represents a coronation of its successful strategy to capture the habits of a new generation. Nintendo has sold 28 million of its highly addictive line of Wii consoles in just two years by following a different path into the habitual mind.

Nintendo, a pioneer in the gaming business, had seen its market position erode under the relentless onslaught of powerful game consoles from Sony and Microsoft. Its GameCube was a distant third to the new generation of Playstation and Xbox that featured more powerful chips, better graphics, and media-center functions. Serious gamers need the power of these machines to play games like Halo III and Grand Theft Auto IV.

Instead of accepting defeat, Nintendo’s executives saw an opportunity. The industry was hypercompetitive for hard-core gamers, but there were a lot more people not playing games at all, some who had played when they were young, but stopped.

Game systems are all about developing mastery through training the unconscious part of the brain. Manipulating the game consol must become second nature—taking your eyes off the screen to look for a button can get you killed. Xbox and Playation players develop remarkably fast fine motor skills. As a result, the mass market is discouraged from playing because the games aren’t that much fun when you keep getting killed.

The company that introduced the world to Donkey Kong and the Mario Brothers saw an opportunity to bring the masses back to video games with a completely new approach to developing habitual mastery. By focusing on gross motor skills, even a novice can have fun the first time playing games like Wii bowling or Wii tennis. The habitual mind learns unconsciously through fast feedback systems, and the Wii wand is so intuitive that players instinctively know what motions to make based on what game they are playing.

The Nintendo strategy has been so successful that the Wii continues to sell as fast as retailers can restock though the price has not dropped since the product launched in 2006. Sony and Microsoft just announced another round of cuts off their higher-powered and higher-priced systems.

And in a hopeful endnote, Nintendo has released the Wii Fit that combines a balance board and set of exercise games. If the company can make fitness games as addictive as Donkey Kong, video games might become part of the solution to our continuing battle of the bulge instead of one of its biggest contributors.

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