Avatars & Incentives

By June 24, 2020 No Comments

If you traveled 20 years into the future, I think you’d be struck by how much of our lives are being lived through avatars. We’ll need ways to interact with each other online and in VR, and they’ll be our vehicles. They’ll let us extend our “selves” into the digital places our bodies can’t go, and as we spend more of our time in those places, our virtual selves will become core parts of our overall selves. I’m convinced that it will be one of the biggest societal shifts ever, with many effects good and bad. Over the past two years though, I’ve become focused on one specific opportunity it will open up: the chance to create new, cheap, powerful incentives for ourselves.

Incentive: A thing that motivates an action.

I’ve been obsessed with the problem of bad biological incentives for a long time, mainly because of my own struggles with them. Here’s how I think about what’s going on:

Because of the incremental way natural selection makes improvements, humans have a lot of evolutionary baggage in our brains. It worked beautifully for millions of years, until about 70,000 ago when we learned how to cooperate in large numbers. From that point on, the speed of our progress has been much faster than evolution could keep up with. The result is that we’ve created a world for ourselves that our brains weren’t designed for, and many of our built-in incentives no longer align with our interests.

Physical fitness might be the clearest example. Evolution programmed us to use as little energy as possible to acquire as much as possible. It was a winning strategy when food was scarce and we had to exercise a lot to get it. But now, many of us can access much more food than we need by doing relatively little exercise. So, we have this new problem of having to actively manage our fitness. We have to make ourselves exercise, when there is no threat and no scarcity, and our body is telling us to conserve energy. We also have to make ourselves not eat junk, when it’s full of the sugar, salt, carbs, and fat that we crave. We know that staying fit is what we want, but we have to constantly battle against our instincts to do it. Most of us fail.

That fundamental struggle is constant in our lives. We have to resist our sexual impulses, and be ever diligent against drug, internet, and gambling addiction. At the same time, we have to figure out how to make ourselves be productive, save money, and maintain our mental health. It seems almost like a law of physics – it’s easy to do things that are bad for us and hard to do things that are good for us. If we want to make more progress, we need to find more effective ways to make ourselves do the good-but-hard things. Since will power is notoriously unreliable, the best way to do that is to create new incentives for ourselves. We can’t create brand new mechanisms in the brain though (yet), so we need our new incentives to hack our inherited neurochemistry, and reroute the influence towards activities we care about. I don’t mean to make it sound like this is a new idea. We do it all the time – todo lists, workout buddies, gamified apps, etc. But I think we can do much better!

I’m convinced that avatars can be ideal mechanisms to create cheap and powerful new incentives. Before I explain why, here are some examples of how avatars could use our built-in incentives to motivate good-but-hard activities:

  • Status: You earn exclusive golden sneakers for your avatar by running a sub-30 minute 5K. You want the sneakers because of what they say about you to people that see them.
  • Progression: You upgrade your avatars physique with points you earned by waking up on time 7 days in a row. You want your avatar’s body to change because it’s a tangible representation of your improvement.
  • Competition: Your avatar is king for the week because you won the weekly reading time competition with your friends, which means your name has a “King” before it in the social feed. You want to be king because it means you outperformed.
  • Community: You unlock a limited edition flag waving emote by voting in a local election. You want the emote because it makes you feel like a part of something.

There are three main reasons I think avatars are particularly good mechanisms for motivation:

  1. They’re extensions of your self
    It’s easy for our brains to project our identity onto characters we control. When you play Zelda, you feel like Link. That’s a big deal, because if you feel like something is an extension of your self, you care much more about it. The more effort you invest into it, the more attached you become, and the more attached you become, the more effort you can be motivated to invest into it. Being identified with your avatar lets it tap into your social instincts in powerful ways. Since it’s a proxy for you, your craving for things like status, dominance, collaboration, and reciprocity extend to it.
  2. They’re virtual
    This allows the incentives to scale without being constrained by money or physical materials. People can care deeply about virtual things. Fortnite made $1.8B last year selling character skins, emotes, and other customizations. If you’re using an avatar to motivate you, there’s no limit to the things you can earn as rewards.
  3. They show progress in compelling ways
    Crafting your avatar over time is a much cooler show of progress than a progress bar or chart. Getting a gold chain for your avatar is way more exciting than seeing a number change. We already desire certain body shapes, clothes, accessories, and abilities in real life; it’s easy to cast those desires onto an avatar.

Those three ingredients combine to create something super compelling and truly worth building. Even though avatars are often thought of in the context of VR, none of the examples I’ve given need to take place there (though VR will open up amazing new opportunities). If you know me, you know that Sapien has been working hard on bringing this vision into reality through mobile. The technology is there now. Phones are powerful enough to render high poly, 3D, animated characters in 60fps. 3D engines allow you to morph modular 3D models in real-time on device. The proliferation of activity tracking, wearables, and IoT means that we can reliably track many of the things we want to do more of. And of course, wireless internet will allow the whole experience to be social. You can carry an avatar around in your pocket, motivating you to do more of the things you really want.

The average person is operating at nowhere near their full potential. If we can unlock even a fraction of that potential using avatars, that would be extraordinarily impactful at scale. Think of the world we could build if millions of people spent a little bit more time reading, or exercising, or meditating. I think it would all add up to something incredible.