Applying game mechanics to social media

In my last post, I talked about falling into the ego trap.  So what happened?  I got caught up in watching the numbers, becoming a full participant in the game mechanics underlying social media.

Everyone likes games – your preference might be for the simple, like Solitare, or complex, like World of Warcraft.  If you think games are frivolous, think again – they help us accomplish the simple, like getting an infant to eat, and the complex, like warming up surgeons or disaster response.  But as in all things, moderation is key and some people have died when taking games too far.

People fall into the ego trap when they take social media gaming too far, focusing on the aspects of the game instead of the content and purpose of their activities.

Here’s how game mechanics work.  My friend Max Kalehoff blogged about five keys of successful game design as communicated by expert Amy Jo Kim (no relation to me).  I’ll apply her framework here:

  1. Collecting things. Humans have a primal instinct to collect and display.  Offline, think about boy scout badges or Olympic pins. My old housemate used to collect commemorative Coca-Cola bottles.  Online, we have our Twitter widgets, Facebook fan pages, and Flickr photo albums.
  2. Earning points. These define achievement and translate into social standing.  Offline, it’s how NASCAR champions are crowned and how you earn a free airplane flight.  Online, it’s the number of fans, friends, followers, or subscribers to your content.  World-leading PR firms advise their clients to pay attention to individuals with "influence" and "authority" based on points.  We reinforce the credibility of points by watching lists of top blogs, top tweeters, even top egos.
  3. System feedback. Offline, it’s the experience of shopping at an Apple store or your car accelerating when you press the gas.  Online, it’s not comments, replies, or trackbacks (those feed into points & exchanges), but response from the system itself.  How complete is your LinkedIn profile?  How much Plurk karma do you have?  Do you have Facebook for Blackberry installed yet?
  4. Value exchanges.  Successful interactions.  Offline, it’s us inviting each other’s kids to their birthday parties, or paying it forward to strangers.  Online, it’s the process of interactions:  Posting wall-to-wall. Sending a mini-ninja or martini glass.  People "liking" your FriendFeed items. Twitter’s @ messages.
  5. Customization and personalization.  User-created barriers to exit.  Offline, it’s the color you chose to paint your house, the case for your iPhone, the stickers on your laptop.  Online, it’s the extensive profile information you entered, the photos you uploaded, or the background picture that says something about your interests.

The ego trap lies in wait around the points issue.  When a user is blindly amassing points, their collections become spammy.  Feedback overwhelms.  Exchanges aren’t worth participation. 

From a business, i.e. the application owner’s, perspective – these are all good.  They pave the way to monetization – display ads, sponsorships, brand participation, and more.

From a participant’s perspective, these are only good up to a certain point after which there are only diminishing returns.  The numbers are all relative.  For example, I’m comfortable right now with about 500 in my Facebook network.  Jeremiah seems ok with almost 2,500. 

Focus is the key to steering clear of the ego trap.  Play the game with an end goal in mind.  Social media games never end, because they’re part of life.  Ultimately, winning and losing become states of being instead of static points in time.

Being: Peter Kim