Don’t hate the player, or the game (mechanics)

[With all the discussion lately about "gamification," I thought I'd go back to a post from almost three years ago where I explored this issue in 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.

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).  Applying her framework:

  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.

People fall into ego traps when they take social media games too far, focusing on the tactics instead of the greater purpose of their activities. This becomes fairly apparent regarding points – 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.

Focus is the key to steering clear of the ego trap.  Play the game with an end goal in mind.

(Originally posted on July 31, 2008.)

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