The process of including game thinking and game mechanics to engage audiences and change behaviors and/or solve problems is called gamification. Gamification has gotten a bad rap over the past year or so because some marketers have made it synonymous with the use of points and badges to get players to buy things. However, as noted in a previous post, I’m not a fan of throwing out the baby with the bath water. Gamification is a good word and it can be about using good game design and social networks to achieve great things (Gamification Encyclopedia, 2010).
The social game spectrum
As a reminder, there’s a spectrum of types of social games. When you talk to marketers, they’re generally referring to what I refer to as “low impact” social games, like Farmville. You can think of low impact social games, as mind candy. They’re lighthearted and designed mainly for social interactions which may not require much thought (Deterding, 2010). At the other end of the spectrum there are serious social games. These are games designed to educate, train, or to bring people together to innovate for social good.
Note that neither of these designations implies a value judgment. As discussed in a previous post, both types of games have value and both types of games can be designed well or badly. Both types of games should include a sense of fun and play.
Social games for individuals
Lately, I’ve been grappling with the issue of fun and how we can reconcile the different intents of gamers in serious social games. For example, what’s fun for one person isn’t necessarily fun for another. How can we make social games that are adaptive and value individuals as well as social networks? What elements of existing social media platforms can we incorporate into serious social games? How can we use game-like elements to make social media platforms more effective as learning environments (and more personally satisfying)?
Putting the Fun in Functional
As I was pondering fun (and thinking that I needed some mind candy), I came across this excellent Google Tech Talk from 2009 in which Amy Jo Kim describes “Putting the Fun in Functional: Applying Game Mechanics to Functional Software.”
In this video, Amy Jo Kim raises some interesting ideas about the intersection between games and social media platforms. I’ll summarize some of these ideas and add my own take below.
Game mechanics in social media platforms
Game mechanics refer to the elements of a game that allow for a fun and engaging user experience. There are some basic game elements found in good games. Each of these elements can be found, to varying degrees, in social media platforms that currently exist.
Collecting’s an expression of what matters to a player; a cool collection creates bragging rights. Think about how some of the social media platforms you use include collection to different degrees.
- Twitter: followers, how many lists you’re in
- Facebook: friends
- Miio: followers, friends, participants in groups you’ve created
- YouTube: playlists
What you value and what the platform allows you to collect may be different. Good games allow players to collect things that are of value to them.
There are two kinds of rewards in online social games
- Rewards given by the system in response to an action
- Social rewards awarded by the community
Rewards celebrate game values so it’s important to consider what behaviors you’re rewarding and how you reward them. For example, does your game celebrate:
- The amount you participate?
- The quality of your participation (e.g., quality of content creation, the number of replies to a thread, how often your content is reposted, retweeted, or shared)?
- Your achievement relative to other players?
- Your achievement of goals or experience points?
How you reward achievements and how you surface these rewards (e.g., via leaderboards, profile pages, etc.) can have a big impact on a person’s sense of how fun the game is. If a reward isn’t valued by someone playing the game, there’s no motivation to continue participation.
In games, points and badges are markers for rewards and players may or may not consider them good surrogates for their values. A motivating factor can be whether such points or badges are redeemable for other things that do have value.
Consider the types of “points” offered by different social media platforms:
- Twitter: retweets, increase in followers
- Facebook: likes, increase in number of friends
- Miio: shares, increase in numbers of followers or friends, increase in group membership, numbers of replies to a thread (e.g., challenges are sometimes thrown to see who can create a thread with the most replies)
- YouTube: Likes, ratings, being added to someone’s favorite list
In social media platforms, to varying extents, exchanges are perceived as rewarding and number of followers/friends/group participants are markers for these exchanges, just as points and badges in games are markers for mastering game tasks. However, for subsets of individuals (perhaps those who are more competitive in a traditional game sense), status may more important than the exchange itself. Both status seekers and exchange seekers can have different views of what successful engagement means in a social media platform.
The proper mix of challenge and feedback in a game allows a player to achieve flow: that balanced state where the player is energized by challenges, believing that accomplishment is possible (Csíkszentmihályi, 1990).
Where’s the challenge in social media platforms? I’d argue it’s the actions you need to undertake to be perceived as a valued member of a community, circle of friends, or followers, while also finding value from your own social exchanges (by selecting compatible people to follow, friends, etc). Sharing unique or useful content is part of this challenge. Twitter, Facebook, Miio, and YouTube all allow you to share content to varying degrees.
A factor feeding game addiction noted by Tierney (2010) is the ramping up of challenges. This may be where the parallel between social media platforms and games is weakest. Although one can argue there are continually rising levels of expectation when it comes to content creation, I think this motivation comes from within individuals versus from the structure of the social media platforms themselves.
As mentioned, it’s the interplay between challenges and feedback’ that’s critical. Games become addictive when there’s feedback that’s both short-term (instantaneous) and long-term, allowing you to see improvement over time (Tierney, 2010). Feedback that lets you believe success is possible is far more addictive than feedback that tells you you’ve failed.
What kind of feedback do people receive when participating in social media platforms?
- Twitter: Retweets, replies, direct messages, follows, being added to lists
- Facebook: Likes, comments, friend requests
- Miio: Shares, comments, follows, notifications when people join your groups or when someone asks you a question or identifies a post you might be interested in
- YouTube: Likes, comments, being added to someone’s favorite lists
Exchanges can be driven by the game system (e.g., requiring players to take turns) and/or can be socially driven. A sense that you are a valued member of a game community can arise from exchanges and can be an important factor that keeps you returning to that community (Tierney, 2010).
Examples of exchanges that can occur within a social media platform:
- Twitter: commenting on a reply, answering a question, responding to a direct message, following someone when they follow you
- Facebook: responding to a request for friendship, responding to a comment
- Miio: responding to a follow by following someone back (becoming a friend), responding to a question or commenting, taking part in a challenge on a thread
Different social media platforms support exchanges to varying degrees. For example, both Miio and Facebook are easier to use for longer conversations (not limited to 140 characters) and permit easier-to-follow discussion threads. Additionally, on Miio you can embed videos and images directly in your post. Twitter’s useful for obtaining information from a large and diverse audience of people in a short period of time, but the dashboard’s not really designed to easily follow conversation threads (even the new one, in my opinion) and the amount of information and media you can share is more limited, though of course you can always link to richer content. Changes to Twitter may result in more flexibility in the types of content that you can share.
Customization lets you create an expression of yourself that you control and gives you a sense of investment in a game. Emotional investment in a game is another factor that makes a game addictive.
An online social game may let you customize your avatar, interface, and/or profile information to varying extents. Consider the various ways different social media platforms let you do this:
- Twitter: can create your own avatar, select from background themes or create your own, limited ability to add profile information
- Facebook: can create your own avatar, photo albums, choose to add information about your profile or not, limited ability to select backgrounds, themes
- Miio: can create your own avatar, photo albums, choose to add information to your profile or not, limited ability to select backgrounds, themes
- YouTube: can create your own avatar, choose to add information to your profile, select from different background themes, widgets
What social media platforms bring to game design
Social media platforms also have elements that haven’t traditionally been part of games, but which can be used to create and enhance a game-like experience. These elements include
- User-created content
- Social infrastructure and tools that facilitate sharing
Some of the infrastructure and tools that facilitate social connections include:
- Accessible user interfaces which can be viewed on different devices (e.g., laptops and mobile devices)
- Recombinant data objects, which can be remixed and redistributed, creating mashups combining the properties of different platforms/media elements
- Syndication, which means that content can live outside of its source environment
These unique elements can be exploited to create games that can:
- Be played in a variety of different contexts (and which can use location elements as part of a game)
- Allow a player more flexibility in when and where to participate
- Reflect player creativity and can result in the creation of enduring and useful artifacts
(Each of these elements are potentials: different social media platforms may provide these potentials to varying degrees.)
The tip of the iceberg
There are many other types of game mechanics that can be considered. Some are described in the Gamification Encyclopedia. Also, it should be noted that I’ve only described a subset of social media platforms and there are many others that are interesting, fun, and creatively challenging. How do your favorite platforms stack up as games?
Common inquiries when it comes to games, social media strategies, and learning
Change the word “player” to “learner” and you can see the possibilities for using game mechanics in conjunction with social media platforms to create learning experiences. I’ll talk more about this in the next post, but I would like to note that game design, social media strategies, and instructional design have some common features and inquiries worth remembering.
- You need to start with a plan: What are the goals you’re trying to accomplish? What are the needs of your participants/players/learners?
- How do the characteristics of your participants/players/learners influence their motivations, their perception of rewards, their experiences of fun?
- What’s the best feedback to encourage participation/play/more learning?
- How can you maximize individual expression in a social platform/game/learning experience in a way that’s positive for both the individual and community? How can you use the experience to create something that’s larger than the social media platform/game/learning event? For example, can you create networks of people who will work together to produce something of social or organizational value after the game/learning event is over or outside of the social media platform?
To achieve a sense of play, don’t force the flow
Finally, creating flow in a game, social media platform, or learning experience is NOT about force or about casting participants into a particular mold in which each person uses uniform communication styles. Creativity, experimentation, and support for diverse approaches are all part of play. As noted in a previous post, game participants can play when they have the autonomy to think and act differently and to engage in make-believe. It’s worthwhile to nurture a sense of play in social media platforms and learning environments (and the two may be the same in certain contexts), because play leads to divergent thinking and divergent thinking is an important part of innovation.
A cliffhanger and a sneak preview
In the next post, I’ll talk about some of the existing features of social media platforms that can be used to complement learning in the workplace and how we can use and enhance the game-like elements of social media platforms to create learning opportunities. I’ll explore potential approaches we can use to make social learning games more addictive. Stay tuned…
Deterding, S. (2010): Social Game Studies: A Workshop Report. With contributions by S. Björk, S. Dreyer, A. Järvinen, B. Kirman, J. Kücklich, J. Paavilainen, V. Rao & J. Schmidt. Hamburg: Hans Bredow Institute for Media Research. Available at: http://socialgamestudies.org/report.
Tierney, J. (2010). On a hunt for what makes gamers keep gaming. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/07/science/07tierney.html?_r=2&ref=science
Of interest: A collection of resources on serious games