Games that Bind: Community Through Games

9 11 2010

We’ve often heard that games give us a reason to socialize, but is there more to it than that?  As society gains more in complexity, are we also dealing with shifts in our cultural dynamics that have us looking for social contact in alternate ways?

Andrew Hiscock from Bitmob wrote an interesting post from a Anthropological, Sociological and Psychological perspective on possible reasons why we game today:

The problem is that…society has a staggering complexity. We have evolutionary defined social circles existing in a society that may not allow for the full expression of cultural needs to be expressed within the “close” group and the “regional” group. There is poor organization, no set hierarchy, and no loosely defined roles. Sure, these are taken care of in society at large, but not in the people we can call part of our sphere. This has set up a sociological conundrum in which modern man find themself.

Comparing the social circles of today and the social circles of early man, we can find a variety of differences:

1. There is a lack of shared group problem solving that leads to solutions to direct and clearly defined problems.

2. There are no clearly defined roles within a set hierarchy.

3. Any member can adopt any role they wish, without clear benefit to the group at large.

4.  Boundaries of intergroup activity are not clearly defined

We can see these points articulated in modern video games: the rise of social (either online or communal) gaming; the development of role-based games (World of Warcraft, Battlefield, and MAG all come to mind); specific scoring systems associated with roles within a video game; and video game fans’ self-identifiers (hardcore vs. casual, Sony vs. Microsoft).

(Source: Why we Game? Bitmob)

In past Agrarian societies, where agriculture and farming were the primary means of support, our strongest social circles had to be family and local communities.  Our roles in these communities were clearly defined.  The roles helped focus our abilities, were guided by necessities for survival, and also set an expectation to a person’s contribution in their community.  However, our modern societies have gifted us with an increased independence, and today’s communication with extended family is often reduced to exchanging Christmas cards or visits at the occasional birthday parties. Without these past requirements for interaction, are we looking for reasons to communicate with our extended social circles and can games fulfill these needs?

Many game-based events have been used in the past as reasons to focus and converge community spirit.  For example, the town of Tarragona , in Spain’s Catalonia region has hosted a traditional game of Human Pyramid building since the 18th century.  Teams comprised of families and friends converge every 2 years to compete in this popular contest called the Concurs de castells, to build the tallest human pyramids.  The games encourage participation from everyone: the more people who take part, the stronger and more complex the pyramids.  It is an interesting event that builds a strong community spirit.  Interdependence is key in the design of the game, as every participant relies on the other to fulfill his/her role, or the pyramid collapses.  Most importantly, what drives people to this event is not just winning the contest, but rather the experience of everyone working together in order to succeed: a common goal.

This short video (approx 4 min) shows the Concurs de castells, interviews players and talks about roles people play in the game:

Another popular game in other social circles is the game of Mahjong.   Rich with memories and family traditions, Mahjong is a 4 player game that originated in China around 1870 consisting of small, marked tiles.  I stumbled upon an interesting video interviewing people and their thoughts about the game.  From social game providing a reasons to gather, to deep meaningful memories of family bonding, Mahjong has been a part of many lives.

This brief video (approx. 3 min) interviews people and their memories of growing up with the game of Mahjong:

Perhaps these social needs are subtle driving factors in the potential application of gamification into so many areas.  I think we will find that tomorrow’s “games that bind” may not be Mahjong, but a game like World of Warcraft or FarmVille.

More on Roles, Multiplayer Relationships, Interdependence, and Synergy in Gamification Design

Video links of other cultural games of interest:

Polynesian Stick Song game:


Scotland – the Highland Games:

Soccer a game bridging cultural divide:

Engagement Flow in Gamification

2 11 2010


What dynamics are in play when we examine the path to user engagement?

In visualizing how engagement flows from extrinsic game mechanics to intrinsic motivators, let’s look first at a smaller simplified model exploring the various stages a player experiences along the way.

The image below shows 5 basic elements.

To illustrate by way of example, let’s choose a quest with location check-ins:

1.  The Game Mechanic is a quest, with an achievement delivered after check-in.  The game mechanic facilitates a mode of play.

2.  Play is freely chosen and associated with fun, pleasure and enjoyment.  The idea of a scavenger hunt is playful and may initiate certain behaviors.

3.  Behaviors refer to actions related to the game mechanics such as going to a retail store, checking in for an event, challenging friends to compete, or announcing check-ins on Facebook.  These behaviors may evoke a player’s engagement.

4. Engagement in this example is when a player becomes absorbed and the game activities, subject or brand consumes one’s attention or time.  For example, the player checks in every time they pass through a location and shares this with friends.  It creates an increased involvement and participation that produces mastery.

5. Mastery is an intrinsic motivator that stimulates a player to independently and persistently overcome a challenging skill or task.  Once the player has checked in at the quest locations, they obtain an achievement and look to the next challenge or motivator.

At this point, in order to keep the player further engaged, the game mechanic must either evolve and scale in difficultly, or shift to address another motivator.  This dynamic balance between boredom and frustration is described in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”:

Flow activities lead to growth and discovery. One cannot enjoy doing the same thing at the same level for long. We grow either bored or frustrated; and then the desire to enjoy ourselves again pushes us to stretch our skills, or to discover new opportunities for using them.

To evolve the simple model to accommodate more complex situations, we need to introduce other dynamics, leading to 2 questions:

1. How does Self-Direction influence this model?

2. How does direct feedback relate to each area?

In the next figure, the linear engagement flow is now a circle reflecting how the game mechanic shifts or scales to accommodate the growth of the player as they seek new motivations.  This highlights the relationship between the engagement flow and Self-Direction.

Self-Direction, or independently guided actions occur by making choices in the game resulting in direct feedback.  In an optimal scenario, direct feedback should take place throughout the entire experience, giving us an ever-evolving and adapting engagement model.  It is important to note that each of the elements of the flow influence the other elements creating local feedback loops and are contributors to the dynamics of the game play.

The model also aligns with Jenova Chen’s variant of Csikszentmihalyi’s flow diagram.  In his thesis “Flow in Games”, Chen describes active flow adjustments through self-directed choices, represented by the red path of arrows (see figure below).  The Gamification Continuous Engagement Flow accounts for this meandering path through the introduction of direct user feedback.   In Chen’s drawing, the white regions represent anxiety (upper) and boredom (lower):

The significance of self direction along with varying and often changing motivators make game design with a single unvarying game mechanic impractical.  Successful designs will incorporate evolving and scaling mechanics suitable to a wide range of personalities, moods, player skill levels and interests.

Posts related to this subject:

Why Both Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation Matter in Gamification

Gamification, Reality TV and Reiss’s 16 Intrinsic Motivators

The Myth of the Universal Player

Gamification Design