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:

Multiplayer Relationships, Interdependence, and Synergy in Gamification Design

7 10 2010

What attributes keep people engaged in, and committed to playing a multiplayer game?

Tom Bollich, an early Zynga investor and former lead engineer says today’s social games have a challenge.  He described the problem in a recent interview:

“You can’t make the cheap little viral games like you used to.  These games, it’s like pouring water into a bucket with holes in it. You can get a lot of people, but they don’t stick around.”

Game mechanics in social games have been effective at getting people’s attention, but how do you design a system that keeps players engaged and involved?  We may find some clues when examining another form of social games, the MMORPG and it’s industry leader World of Warcraft (WoW).  WoW has managed to keep players entertained for almost 6 years, attracting over 11.5 million players worldwide.  Nielsen shared numbers from 2009 that ranked WoW first in PC games most played, averaging 653 minutes per week.

Typing “/played” in World of Warcraft displays how long a character has been played and the numbers surprise most people.  So the question becomes, what game mechanics or features are keeping so many people interested for such a long period of time?  What attributes can transform a simple game into a lasting community?

People tend to be more engaged within a community when they feel a sense of belonging and can contribute towards a hot topic or goal within the community.   The “Tribalization of Business” study conducted by Beeline Labs, Deloitte and the Society for New Communications Research (2008) cited key features contributing most to community effectiveness:

Most Facebook games involve asynchronous multi-player game play, or experiences that are presented in discrete chunks at different times for each player, so players can interact and perform exchanges without the need of being simultaneously online.

Oftentimes the social game is so focused on the need for asynchronous game-play, that they bypass the importance of building relationships and interdependencies between players and the game becomes almost a single player activity.   As seen in the Tribalization study, engaged social players want to be able to help others and contribute towards a common goal.   They want to develop a reputation and grow in status.  Adding a way for players to feel needed increases their desire to stay within the community.  The stronger the community, the more important status becomes. The opposite is also true: without a community, there is no status.

Interdependence, or the dynamic of being mutually responsible to each other,  is an important aspect in designing longer lasting communities. Providing interdependent subtasks allow players an opportunity to create relationships and to personalize their experiences as they explore the system.

Interdependence is also an element of effective social groups, where groups evolve beyond just a collection of people and become functional teams.  Muzafer Sherif formulated a technical definition of social groups listing the following elements:

A social group is a unit consisting of a number of individuals interacting with each other with respect to:

1.  Common motives and goals;

2.  An accepted division of labor, i.e. roles,

3.  Established status (social rank, dominance) relationships;

4.  Accepted norms and values with reference to matters relevant to the group;

5.  Development of accepted sanctions (praise and punishment) if and when norms were respected or violated.


Here we see that a group in itself does not necessarily constitute a team. Teams have members with complementary skills and generate synergy through a coordinated effort which allows each member to maximize his or her strengths and minimize his or her weaknesses. Effective team members learn how to help one another, help other team members realize their true potential, and create an environment that allows everyone to go beyond their limitations.


This dynamic is found in WoW, where each class has a function in gameplay. By working together, the team players synergize -becoming more powerful, or gaining in game advantages.

Missing one of the functional character types leads to slower progress or potential failure in quests and dungeons.

Most MMO’s utilize what is called the “holy trinity”- Tank, Healer and DPS.  A “Tank” function is the player who has armor and is the focus of a monster’s attacks – they take the brunt of the beating but in exchange do very little damage to the monster.  A “healer” is someone who can replenish health, but is generally very fragile.  “DPS” is the Damage class which has power, but little armor.  Each class relies on and enhances the other in order to maximize performance.

If one function is missing, the group feels a significant impact.  For example, a Tank and healer without DPS means the monsters don’t die.  A tank and DPS without healer means the group takes too much damage.  Each player is needed for the team to succeed.

Unlike most Facebook games, WoW sits on the other end of the spectrum, and is designed to encourage synchronous play.  Players feel obligated to work with others because of established responsibilities and expectations to the team. Peer pressure and in-game social commitments are implicit in the system’s design.  So one may ask, will these social features work in an asynchronous environment?  A few social games have adapted casual variations of this:

  • FarmVille requires players to fertilize each other’s crops
  • Happy Aquarium requires another player to open mystery crates in their fish tanks
  • Yoville has “Friend actions” that require friends to complete

Promoting interesting and longterm interdependent activities may increase the chances of a user staying active in the community.

An important aspect in the design of a system, the social group (2 players to many players) can be implemented in many creative ways:

Roles, or a division of labor, gives players a specialized function and presents an opportunity for designers to tap into player motivations and personality types.  For example with respect to the Myers-Briggs personalities:

The key is to offer an equally enjoyable experience for each role or personality type, which requires paying particular attention to balancing fun for each class.  Any function a user chooses to adopt should offer the same amount of fun and content.

World of Warcraft Looking for Group Screen

Make it easy to find the roles you are missing. Interdependencies can backfire if a particular class is too necessary to progress, too hard to find (rare), or unavailable for the team.  To address this, Blizzard built an innovative “Looking for Group” option making it easier to randomly fill parties.

Class homogenization can become boring.  Creating diverse and challenging jobs for players to master allows them a choice in how to contribute to the community.  And by leveraging a system of player interdependence you amplify the importance of relationships within a community.  Once meaningful relationships are established, there is little motivation for a player to leave the game.

Using Gamification to Minimize Community Management Costs

28 09 2010

How much does it cost you to moderate your online community?

For World of Warcraft and its 11 million players, those costs include over 2,056 game masters and 66 community forum managers, and probably would have cost much more, if not for game mechanics to prevent conflict and manage community interactions.

Gamification is an innovative way to reduce coordination costs, decrease moderation requirements, and promote positive social behavior.  But before looking at examples of implementations, we first examine how our online infrastructures have evolved.

New York University professor of New Media Clay Shirky spoke at a TED conference in 2005 about the subject of Institutions and Collaborations.  (Video linked below) In it, he defines the coordination costs of a company as “all of the financial or institutional difficulties in arranging group output”.  He shared some of his insights:

…Because the cost of letting groups communicate with each other has fallen through the floor, and communication costs are one of the big inputs to coordination, [an alternative to starting an institution] is to put the cooperation into the infrastructure, to design systems that coordinate the output of the group as a byproduct of the operating of the system without regard to institutional models.

….When you build cooperation into the infrastructure…you can leave the people where they are, and you take the problem to the individuals, rather than moving the individuals to the problem.  You arrange the coordination in the group, and by doing that you get the same outcome without the institutional difficulties.  You lose the institutional imperative, you lose the right to shape people’s work when it’s volunteer effort, but you also shed the institutional cost which gives you greater flexibility.

Build the system so that anybody can contribute at any amount.

Here Shirky presents the power of a cooperative community; the ability to surpass any amount of effort an institution could do on their own.  And tapping into this resource brings it’s own unique benefits – in this case, previously undiscovered photography. But he warns that the power of broad-reaching communication comes with some side effects:


…(in reference to a teenaged pro-anorexia community), We are used to support groups being beneficial,…but it turns out that the logic of the support group is value neutral.  A support group is simply a small group that wants to maintain a way of living in the context of a larger group…

The normative goals of the support  groups that we are used to came from the institutions that were framing them, and not from the infrastructure. Once the infrastructure becomes generically available, the logic of the support group has been revealed to be accessible to everyone.”

So in order to maintain some semblance of values and social protocol within an open and accessible infrastructure, companies are having to deal with high costs of moderation and community management.   And the larger the community, the more resources required.  There may be opportunities to channel this collaboration through a game-based design and allow institutions a scalable method of injecting values back into the system without the high overhead of additional personnel.

Gamification can add a persuasive framework of rules within a social online infrastructure to help guide user behaviors and actions.  By offering rewards and positive reinforcement, designers can build a foundation of acceptable social behavior within a community.

There are 2 ways to implement this:

1) Create rewards and tools for self moderation.

2) Design the environment to minimize social friction in game play.

Looking at existing MMO’s we find several examples of mechanics that minimize potential social conflict.  Mythic’s  Warhammer implemented an innovative mechanic called a Public Quest which removed the awkwardness associated with player invitations or dealing with potential rejections.

Public Quests (PQ’s) are area-based quests that trigger upon entering a zone.  They  involve a large number of players gathering together to complete the task at hand, and all rules are automatically handled by the system.  Anyone can participate, and by basing your roll, prize, and experience point gain on your contribution to the goal, they promote a fair system of reward with minimum stress.  This automated ability of giving players the chance to join teams and work together simply by being in the same area, presents a social game play mechanic that adds to the community experience.  In essence, the PQ becomes a way to bring players together and creates a sense of community pride.   (More on PQ’s are found in an article by Garrett Fuller here.)

An example of self-moderation through game mechanics is the design of eBay’s reputation system.   For every exchange on eBay, both buyer and seller are asked to post positive or negative scores to the person with whom he/she transacted.  A general score is publically displayed,  representing a user’s cumulative reputation within the system.  For the most part, buyers and sellers are honest.  And although the system can be abused, a completely open or unregulated marketplace would probably require higher moderation costs.

eBay Reputation Screen

“The 2008 Tribalization of Business” study was conducted by Beeline Labs, Deloitte and the Society for New Communications Research, where they asked what were the biggest obstacles people face to making communities work:

Beeline Labs is now Human 1.0

Not surprisingly, the top 2 results were user engagement (51%) and community management (45%).  Gamification addresses many of these obstacles by offering a structure of incentives (points, achievements, titles, based on personality and motivations) that encourage users to vote (like/dislike), moderate content,  and invite people to join.


In essence, gamification is another way for companies to indirectly enforce value rules to a vast communications infrastructure.  And rather than penalizing users for bad behavior, the positive reinforcement rewards in gameplay may be enough to moderate the majority of participants, providing a scalable, efficient, and cost-effective system.  Ultimately some people will try gaming the system, so providing a method of constant feedback, either through analytics or surveys, will help you evolve the mechanics as necessary.

Promoting positive social interaction reduces the stress and overhead of community management, and creates a welcoming environment for your community to grow.  It can potentially transform an environment where people are reluctant to interact due to fear of negative reaction, into a more welcoming atmosphere that encourages participation.  There is a great amount of potential in the use of mechanics in this manner, and the associated savings from community management resources should appeal to most institutions.  We hope to see more of this implementation in future gamified sites.

Clay Shirky’s TED presentation: Institutions and Collaborations:

[Editted to add] Randy Farmer, an industry expert in building reputation systems spoke at Google Tech Talk where he shares challenges faced when using Gamification within a reputation system.  As always, designing for your audience is paramount, and certain aspects of Gamifiation may not apply to your users.  His comments, warnings and experiences are worth watching:

Reuters employs game mechanics to improve commentary onsite

Reuters is due to introduce a points system to its website that will manage and rate users’ comments, rewarding users with points and the ability to contribute without moderation…..Reuters’ plans will certainly encourage users to think about the way they’re commenting online if they want to continue to contribute to the community. If content and conversation improves, this will certainly have a positive impact on Reuters’ online reputation.  Read More.