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:

Why Both Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivators Matter in Gamification

17 10 2010

Dan Ariely, a Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University wrote a book titled Predictably Irrational where he describes the difference between Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivators and how these affect management decisions in driving employee behavior .   Ariely suggests that moving from extrinsic motivators or rewards such as money, points or schedules, to intrinsic motivators or internal needs including friendship, commitments , and loyalty, is in essence making a move from a market relationship to a social relationship.

An extrinsic or market relationship in this case is defined by the exchange of monetary currency for a product or service.  An Intrinsic or social relationship is the exchange of an intangible for a product or service.  Ariely illustrates this differentiation in his book with a Thanksgiving dinner scenario, also retold by Jeff Monday in the video below:

Imagine you are at your in-laws house for Thanksgiving. At the end of the fantastic meal you walk over to your mother-in-law and instead of giving her the customary social payment of a big hug and thank you, you pull out your wallet and ask her how much she wants for the meal. Here is where the behavioral economics get interesting. Even if you were to offer her $1000 for the meal, a meal that only cost her only a couple hundred dollars and a few hours of her time, she and everyone else at the table will be offended because they will feel you cheapened the day.

Why? Well behavioral economics show us that the intangibles like love, gratitude, trust, and community that we receive in a social exchange are difficult to put a value on, so difficult in fact, that we can’t calculate them and value them as priceless. By offering the $1000 to your mother in law for the Thanksgiving dinner you are putting a cheap value on something that is priceless in her mind. This inequity is caused by trying to blend a social exchange with a market exchange and it is an important lesson for managers who are moving to a management style with greater intrinsic motivators.

Jeff Monday’s video discussing Ariely’s intrinsic and extrinsic motivation (approx 5 minutes):

The Thanksgiving dinner example can be described within a gaming context, as Sebastian Deterding presents in his slideshow Pawned. Gamification and its Discontents.  Deterding shares a similar scenario where an extrinsic motivator interfered with intrinsic needs:

…adding explicit rule systems to a given conduct can mess with the implicit social rules, norms and meanings governing it. Take akoha, a service that tries to promote random acts of kindness by casting them as “missions” you collect awards and gifts for. Now a befriended game designer of mine tried this with another game designer friend of his and invited him for a coffee, as the mission required. When the friend curiously asked why he was invited, my friend replied in explaining the service and mission he was on. To which the friend furiously answered:

“Have you any idea how degrading that is, being invited not because you care about me, but because you want to progress in some game?”

We have learned that game rewards or points can cause conflict when it is the primary motivator in exchange for a friend’s intrinsic social needs.  But what would happen if the motivations in this scenario were instead presented in this fashion:

“Would you like to meet for coffee and play this social game together?”

So rather than suggesting the points are the primary reward, the player presents an opportunity to build upon a social relationship as the main motivator.  This is a similar positioning to the popular social game “Words with Friends”, where players can “catch up with friends as you kick their butts in a word game”.   Taking it a step further and offering both parties added synergies in game play will enforce the link, emphasizing the importance of the relationship.  The Washington Post reported on social bonds created in online games:

The most popular social games are collaborations. To progress quickly through the games, you need to help other players, and they need to help you. Such collaborations, according to game designers and users, foster a sense of community in an often-splintered world.

In our examples, shifting focus to an intrinsic value would probably have produced a stronger relationship, even when external motivators are part of the system.  However, that doesn’t mean we ignore extrinsic motivators altogether, as Steven Reiss, a Professor of Psychology at Ohio State University argues,

“Individuals differ enormously in what makes them happy – for some competition, winning and wealth are the greatest sources of happiness, but for others, feeling competent or socializing may be more satisfying. The point is that you can’t say some motivations, like money, are inherently inferior.”

The illustration above offers a perspective where intrinsically positioned game mechanics can act as facilitators for social activity and exchanges.  Games give us an effective framework to bond with others.  Interestingly enough, as soon as we try to measure those intrinsic mechanics we move them into the realm of external motivators.   That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as the number of Twitter followers or friends on Facebook influence us in different ways.  But we want to try to build systems where externals aren’t the only things available.  Internationally-known metagame expert and social game designer  Amy Jo Kim describes game mechanics as the sauce or seasoning on the meat of the core game. Designers need a great core game and should use game mechanics to help improve it. Game mechanics as extrinsic tools like experience bars or achievements will push the player to reach the next goal.  But things of intrinsic value will always provide greater incentive for the player.

Dan Ariely’s video discussing experiments in motivation:

Another part of Ariely’s discussion, Motivation in the Knowledge Economy:

The Myth of the Universal Player

12 10 2010

Malcolm Gladwell  spoke at TED on the subject of spaghetti sauce and business lessons learned from Howard Moskowitz, an American market researcher and Psychophysicist famous for his studies in spaghetti sauce and consumer behaviors.

In his talk, Gladwell shares how Moskowitz fundamentally changed the way the food industry thought about human tastes and what makes the consumer “happy”.  Moskowitz discovered 3 break-through concepts in his work, questioning the validity of historical assumptions in the food industry:

1. People don’t necessarily know what they want to eat or what will make them happy. When it came to food tastes, focus group results did not correlate with their test data.  A critically important step in understanding our own desires and tastes is to realize that we cannot always explain what we want deep down.

2.  The importance of horizontal segmentation. There is no “perfect product”, but rather many flavors of the same product.  Moskowitz democratized the way we think about tastes.

3.  Confronted the notion of a platonic dish and that there was only one way to serve a dish. In the 1970’s, when the industry talked about “authentic tomato sauce” it implied thin, Italian tomato sauce with no visible solids, and that to please the maximum number of people, they had to provide culturally authentic tomato sauce.  They discovered that this was not the case.

Maxwell describes the industry’s past obsessions with the search for the ultimate cooking universals, finding one taste that suited all of us.  And those universals were sought after in all fields of study.  Psychologists, medical scientists,  economists, were all interested in finding out the rules that govern the way all of us behave.  Moskowitz’s spaghetti sauces changed all of that.

The revolutionary shift in science over the past few years is the movement from the search for Universals to the understanding of variability.  And as Moskowitz says “When we pursue universal principles in food, we aren’t just making an error, we are actually doing ourselves a massive disservice.”

We can infer similar scenarios in game genres, game mechanics and our tastes in fun.  Different segments of the population will have different interpretations of what they find fun, hence the importance of understanding variations in human behavior and psychological profiles.  Regardless of who’s personality type model the designer is building towards (different models are shared in this blog, your choice!), the primary point is that in order to engage a broad, online population, one has to design for varieties in motivations.

And of course the upper parameter should also be set, as Barry Swartz (another TED talks psychologist) warns us.  Too many choices can lead to paralysis and overwhelming numbers make it hard for people to choose anything at all, leaving us ultimately dissatisfied with our decisions.

The answer: Create a variety of choices, tailored to a few key clusters of preferences.  Anything beyond may create stress and confusion.

And as Malcolm Gladwell closes, “In embracing the diversity of human beings, we will find a sure way to true happiness.”

[Edited to add:]  One question to ask is, if we don’t believe in the myth of the Universal Player, then why do we see so many universal ranking systems?

Malcolm Gladwell’s TED talks video:

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.

7 Social Game Design Lessons from Playdom’s Steve Meretzky, VP Game Design

25 09 2010

Take a peek into game design lessons from Playdom, a leading developer of social games.  As a wholly-owned subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company and part of Disney Interactive Media, Playdom games are played by over 44 million monthly active users across different social networks, and include games such as Social City,  Sorority Life, and Mobsters.

The video below is from June 2010, and recorded at the Silicon Valley Facebook Developers and Social Gaming Meetup, with presentations by Playdom and KISSmetrics.

Steve Meretzky, VP of Game Design at Playdom shares 7 design lessons in building and monetizing social games.

Although your gamification goals may or may not include revenue derived from game play, Meretzky offers ways to increase opportunities for monetizing.  Gamification designers interested in strictly user engagement could easily substitute monetization prompts with other user behaviors, such as sharing the site with friends, or completing user surveys/profiles.

Either way, your best results in getting a user to act will come from tapping into the engaged player.  An engaged user, in Playdom terms, often exhibits characteristics including 10x more play sessions than a non-paying user, and 10x more friends.

Playdom uses 2 methods of monetizing:

– Offer products/services to the impatient player (for example: in a system that uses a supply of energy which depletes and recharges over time, there is an opportunity to sell energy)

– Sell virtual goods (or soft currency which can be spent on goods)

Meretzky’s 7 Lessons learned by Playdom to increase monetized goods are:

Lesson 1: Engage the player first,  then monetize.

Lesson 2: Consistent sales/Time Pattern.

Rather than having an item available consistently in game, create demand by staggering availability across a time pattern.  Playdom metrics show that about 1/3 of all sales occur in the first 24 hours and then taper off.

Lesson 3: Gameplay value matters .

Often times the largest motivators are items that improve the user’s play, in particular goods offering a Player vs Player advantage.

Lesson 4: Vanity dives sales.

When dressing up avatars for example, items that look better or cooler, sell better.

Lesson 5: Involve the community

Communicate with your players, offer polls/surveys and act on results.  Social Games are a live service, take advantage of that fact

Lesson 6: Current event tie-ins work

Bring “real world” goods and events into the game.

Lesson 7: Shake it up, Baby!

Although  A/B testing leads to the “best” of everything (item type, duration, price, etc), repetition can become stale and new is better than best.  Shake things up, the user base appreciates it when you do something different.

How do you know your game designs are engaging?

Before launching a new game, Playdom often performs 30-minute company play sessions.   If they continue to see large groups of people playing during “off hours”, it’s a good indication that they have a hit.

For smaller companies that don’t have a lot of people internally, use friends and family and you’ll find out quickly if your game is really fun or not.

The presentations from Hiten Shah, CEO and Co-Founder of KISSmetrics  and  Matthew Davie, Project Lead, Publishing at Playdom are also on the video.

Steve Meretzky’s presentation is at  38:50 in the video.  (The complete video including KISSmetrics is approx 1 hour and 36 min in length. )

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Gamification Lessons from Sim’s Creator Will Wright

24 09 2010

Will Wright, one of the gaming industry’s most respected thought leaders, has been designing video games for over 25 years.  With blockbuster titles including SimCity, the Sims and Spore, Will has won numerous awards, earning Lifetime Achievement Awards by both Game Developers Choice and PC Magazine.

Will gave a insightful interview at the Web 2.0 Expo in 2009, where he shared thoughts on why his games have been successful at engaging people worldwide.   The following quote is from the video clip which is available for viewing (courtesy below:

“Most people are very narcissistic.   The more you can make the game about that person, the more interesting, the more emotionally involved they will get.

(Interviewer) “Isn’t that the same thing about Amazon?”

“Yes, like the whole web thing, when you think about it, people like the idea of communicating and crafting their own identity.  Before the technology we have now came around, people did that with their choice of their wardrobe, or the kind of car they drove, or the kind of house they lived in…nowadays people are crafting more of their identity on the web and it’s a much lower friction, you don’t have to have a lot of money to create a really dense web presence or an elaborate one.

It can also say a lot more about who you are really. [For example] If you are really about protecting the endangered ring-tailed lemurs, you aren’t going to present that with your wardrobe probably. On the web though, I go to your Facebook Page and I can very clearly find out about the things you are passionately interested in very readily.

I think the intersection of these virtual identities that we’ve been crafting and experimenting with is starting to intersect and collide with kind of our real “face-to-face” identities in the real world in an interesting way.   I think games are going to be an aspect of that, they’re going to be one possible dimension of your personality .”

Will targets an important success factor in his game designs that can easily be translated into any gamified social system.  People are interested in directing their experiences, expanding on their personalities, and portraying this within online identities in the community.  Their choices are important and help define their personalities.

Personalization doesn’t necessarily mean graphical avatars and a full 3D gaming environment.  It may be presented as a simple series of attributes, levels, titles, activities and achievements.  From selecting virtual gifts to acquiring a specific title of status, to selecting a challenge out of a list of player-vs-player encounters, personalization is  one of the strongest catalysts for game-based engagement.

An example of how a title  (status  mechanic) can achieve this personalization is found in many massively multiplayer online (MMO) games today.  A title is the text found before or after a player’s character name.  MMO enthusiasts have been known to work outrageous hours across many months towards obtaining a title.

Interesting, fun titles in various MMOs are:

  • “God Walking Amongst Mere Mortals”  – GuildWars
  • “L33t Skills” – GuildWars
  • “Pie Eater” – Lord of the Rings Online
  • “Legendary”-  Star Trek Online
  • “Treasure Hunter” – Guild Wars
  • “Love Fool” – World of Warcraft
  • “The Insane” – World of Warcraft

If presented within a well designed UX, a gamified system that offers many choices and many paths to success can truly engage a user.  And by tailoring the mechanics to accommodate various personality types, people are thrilled to work and win in their own ways.

The complete 30 minute interview video is (well worth watching) found at

How Zynga Tests New Game Mechanics

20 09 2010

Mark Pincus, CEO and Founder at Zynga, and Bing Gordon, Partner KPCB and ex-EA executive, spoke at a Stanford Technology Ventures lecture last year about Pincus’ entrepreneurial experiences and Zynga’s methodology in testing new game mechanics and ideas.

In the lecture, Pincus describes the Zynga process as constant iteration, design and testing with a starting stage at what he calls the “ghetto test”.  Ghetto testing is described in these steps:

1) The product manager creates a “5 word” description of the new idea.  For example “Want to run a Hospital?”

2) They post this idea on the web site, allowing it to go live for 5 minutes, monitoring hits and interest with their user base.

3) If sufficient audience interest is measured, then a one-week rollout of the first version of the game (mechanic) is created.

4) This game or feature is revealed to just one percent of the Zynga audience for play and feedback almost always with some modicum of “golden mechanics” – an appointment dynamic or viral, retentive quality – built in.

5) If these early efforts prove successful, the game grows more robust with each successive build.

Zynga avoids testing the same customer twice.  Pincus reports that the company is always testing several hundred products simultaneously, and that measuring this success online has never been easier or more affordable.

Around 1:04:00 of the video below, Pincus describes this process:

Tim O’Connor, CMO of PCDI/Ashworth, a Sterling Partners backed company describes “ghetto testing”, synonymous to “Interactive Dry Testing” in an article for Research Access:

Instead of surveys asking people about what they have done or what they might do, ghetto tests draw them in with an ad or suggetion of an offer, taking them to a landing page describing the offer and then asking some questions around that.

Now you might already be thinking that this sounds a little shady — a sort of “bait and switch technique”. But it isn’t. In his article Tim outlines some FTC guidelines and then shows how to create this type of survey.

“The Federal Trade Commission is normally OK with tests like this, so long as four conditions are met:

  • No representation is made that the product definitely will be produced.
  • There must be adequate notice of the conditional nature of the offer.
  • Those who order are promptly informed if it is not produced.
  • There can be no substitution of another product.”

Tim O’Connor’s complete article is found at

The social media online environment allows designers to rapidly create, deploy and test new features at relatively low cost, unlike traditional console or AAA games.  And that opens many opportunities for innovation with gamification.