Humans are obsessed with scores — the amount of money in your bank, the goals by your soccer team, the number of horsepower in your automobile engine. But one unremarked-upon trend in modern communications is the rising tide of “game mechanics” that play with our perception of numbers, used as both an acquisition and retention device in businesses from Amazon.com to Twitter. Let’s pause and see how your psychological lust for numbers is being played:
Twitter: On Twitter, you likely watch your follower count daily, seeing if you’re close to 1,000 or 10,000 human connections that, upon reaching such threshold, stroke your ego as evidence that you are popular. Services such as FriendorFollow.com allow you to adjust your connections to make sure the numbers are in balance (God forbid you follow more people than follow you back, illustrating you’re the wallflower kid of social media). The numbers are illusory; most people ignore most of your tweets, yet the feedback loop keeps you hooked. Twitter is using the game strategies of achievement, companion gaming (where a game works across multiple platforms such as PC, mobile, Tweetdeck apps), chain schedules (tying rewards to contingencies such as greater participation) and communal discovery.
Online publishers: Web articles are now judged less by the quality of their content as by the number of readers, links or comments. Major publishers such as Bloomberg BusinessWeek (whom we write columns for) list scoring mechanisms at the right of each article, informing readers which pieces have been the most viewed, most discussed, or most emailed. You feel better reading something that is popular, and then you’re likely to click to another popular article, keeping you in the publisher’s walled garden longer boosting the number of ads they can serve you. Publishers are tapping the game mechanics of achievement, behavioral momentum (keeping you doing what you have been doing), envy (you want to read what others say is popular), and ownership (comment fields give you power over the idea in the article).
Foursquare: The obvious example of game mechanics, of course, is Foursquare, a location-based service struggling to solidify its market position as the GPS-social media portal before Facebook blows it away, using “badges” and “mayor” gimmickry to reward you for tapping the service. The badging device provides a zero-cost reward, similar to ranks in the military, spurring loyalty as you work your way to the top of the local coffee shop’s ladder. Foursquare seems aware that many first-time users of any new communication service are likely to bail, so it tags them “Newbies” with an unwritten incentive to get off that lowly title by using the service more. Emerging LBS competitors such as ShopKick mimic Foursquare’s game system.
The best profile we’ve seen on game mechanics is TechCrunch’s recent summary of SCVNGR’s “playdeck,” an actual deck of cards used by the game company for employee training that defines 47 gaming structures. Some are simple — achievement provides points as you earn levels, a la Twitter’s follower counts; many are complex, such as disincentives that punish you for not following the right path. TechCrunch gives the brilliant “disincentive” example of Amazon.com removing all links in its checkout process to funnel the buyer through to the final purchase. The deck is worth a read to see how you could build game rewards into your company’s service model.
Why are game mechanics suddenly popular?
The rise of game psychology is driven by two forces. First, social media is a new online communication platform in which people have to rebuild social graphs from scratch. It doesn’t matter if you were the most popular kid in high school; now you have to reconnect, and you are judged by your connections and what passes through them. Adding fake little badges and points and follower counts gives users immediate rewards, and builds in switching costs, so each social media service has an incentive to tap game devices to lock in market share. If you leave Twitter, you’re ditching thousands of people who “follow” you. The fake gaming currency is not only reward, but also a potential psychological loss.
And second, online or mobile communication networks really lack any other feedback. You can’t get a knuckle-tap from your boss, a hug from your best friend or kiss from your lover through a touchscreen panel. If we want love, we need to believe people are giving us something. For now little game points will have to do, because they have become the currency of ego-needy emotion. Which reminds us: Would you mind following me on Twitter?