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March 1, 2004

Are social networks a collecting game?

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A few weeks back, Clay Shirky posted about the lack of games coverage on Many2Many . That got me thinking about the relationship between game design and social software, and about why social software apps like buddy lists, blogs and social networks FEEL so game-like to me. First off -- what is a game? In Rules of Play, Eric Zimmerman defined a game as a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome. It's certainly true that many games fit this definition - including board games, card games, organized sports, RPGs, and most single-player computer games. But what about best-selling simulations like SimCity, The Sims, and The Incredible Machine? And MMPs like Lineage, Everquest, and Star Wars Galaxies? And avatar-based visual chatting apps like HabboHotel and SayClub? Clearly, there's a lot of playful, engaging digital entertainment out there that's game-like, but not strictly "a game" in the classic sense. To make these musings concrete and actionable, I'm gonna try to articulate the elements that make an experience feel "game-like." I've sketched out a short list of ideas - here's the first. I'll post more ideas over the next few days. I'd love to hear your thoughts as well, so please jump in! Points & Levels Earning points (in one form or another) and asociating levels with earned points is a common and powerful game mechanic that taps into basic human nature. When you earn points for in-game actions, you gain a sense of progress and accomplishment -- which motivates you to keep playing. And when you're rewarded for your persistence with a new 'level' that offers greater status, powers and challenges, that compounds the motivational power of the mechanism. This basic idea has wide application beyond games. For example, Frequent Flyer programs allow customers to earn points via economic transactions, and award loyal, active customers with special status and privileges when they reach certain levels. Anytime you have the means to track and assign value to social or economic transactions within a system, you have the opportunity to introduce a mechanism for earning points and assigning levels. A great non-gaming example is eBay's reputation system: buyers and sellers earn points via successful transactions, and the 'star' levels offer a simple yet highly motivating "carrot." Another example is Amazon's Reviewer Rating system: reviewers earn points by posting useful reviews that are rated highly by others, and the 'Top Reviewers' lists (Top-10, Top-50, Top-500, Top-1000) provides 'levels' for reviewers to aspire to. The drive to accumulate points and track accomplishments is so powerful that people will often'make up' a game when one doesn't explicity exist. For example, social networks show you the number of friends you have, and the number of connections you've 'earned' by having those friends. This simple feedback mechanism encourages some people to think of a social network as a 'game' with the goal of 'collect the most friends with the greatest number of connections.' As with the Amazon top reviewers system, adding statistical lists of Top-Performers to a social network reinforces the sense that this is a game to be won, a 'skill to be mastered.' Which brings me to tomorrow's topic: Rules, Competition & Mastery

Comments (4) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: guests


1. David Fono on March 2, 2004 2:33 AM writes...

I'm glad you mentioned it, because the gaming of social networks seems to contribute to (or derive from, or both) a rather striking consequence of SNSs: the commodification of relationships. Amongst actors in the system, friendship is turning from an interpersonal process into an inanimate token.

This change has got to have some serious consequences. It's all well and good for people who treat the system as a curiosity, but what about those who actually use it according to its stated purpose? They'll be building up networks of purely superficial relationships. I can just imagine someone spending hours of hard work "meeting" people, only to discover that they have no actual personal basis for communicating with them.

In fact, if I had a fuller understanding of social capital, I'd be tempted to say that it's being redefined as an actual, collectable, discrete currency. Whereas previously the building of relationships was a source of social good, now it is becoming merely a source of individual wealth. And where there is wealth to be accumulated, gamers will not be far behind.

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2. Gregory Narain on March 2, 2004 10:02 AM writes...

I definitely see some new challenges in dealing with the world where our relationships have been forged into currency (although this form of alchemy seems to have existed in many incarnations beforehand).

As danah boyd might state on this matter, use of the system is subject to the whims of the user more so than the original designers. In that regard, the worry may be more in the designers building in artificially unreachable parameters for use, and ultimately, distorting the perception of "success".

However, I do agree with the characterization as a game. I commented briefly on my blog:

I would have to wholeheartedly agree with these statements. I would perhaps go a little further and suggest that the value is not simply in the ability to collect "points and levels", but also the ability leverage that in any number of methods: sold, bartered or traded as commodities (EBay, Craigslist, etc.), influence over opinion and action, or wielded as a badge of honor to earn acceptance to gated communities. This last point is, I think, the most interesteing, as it uses the point system as an activity meter as well as a network monitor. (

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3. Hunter on March 2, 2004 2:46 PM writes...

Great post Amy - you know what i think - game all the way. And additionally these networks (even pure infoservices) can learn from game design, especially with regards to stimuli-response activities.

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4. Adina Levin on March 3, 2004 2:08 AM writes...

Perhaps avatar chat and Sim City don't meet the classic definition of "game" as an artificial conflict. They clearly meet a definition of "play", though.

Also, I wonder whether the definition of gameplay comes from traditionally male activities with scoring and complicated rules. Compare to traditional girl roleplay games like "playing house" where there is no score. Or jumprope and clapping games, where there is no score, but there is competition and turn-taking (when you miss, you're out of the round).

Social network games may have aspects of role-playing and reciprocity, with out explicit scoring. Maybe adding the friend count to orkut adds explicit scoring-- which makes intuitive sense to guys -- onto a the process of staying in touch with people.

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