Michael Wu, Ph.D. is Lithium's Principal Scientist of Analytics, digging into the complex dynamics of social interaction and group behavior in online communities and social networks.
Michael was voted a 2010 Influential Leader by CRM Magazine for his work on predictive social analytics and its application to Social CRM.He's a regular blogger on the Lithosphere's Building Community blog and previously wrote in the Analytic Science blog. You can follow him on Twitter at mich8elwu.
For a good number of installments I have been writing on the science of relationships. Today, I want to start a new mini-series on “gaming science.” Why? Well, this is becoming a popular topic and coincidentally, there was a Gamification Summit last week in San Francisco. Although I didn’t attend (locked up behind too many equations as usual), several Lithium representatives were there, including one of our cofounders.
If you didn’t know, Lithium is actually a company founded by a group of professional gamers. This gaming heritage gave us a unique perspective on the recently popularized idea of gamification, partly due to the success of social games in business (e.g. Farmville, Foursquare, etc.). However, there is still much confusion around terms like game mechanics, gaming dynamics, game theory, gamification, etc., so let me try to clarify some of these concepts today.
Not too long ago, the “G” word (for games) seemed to have a negative connotation in the corporate world. It was seen as a little too relaxed and irrelevant to business, so gaming was never really discussed in the business context. I suppose it was traditionally believed that if you are playing games then you are not working. However, as Dr. Stuart Brown so eloquently states in his TED talk, “play is not the opposite of work.” This is the foundation of gamification.
What is Gamification?
At the most fundamental level, gamification is the use of game mechanics to drive game-like engagement and actions. The logic is dead simple. People love to play games. But in everyday life, we are often presented with activities we hate, whether it is boring chores or stressful works. Gamification is the process of introducing game mechanics into these abhorred activities to make them more game-like (i.e. fun, rewarding, desirable, etc.), so that people would want to proactively take part in these tasks.
What are Game Mechanics?
So what are game mechanics? They are principles, rules, and/or mechanisms (much like mechanics in physics) that govern a behavior through a system of incentives, feedback, and rewards with reasonably predictable outcome. Some of them are so predictable that they can almost be seen as a kind of behavioral or psychological reflex, much like the patellar reflex of your knee when tapped by a physician. There are many game mechanics, and new ones are being discovered and constructed by game designers every day. Gamification.org has compiled a list of well know game mechanics (some of these are actually gaming dynamics, see below), but there are myriad, because humans can be motivated in practically infinite numbers of ways.
Game mechanics are just the basic building blocks. They can be strung together and combined in interesting ways to drive a very complex sequence of actions suitable for different contexts or desired results. The outcome of this? You can pretty much gamify anything.
For example, gamification of education can make children want to go to school and learn. Gamification of work can make people excited about work and boost productivity. The Lithium founders, being pro gamers themselves, have discovered ways to gamify community participation so that members of Lithium-powered communities are much more engaged and motivated to participate.
What are Gaming Dynamics?
The basics sound great right, and it appears we are ready to change the world now! As always it’s not that simple, because game mechanics are not enough. Why? Well of course, people are different and they are motivated by different thing in many different ways. Game mechanics that work well for one type of players may work poorly for other types. Moreover, people get bored with routines after a while, so this is where gaming dynamics comes in.
Gaming dynamics are temporal evolution and patterns of both the game and the players that make the game (or any gamified activity) more enjoyable. Early game researcher, Richard A Bartle, has identified at least four type of gaming personality: Achiever, Explorer, Socializer, and Killer, and different gaming dynamics are required for different types of gamers. For example, killers require a gaming dynamics that are much faster than those for socializers. An engaging game will tend to get progressively harder to challenge the achievers inside everyone of us, so we don’t get bored. The appointment dynamic, used in Farmville, can coordinate different players that are rewarded by different game mechanics to collaborate together. The progressive-unlock dynamic, used in Foursquare, adds serendipitous surprise to the more routine points and achievements game mechanics.
Are you starting to see the difference between game mechanics and gaming dynamics? Point and achievement are game mechanics used to motivate behaviors, but how and precisely when the badges are unlocked over time and the precise reward schedule are gaming dynamics. Clever game designers can create new gaming dynamics by combining various game mechanics over time to make game play more interesting and engaging. This is the reason why so many people are confused about the distinction between game mechanics and gaming dynamics. Some people even treat these two terms synonymously, but really they are two different things.
Players can also go through various gaming dynamics too. The simplest is the player’s level-up journey: novice — experienced — expert — master. Gaming dynamics is all about timing! A well designed gaming dynamic brings players to the next stages at the right time so the players feel accomplished. On the other hand, poor gaming dynamics tend to lose players along the way, either due to boredom or creating overly-complex challenges, and therefore make the game less engaging. Another player gaming dynamic I’ve written about is the control — arousal — flow dynamic (feel free to check it out at your leisure).
What is Game Theory?
Now, what about game theory? The surprise to most of you may be that game theory really doesn’t have much to do with gaming or gamification. It is actually a well established branch of mathematics that tries to describe the decision process in any strategic situation, including games. Game theory is often used to analyze complex problems in economics, social dilemma, conflict/resolution, political science, social psychology, etc. The great mathematician, John F. Nash (the subject of the Hollywood movie: A Beautiful Mind) received the Nobel Prize in Economics for his research on Game Theory. Despite its promise and utility, most realistic problems in this world are often too complex to be analyzed by game theory, so Charlie Eppes (from the TV show Numb3rs) and real world mathematicians still have a lot of work ahead of them.
Even though game theory is not really about gaming/gamification, it is sometimes used by hardcore game designers to analyze how players make decisions in certain real-time strategic games. In a well controlled setting, game theory can reveal principles that give us a better understanding of how humans think and act. This is an active area of research in behavioral economics, a subject explored by Dan Ariely in his popular book: Predictably Irrational, which investigates some common flaws in our decision process.
Alright, I hope this post gave you a sense of what all this buzz about gamification is all about. Personally, I feel that gamification can be a big deal, because it is a very effective way to drive actions. In other words gamification can be seen as an effective mechanism or vehicle for influence. I’ve seen it in our community data. There are community superusers who would spend more than 30 hours a week participating in a community. Part of this can be attributed to the gamification of community participation. So don’t ever underestimate the business value of fun.
Now that you have an introductory understanding of the various G-words, we can dive into some of the more interesting topics about gaming next time. For example, what gives game mechanics their magical power (i.e. the power of turning an abhorred activity into a desirable activity)? How can we design and affect the efficacy of certain gaming dynamics? All these are very important topics that can have significant business impacts. In the mean time, I welcome any discussions around this topic.