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Game Mechanics April 10, 2011

Posted by reto wettach in gamification.

Philip Man form the University of Amsterdam wrote recently a quite critical overview on gamification called “Playing Real Life“.

In this paper he brings together a couple of interesting thoughts related to gamification:

We are on the edge from ‘depersonalized data analysis’ (e.g. Google’s page rank, which “does not reveal who boosted which websites to be on top of their search results”) to a more “personalized, humanized Web”, where – as Zuckerberg envisions “our network of friends, colleagues, peers, and family is our primary source of information, just as it is offline.”

Next, Man shows that “gaming and ludic experiences are intrinsically related to online socializing”: According to Holmes (2007), the contemporary capitalist culture is to let users play in their sandbox, i.e. “to express yourself in a situation whose parameters have been deliberately designed by an organization that is looking to maximize the profitability of one or several of your behaviors”.

Here Man’s critical overview of game mechanics:

The first basic rule of game design is rarity or scarcity. According to Castronova (2001), who researched the economics of virtual worlds, many people consider the best world to be the one with both scarcity and perfectly equal opportunities. The world of a game is one that can offer equal opportunities: everyone starts at level 1 and is subjected to the same rules. Scarcity is not a bug, but it is a feature of the game (Shaviro, 2007: 9). Having to overcome and deal with those rules is what makes a game worthwhile and meaningful to play. Shaviro (2007) quotes Dibbell’s assertion that if all else being equal, “people will choose the world that constrains them over the one that sets them free” (12).

Appointment Dynamics

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There are many factors that have made FarmVille the popular game it is. One of them is what game designers call appointment dynamics. Appointment dynamics (AD) implies that the player is required to log in the game at a predetermined time. AD makes clever use of the reward- and punish-structure as an incentive. If a player does not log in at the predetermined time, or if he is late, he will be punished. In the case of FarmVille, its crops will be withered and of no value anymore. If a player is on time, he will be rewarded for his hard work and his punctuality by harvesting the crops. CEO and founder of Zynga Mark Pincus (2010), creator of FarmVille, calls this the Golden Mechanism or even Wither Mechanism. AD seems to be such an obvious way of nothing else than enslaving its players, but so cleverly integrated into the game that it may even make the game more enjoyable. It reminds me of Spinoza’s (1998) remark that people “will fight for their servitude as if for salvation” (3).

Progression Dynamics

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Another often seen gamification practice is progression dynamics. In its fully manifested form this can be no more than a bar that shows the completion percentage. Think about the profiles of social networks such as LinkedIn and Facebook. A bar with the progression percentage is shown to new users, thereby motivating them to achieve the 100% and complete the task. A similar practice happens after the completion of the profile but in a much more refined manner. The continuous quest and encouragement of Facebook to make new friends seems to go on forever. Therefore, an individual’s profile is in constant progression and never complete. In a gaming perspective, it is a game with only advancements but no goal. Facebook encourages its users to always find new friends by browsing through the recommended friends and importing contacts from email-accounts. What goes even further is the advocacy of Facebook to suggest friendships between one’s own friends. If those friends have indeed ‘friended’ eachother, the individual who suggested the friendship will receive a notice with a rewarding message. Facebook is making it satisfying and rewarding to act as friend-matchmaker.


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This encouragement of expanding the network for reward is called virality. Virality implies that game goals are easier to achieve with multiple players, or players are rewarded if they manage to invite other friends to play the game (FarmVille). In the social medium Foursquare, virality is the very foundation upon which this social game is based (although the founder denies that Foursquare is a game). Foursquare is a social location based service to check-in at venues and share locations. This implies that Foursquare has no value if one does not use it in a competitive manner or invite friends to share locations with. The tendency of today’s gaming is linking the virtual game elements, whether achievements, goals or battlegrounds, to the real world. In Foursquare, badges for various achievements can be earned (e.g. check-in to 50 different venues, check-in 10 times in 12 hours, check-in 4 nights in a row, etc.), although these can be satisfying in itself, it also gives in-game social prestige to show off which badges you have obtained. The compelling competitive element in Foursquare is that whoever checks in a certain venue the most will be named the ‘mayor’ of that venue. Besides that being the ‘mayor’ gives in-game social prestige, it is also often linked to a reward in the real world, such as a free drink in a bar. This is the psychology behind a lot of successful social games: it uses your real friends in the real world (Schell, 2010). The players are creating value for the landlord while they are competing who can check-in most at a certain venue, not immaterial value, but actual customers.

Gabe Zichermann, the author of the book “Game-Based Marketing”, mentions the followings as the most popular game mechanics:

Points are used to track user behavior and provide feedback about progress. There are four key point systems (XP, skill, karma and redeemable), but only XP is necessary.

Levels are indicators of progress that show a user’s movement through a system. They don’t progress linearly and are often unnecessary if incorporated into levelling badges.

Badges are among the more controversial game mechanics for their diffusion in Foursquare – but they serve a few key roles: measuring progress, collecting items, providing an instance for social promotion.

Leaderboards allow users to quickly compare themselves against each other. Although they are ubiquitous, care must be taken to ensure leaderboards drive positive user behavior instead of abandonment from a challenge that’s just too hard.

Challenges are offers from the system to the user to complete a set of tasks in order to get a specific reward. Really well designed gamified experiences offer users a continuously unfolding set of challenges to complete.

Rewards can take many forms, though most marketers choose cash – and most game designers choose virtual. I use the mnemonic SAPS to list rewards a priori: Status, Access, Power and Stuff – it’s what consumer want in order, and what you want to give them.



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