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Game mechanics applied to social media: “Easy to Learn, Hard to Master” March 28, 2007

Posted by jeremyliew in Consumer internet, Internet, social networks, start-up, startups, user generated content, web 2.0.

Jay Gould (President and co-founder of Bolt.com) recently commented on one of my posts and posted himself about Amy Jo Kim‘s fantastic work on game mechanics and how they apply to social networks and user generated content. I was first exposed to her thinking during her presentation at the 2006 Etech conference last year (I’m currently at the 2007 Etech conference). Its truly thought leadership work and I urge you to think about how it might apply to your business.

Kim outlines the “five key mechanics of game design”;collecting things, earning points, providing feedback, exchanges, and customization; and then thinks about how these can apply in other consumer applications, especially those with a user generated component.

I’d leave it to you to read her specific material, but I think the broader idea of applying best practices of game mechanics to shape behaviour on social media sites is very interesting. Basically, the key question you’re trying to answer for a first time visitor is “what am I supposed to do here?”

One often repeated game design adage is “easy to learn, hard to master“. This is true of the best social media sites. At Myspace you quickly learn that the game is to get the most friends. At Piczo you quickly learn that the game is to have the coolest pages. At Stylehive it is to submit cool and fashionable clothing and furniture. At Yelp it’s to write useful, funny or cool reviews.

New users understand the game because of the smart application of Kim’s mechanics of game design. They see what you “score points” for (i.e. what metrics are measured on each page), what is “collected” (i.e. what badges and other icons are displayed on each page), what actions or things prompted “positive feedback” from other members of the community (what is “celebrated” through comments and for what users are thanked), and they look to the sites navigation and design as to cues as to what they should be doing.

This argues for an “application specific” approach to building social media, rather than a “platform” approach. If you have a platform that can and is used for many different purposes, a new user doesn’t necessarily know what to do when they get there. An “application specific” approach makes the game “easier to learn” because the cues all point in one direction.

Stylehive, a Lightspeed Portfolio company, and ThisNext, are great examples. At their base, they are social bookmarking products, similar to Kaboodle or eSnips, that can be used to bookmark anything on the web. But a casual visitor to the site quickly learns that this site is about clothing, accessories, furniture and fashion, and as a result other items (new stories, clever photographs etc) don’t get added to the hive.

Similarly, Digg as a platform can support any form of media being submitted. But it started out mostly technology news based, and it has controlled its growth by means of its navigational taxonomy. As the user base grows and clamors for more nodes to be added to the taxonomy (or adds new material regardless), Digg expands its scope, with pictures likely to be added in the future judging from user demand.

If you’re running a social media site, ask yourself if a new user will quickly “get the game” and then want to “get into the game”.


1. Ben - March 29, 2007


You should get paid for this :). I think your analysis is important and a big subtle driver to alot of sites. Now the fact is, you can’t often even ask users about the game they are playing—they don’t want to admit it or don’t even know it conciously. But most of the bigs ones, even the professional ones like Linkedin.com were driven off a game.

So for all of us, it is finding that “game” that fits with the natural user experience and supports the business direction that is critical. Flixster clearly has something working. What do you see as the game that drives Flixter users ?

2. Baris Karadogan - March 29, 2007

In one of today’s sessions at Etech, Raph Koster touched on these points too. I think there is great wisdom in looking at all sites as a game.

One thing Raph mentioned was that games get fun as you get skilled. The comparison was Ebay vs. Amazon. Ebay is more fun because as you buy things you think you get better at bidding and timing auctions and therefore have a better experience than at Amazon, where it is very similar each time. I wonder how the skill factor can become an attraction in e-commerce sites.

3. Will - April 3, 2007


Where do I find a list of her published research papers? Tx.

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