Communities as Games

Social networking sites (Digg, Facebook, and YouTube) can be thought of as games with goals, actions, play, strategies, and rewards. This idea comes from C. Weng’s free e-book, The Web: Hidden Games. On Read/WriteWeb yesterday, Richard MacManus talked about these Social Websites as Games:

The e-book goes on to tell you how to “win” at Digg and notes that “like all games, Digg’s system can be cheated.” It also compares YouTube to chess: “there are an infinite number of ways to win in YouTube but it only occurs under certain conditions. Every single method, strategy, and theory leads back to the essential factor: getting people to view your videos.” And as for Facebook, it is compared to The Sims: “The object of the game is more to monitor or to guide characters in daily life rather than to win at something. There’s no simple goal in sight but it is all about the process of playing.”

(Quoted from by Richard MacManus on Read/WriteWeb)

I think this idea extends past social websites and into communities as well. I recently blogged about using reputation systems in communities with a discussion about people can game community reputation systems. The important thing to recognize is whether people are gaming the system in a productive manner that helps the community or in a destructive way that serves only to clutter the community with worthless chatter that annoys other members.

Thinking about the community as a game where you can accumulate points and status can help the community when members use the points as incentives to post productive content and answer questions from other members. This productive gaming serves to improve the content within the community.

The danger with reputation systems (and social networking sites, like Digg) is when the gaming becomes destructive. In communities, people can post worthless one-line responses to discussions that add nothing to the conversations, but act only to accumulate points. In Digg, people can get together to Digg worthless stories to the home page solely to generate advertising revenue for the owner of the site.

The key, as I’ve mentioned before, is transparency and proactive adjustments. Community reputation systems can be adjusted to help prevent people from accumulating any significant amount of points just for responding to discussions without meaningful content. Digg has continually adjusted their algorithms to help prevent gaming. It is also important to recognize that no technical solution can entirely prevent gaming of reputation systems or social websites. Because you cannot entirely prevent it, transparency is the key to making sure that other people can see which members are gaming the system. As a community member, if I can see that all of Joe’s posts are one line responses of the “great post” or “thanks for the info” variety, I will start to ignore his responses, and if the system lets me block him from my view, I may chose to exclude his responses. On a site like Digg, I may also chose to block stories submitted by a user who always submits stories from a couple of sites (probably his sites).

I like reputation systems and think that they can be used productively in communities if monitored carefully. People are motivated in many different ways. While some community members will contribute freely without any reward for their effort, others will contribute more often if they can see some tangible rewards for their contribution.

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