Dr. McGonigal, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Gay Mechanics, part one

Oct 29, 2009 • Karen

This post is part of a series on applied game mechanics that I’ve been writing for the OpenHatch blog. The original is located here.

So. Game mechanics. There's a good lot of material out there about game mechanics as applied to typical game formats--board games, video games, etc. All of the examples on the 'Game Mechanic' Wikipedia page fall in this category. So too do most of the papers at GAMBIT, MIT's game lab. But surely it's obvious that game mechanics can be applied much more broadly, n'est-ce pas? From the Wikipedia article, the definition of a game mechanic is "a construct of rules intended to produce an enjoyable game or gameplay." Substitute 'user experience' for 'gameplay' real quick and we get something really useful to think about. Thinking about game mechanics this way allows us to blur the line between games and social networks, explain the success of many of the most popular Web 2.0-era websites, and, most importantly, engineer ways to make OpenHatch fun and addictive.

Strangely, though, there aren't that many resources out there right now for learning how to apply game mechanics to things that are non-obviously games. Currently, there are only four hits on Google for "applied game mechanics". That's like 0.02% of the number of hits for "gay mechanics"! So the point of this post is to share what my fellow OpenHatchers and I have learned in our research about how to apply game mechanics to non-game websites.

In her presentation "Putting the Fun in Functional", online community architect Amy Jo Kim lists five different types of game mechanics:

pokemans1.) Collecting

Whether it's Girl Scout badges, passport stamps, comic book series, or pokemons, this mechanic taps into the completionist in all of us. It also acts on the desire for bragging rights. To use this to maximum effect, include in your game-like object a trophy room or other achievement pantry that includes big, sad, blank spaces representing the things not yet collected or unlocked.

2.) Points/levels

These are pretty standard. Points are native to most sports, while the XP/level system is endemic to RPGs and their children. But what do they do for you?

For users, points have three obvious uses:

* To be redeemed for stuff (either tangible or virtual).

* To unlock new features, powers, etc.


* To cultivate social approval, credibility, and so forth (well-rated or high-level users tend to get more respect than n00bs).

For the makers of game-like objects, points incentivize "good" behavior (as defined by you) and express you or your users' values.

Points can be given out automatically in response to completing tasks or other criteria (e.g. Guitar Hero), or they can be given out by other humans (e.g. ratings on YouTube and eBay). Sometimes points are explicit (e.g. Hot or Not) but sometimes they're implicit: Kitten Wars, for example, has no apparent point values, but rather operates by having users compare two competing kitten pictures and click the cuter one.

3.) Feedback

completenessbarFeedback can come from three places. First, the UI itself can give feedback. One example of this is self-checking signup forms that dynamically tell you when you've forgotten a field or entered invalid input. Another example is the 'completeness' progress bars that tell new users what to do on sites like LinkedIn or OKCupid.

Second, you can get AI feedback. Here, the computer/console, often embodied in a non-player character within the game, remarks on your progress and makes suggestions. Examples include Mama in the game Cooking Mama, or the DJ's voice in Dance Dance Revolution.

Finally, you can get feedback from other humans/players in myriad ways: private messages, instant messages, public comments, ratings, and so forth.

Feedback gives players/users the feeling that others are paying attention to what they are doing and care about their participation. It also nudges them in the "right" direction (as defined by you) if they are making mistakes or behaving badly.

4.) Exchanges

pokeBy definition, exchanges are structured social interactions between users/players. In typical games, exchanges take place in the form of taking turns or trading/gifting in-game objects. In game-like applications, any form of structured give-and-take qualifies. Pokes on Facebook are one interesting application of this principle.

5.) Customization

This game mechanic can include anything from uploading a special background image to your page to choosing your avatar's hair color to setting custom keyboard shortcuts. Making your game-like object customizable is key because it causes users/players to invest in it, increasing the barriers to exit--if they ever left, they'd have to leave their painstakingly perfected character/profile/setup behind! Making the site manually customizable is the obvious route, but it's also possible to use this dynamic automatically--for instance, by making recommendations to users based on their known attributes and past actions. The classic form of customization is developing one's avatar or character in a role-playing game--choosing their physical appearance, naming them, writing their back story, and so forth.

Most game-like objects don't involve fictional avatars. The genius thing about social network websites, though, is that there you do have a character to develop. The 'character' is you, or however you choose to represent yourself to the online community.

Jeremy Liew at Lightspeed Venture Partners suggests two more mechanics:

6.) Quests

Quests, in a nutshell, tell your users what to do. In most role-playing games, quests are the narrative vehicle for most of the game--there is some epic goal that your group is seeking to achieve, with various sub-goals and side quests along the way. In game-like objects, quests function alongside or in addition to points to highlight and incentivize particular actions on your site. Quests can be especially effective in helping new users/players explore your site and try out different features in a fun, structured way.

7.) Crafting

Crafting means turning less-valuable resources into more valuable ones--for instance, in an RPG collecting 10 herbs and using a character's skill to turn them into a health potion. I can't think of an instance where someone has applied this game mechanic to a game-like object, but there may be a way. Who knows?

In addition to these 5-7 game mechanics, there are four different types of game players, as described by Richard Bartle: achievers, explorers, socializers, and killers.

Achievers regard points-gathering and rising in levels as their main goal, and all is ultimately subservient to this. [...]

Achievers say things like:

"I'm busy."
"Sure, I'll help you. What do I get?"
"So how do YOU kill the dragon, then?"
"Only 4211 points to go!"

Explorers delight in having the game expose its internal machinations to them. They try progressively esoteric actions in wild, out-of-the-way places, looking for interesting features (i.e. bugs) and figuring out how things work. [...]

Explorers say things like:

"You mean you
don't know the shortest route from room 1> to ?"
"I haven't tried that one, what's it do?"
"Why is it that if you carry the uranium you get radiation
sickness, and if you put it in a bag you still get it, but if
you put it in a bag and drop it then wait 20 seconds and pick it
up again, you don't?"

Socialisers are interested in people, and what they have to say. The game is merely a backdrop, a common ground where things happen to players. Inter-player relationships are important: empathising with people, sympathising, joking, entertaining, listening; even merely observing people play can be rewarding - seeing them grow as individuals, maturing over time. [...]

Socialisers say things like:

"Yeah, well, I'm having trouble with my boyfriend."
"What happened? I missed it, I was talking."

and finally, the trolls:

Killers get their kicks from imposing themselves on others. This may be "nice", ie. busybody do-gooding, but few people practice such an approach because the rewards (a warm, cosy inner glow, apparently) aren't very substantial. Much more commonly, people attack other players with a view to killing off their personae (hence the name for this style of play). The more massive the distress caused, the greater the killer's joy at having caused it. Normal points-scoring is usually required so as to become powerful enough to begin causing havoc in earnest, and exploration of a kind is necessary to discover new and ingenious ways to kill people. Even socialising is sometimes worthwhile beyond taunting a recent victim, for example in finding out someone's playing habits, or discussing tactics with fellow killers. They're all just means to an end, though; only in the knowledge that a real person, somewhere, is very upset by what you've just done, yet can themselves do nothing about it, is there any true adrenalin-shooting, juicy fun.

Killers say things like:

"Die! Die! Die!"

(Killers are people of few words).

Most people (and most players) are not purely any one of these types. However, a good game will have elements and opportunities that appeal to each of the four.

So if you've read this far, you've gotten a decent crash course on game mechanics and some inklings of how to apply them to web apps and other non-obvious games. Tune in next time for a discussion of the game-like objects we at OpenHatch are inspired by; the game that was the result of this research, through a version of which we hope to promote open source software participation; and why we agree with Dr. McGonigal that applied games are the future.