Game Mechanics and Participation

Let’s start with a stat: A shitload of people are playing games.

Ok, it wasn’t a stat, but in 2007 Comscore found that 217 million people are playing online games, and that was before all those people got addicted to Zynga’s Facebook games.

“Yeah, but those are just games, what does that have to do with participation?”

As I mentioned before, putting some game mechanics into your campaign will help you get and/or keep participation. It’s a fairly simple concept, people like to play and if people are having fun, they’ll get addicted. Addiction is the reason so many people play simulation games (Farmville, SIMS, Sim City 2000), and why they move pieces and parts around (Bejeweled, Tetris). Addiction is about becoming psychologically dedicated to something – why shouldn’t that something be participation in your project or campaign?

It isn’t just addiction which causes people to participate in the playing of games, it’s also about self improvement. People like to prove to themselves (and others) that they can accomplish more, we’re always striving for eudaimonia, which likely comes from successes in life rather than failures.

It’s important to understand that implementing game mechanics doesn’t necessarily mean creating a full fledged game. It means using certain game-like qualities to change the way that people interact with your particular event/campaign/project.

There are lots and lots of different game mechanics. They fall into 3 overarching mechanic types. The first, behavioral game mechanics, focus on the human psyche. These mechanics use cognitive and emotional motivations to win external motivations (points, levels, etc). Type 2, Feedback game mechanics, are those games that complete Feedback loops (player does something, something happens, player receives feedback, with the learned information the player does something else). Progression game mechanics are those that create a structure for gradually displaying progress. This is nitty gritty stuff, so I suggest checking out (absolutely EXCELLENT library of game mechanic definitions) or the blog at

For me, the most valuable game mechanics to work into open web or open source projects and campaigns are:

  1. Cards/Tokens/Points – don’t be fooled, “points” doesn’t necessarily mean “points”, it’s more a tally of what a user has done. In Wikipedia, “points” might be related to contributions, for the School of Webcraft, “points” might be how many courses or challenges a user has completed, the Open Badges project already has “points”, they’re called badges. Anything that a user can collect can be considered “points”. Users will collect things to prove to themselves that they can get everything there is to collect, it’s a sort of psychosis. They’ll feel they have to participate or contribute until there are no more points for them to collect.
  2. Levels – The more “points” you receive, the more “levels” you advance. This is implemented by making certain actions impossible until a user has a certain number of points. It means that the “level up” leads to the unlocking of content. Levels will make a user curious, and curiosity will be enough motivation to keep a person involved.
  3. Status – The ability to show other people what you’ve accomplished. This functions most succinctly by giving people a title based on how many levels they’ve achieved. You see this a lot in forums – trusted contributors are called “gurus” and new contributors are called “newbies” (or whatever). People like to compete against each other, and a status is a way to show off that you’ve won.
  4. Rewards/Prizes – Offer something, get participation. It’s that simple. Figuring out what you have to offer is the tricky part. Perhaps what you have to offer is notoriety, publicity or straight up swag. Whatever you can give, award it to your contributors/participants. It’ll keep them coming back.

Of these four mechanics, I’d like to take a moment to point out that Open Badges falls into each mechanic. As “points”, it’s clear. But Badges are also levels (because you can’t get the advanced badge before you get the basic badge), status, and as soon as badges are able to be used as real world proof of accomplishment, the reward aspect will be obvious.

Human beings are naturally competitive, so the challenge is to create competitions, contests or tasks that aren’t just about winning, but also playing the game. You reward people who are playing the game through status and/or straight up reward. In my opinion, the best way to have mass participation is to allow multiple “winners”. One winner who wins it all creates the “I don’t stand a chance attitude” and participation drops.

Tiered winning is a great way to get repeat participation. An excellent example of this is the Mojo project. Round One was an open call for entries and there were 60 “prizes” to win. This round had open feedback from the community at large, so participants were rewarded with feedback. Round Two was a prize AND a competition. The prize for Round One was a spot in a summer learning lab that boasted excellent technology and journalism keynotes, collaborative creation and access to smart people. Round Three is a hackathon in Berlin, this is the prize for Round Two winners, and it too is attached to a competition. The winners get a free trip to Berlin and pitted against each other for the grand prize of winning a year long fellowship with a news organization.

These are some super awesome prizes to win, but the genius behind the structure lies within the game mechanics. People believe they stand a chance, therefore, they participate. In their participation, they are offered real world experiences and contacts, creating a bubble of trust, and inspiring further participation. Those who did not advance are rewarded anyway (in Round One with feedback and exposure, in Round Two with knowledge gained through the lab curriculum, in Round Three with a free trip to Berlin). Because they are rewarded, they are more likely to participate in other competitions of this kind.

Which game mechanics to implement and how to implement them is something to be thought about. There’s a lot of different types of games, therefore a lot of game mechanics. There are different game personality types, so implementing game mechanics means looking at your target audience. Who are they, and how do they play? Are they achievers, explorers, socializers or killers?

It’s not about turning your project into a game, it’s about getting people to participate and contribute more.

Refocusing our various efforts to work together rather than autonomously could make for a great gaming experience. Turning our initiatives into a series of interconnected “games” will have more people participating, which means more people will be aware of the fight we’re fighting. Perhaps it’s time to get some overarching game mechanics conceptualized?

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  2 comments for “Game Mechanics and Participation

  1. August 30, 2011 at 6:21 pm

    Wow. Never looked at it that way. Very interested in trying to apply it to my project.

  2. September 1, 2011 at 2:46 am

    In my experience of games, there are two elements to a compulsive and rewarding gaming experience.

    1. Creation. Let players build something unique within the game. This is the way to give players ownership of the experience. Minecraft is an excellent example but it doesn’t have to be so literal. A player can build their own solution to a problem, or build their own in-game identity. Levelling is a simple example of this. Whatever they build, they have to be able to point to it and say “I made this.”

    2. Diversity. Give players many different ways of taking part. This applies particularly to multiplayer games. Every game should involve a challenge but this runs the risk of excluding those who are not up to the challenge. But if you create multiple, parallel routes through the game, each of which challenges a different skill, you broaden the appeal of your game. WoW, for example, has different classes such as fighter and healer, each of which is played very differently. This diversity is essential co-operation.

    How you apply these to non-game projects is another matter.

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