Where the Game Layer Really Counts: Sharing & Peer Communities

Richard MacManus is the founder and co-editor of the popular technology blog, ReadWriteWeb. Incidentally, he’s also the mayor of Go-Bang Cafe in Petone, New Zealand on Foursquare. “But all I have to show for it is a virtual badge,” he says. “I also have a coffee card from that establishment, so my 10th coffee is free. Why not tie that into Foursquare, and make it ‘every 5th coffee is free’ or some other promotion, as a reward for being the mayor?” He believes that many social apps are going in this direction, building in a “game layer” of points, badges and, in some cases, monetary rewards. “But game mechanics should be fun and playful, as well as rewarding in an ‘real world’ sense-like leveling-up on Couchsurfing opens up new places, people and offline experiences to you,” he adds. “Are most ‘game-based’ apps fun, though?”

Since Jane McGonigal’s TED talk, “Gaming Can Make a Better World,” went live last February, buzz about “gameifying” the real world has been steadily mounting. Will Wright, creator of the Sim series, remarked that companies worldwide are viewing gaming as a kind of “MSG” (“Make it Seem Game-like”) that can be added to most any scenario to make it more enjoyable. Marketers across industries-from food service to health to media - are rushing to build in reward schemes and to identify new game-based, motivational levers that could increase users’ engagement with brands.

Some critics have cited the insincerity with which many companies are implementing game mechanics now: tacking them on without regard to their relevance, or focusing too much on getting users to follow through on a specific behavior, such as referring a friend or making a purchase. “‘How can we get more people to do this?’ I don’t think that’s even a good question. A lot of the gameification literature has this persuasion framework, but it’s a poor one,” explains Joe Edelman, CEO at Groundcrew and former Lead Developer at Couchsurfing. Groundcrew is an engaging, real-time mobile platform for activating and coordinating community members to tackle local initiatives like neighborhood clean-ups, art projects, or cause-related events. “It’s like saying that we have this lousy job, and we want to attach a rocketship of game mechanics to get people to do it. A much better way to think about it is, ‘how is this job part of a system of experience that people want, or how can we redesign it to be?’” People like Joe Edelman and Jane McGonigal have started to explore gaming with a different set of goals, asking where and how can games have the most positive impact for society.

Games allow participants to “level up” their individual value-their reputation and trustworthiness-and to interact and collaborate with peers, both online and offline: elements which are essential for sharing services that help us work together to lessen our environmental impact or to foster positive community bonds. For example, ThredUP’s leaderboard offers elevated status to those who share the most clothing, and Couchsurfers gain access to accommodations by proving to be a trustworthy guest or host. Game principles provide the infrastructure for individuals to prove and make transparent their trustworthiness over time so that these kinds broad scale, peer-to-peer sharing communities can function and grow. How else can gameification work for the greater good?

Reframing “Game”

  • We’ve been doing it all along. The recent frenzy about adding a “game layer” to life may have made the popular media a little glib about what that actually means and how it can work. In truth, it’s nothing new. “What we do in a game is create a simplified model of the world so that it’s easier to know what behaviors we can do to win or lose or what kinds of strategies might work. However, in the real world, we do this too-whether we’re talking about trust-building in online communities, or incentive and compensation plans for businesses to encourage employee engagement,” explains Arthur Brock, Founder and Systems Architect at the MetaCurrency Project. “So are we just gameifying part of the real world? Yes, I think so.”
  • We can make it up as we go. Games provide a set of social or situational rules that constrain the world we’re in-they allow us to play out a role or act according to a well-defined set of parameters. Thanks in large part to mobile technology, which is portable and real-time, transposing these rules onto the offline world is easier than ever. “With apps or the mobile Web, you can make up totally arbitary rules. For example, if you share your parking spot, you get access to three other parking spots. I mean, you just make it up, right?” says Joe Edelman.

Jane McGonigal’s “World Without Oil” game is a stellar example of funneling today’s pervasive and real-time information climate toward creating these types of rules. It uses a “hot net-native storytelling method” (dubbed “alternate reality”) to push online news content, faux gas pricing, user-generated stories and so on to players who must live within the lifestyle constraints that would follow from a global oil crisis. These types of games go beyond the simple reward schemes that game-minded marketers are putting in play today, tapping into a deeper sense of motivation, productivity and engagement.

  • There’s playing, and then there’s playing games. “We have two different words in Danish for ‘play’; there’s playing games, and then there’s the way that children play with each other. Children’s play is mostly not about winning or losing, but rather experimenting with the rules and with social interaction,” explains Michael Thomsen who now acts as Innovation Director at Workz and who was formerly Director of Software R&D at LEGO. (Workz is a Copenhagen-based creative change agency that empowers strategy, innovation and change through involvement and serious games.) “LEGO, for instance, is about play that’s not gaming,” he notes. Overt reward structures are perhaps the most simple game mechanic, and they can be quite effective. However, they can also downplay, or overlook entirely, a critical element of engagement: our own intrinsic motivation.

Gaming + Sharing: Critical Overlap

Regardless of whether a service is employing badges, points, or other reward schemes, the most successful “games” are the ones that tap into something people care about: their personal goals and values, which relate to money, societal causes, or their own social identities and experiences. Sharing lives at the convergence of these three realms, simultaneously addressing issues of economic decline, environmental damage, and social fragmentation. When games tap into the same poignant, personal motivators that drive sharing, new possibilities for positive societal change and good business result.

  • Tap into the “me + we” mentality. Last year’s The New Sharing Economy study, a collaboration between Shareable Magazine and Latitude Research, found that the two most popularly perceived benefits of sharing (67% each*) were “saving money” and being “good for society,” echoing the “we + me” mentality now popular amongst Millennials; personal benefits like saving money needn’t come at the expense of helping the environment or society, and businesses that can offer a combination of individual and social benefits are more likely to keep users engaged over the long-term. Ridekicks, for example, is a UK-based ride-sharing service that rewards points to users for offering rides, traveling long distances over time, and so on. Currently, users with a lot of points enjoy a certain sense of status and increased trustworthiness, but the founders have plans to offer more concrete benefits. They believe that the novelty of virtual rewards like badges and points will inevitably wear off. “We’re trying to make Ridekicks rewarding in a real-life situation-for people with rising petrol costs, for example. We’re hoping to start some discussions with companies here who could provide fuel subsidies or coach vouchers for accruing points, badges and other ‘achievements’ on the site,” explains Rohit Mistry, Director at Ridekicks.

“Me + we” solutions are particularly well-suited to help boost local economies. Macon Money, with support from the Knight Foundation, is “a community-wide social game built around local currency.” Players (who are residents of Macon, Georgia) can receive half of a Macon Money bond by going to an event, signing up online, or stopping by the organizations’ headquarters. The goal is to find the player with the other half of your bond by matching its unique symbol set. Completed bonds can be redeemed for local currency that can be spent at participating Macon businesses like real cash. The game creates more opportunities for the community to connect, online and offline, while also giving local businesses a financial boost.

  • Offer real-world rewards and recognition. In addition to monetary rewards, games can provide other real-world perks important to sharing. These can be social or emotional benefits that foster positive peer interactions, such as reputation, knowledge, or a sense of community belongingness. Moreover, as technology continues to facilitate trust and new kinds of transactions between strangers, these types of alternative currencies are increasing in value. “In many computer games, building a strong character becomes the main motivator for playing, and that driver is also used in many community sites,” Thomsen says. LEGO Mindstorms is world-renowned for its passionate community engagement and collaborative innovation. “You start as an apprentice and work your way to become a master builder by sharing your creations and helping other people. And if you’re really good, you have a chance to get invited to Denmark to help LEGO develop new products.” In this way, businesses can reward their most engaged users with reputation currency while encouraging more community growth and gleaning valuable product development insights.

  • Create new community experiences, online and offline. Platforms like Groundcrew are providing opportunities for neighbors to meet and share the experience of doing something helpful for their local communities. In January of this year, Boston and its surrounding areas were pummeled by consecutive blizzards, causing hazardous conditions for both drivers and pedestrians alike. More than thirty strangers living in the same Jamaica Plain neighborhood formed “Snowcrew,” using Groundcrew to organize a neighborhood snow-shoveling effort. One SnowCrew member was quoted as saying, “Technology made it possible for me to live in a village, as opposed to what I am in-a very large community.” Edelman credits mobile technology, in large part, for infusing these kinds of offline community meet-ups with energy and playfulness. “More or less what Groundcrew does is give you the opportunity to have some kind of social, engaged adventure near you on your cell phone with either an organization that you care about or just on a topic that you care about, and the fact that it’s civic-related or that it might be ‘volunteering’ is just incidental,” he says.

Web and mobile technology have created a new kind of access logic that’s connected, customizable, programmable and portable. It’s allowed us to liberate gaming from its traditional place on a computer or television screen and transpose it onto the real world. Where gaming is about “leveling up” our individual value in meaningful ways, sharing is about the manifold avenues for transacting it, for ourselves and for the betterment of society, in an increasingly reputation-based climate.

*Response options were not mutually exclusive. For more information, download the full study report here.