- August
Posted By : Adrian Chan
I just killed a social game mechanic

Techcrunch this week posted a copy of a social gaming playdeck used by SCVNGR. Social gaming is indeed hot these days. But there’s some confusion around game mechanics and social gaming dynamics. I don’t see any social in the playdeck provided below. So I’ve added my own commentary to each of the deck’s 47 points.

My apologies to its author, but the descriptions completely and entirely miss the socio-logical factors that make social gaming what it is. The deck, instead, describes individiual game play and spectacularly misinterprets connections between game play and player behavior. It reads as a Pavlovian exercise in attributing behaviors directly to a small number of game design elements, expanded here unnecessarily into distinctions that are redundant, disorganized (in fact they’re alphabetical), anti-social, illogical, and hopelessly blind.

In fact the disclosure of a deck such as this one might cause one to wonder just who the hell designs our social tools — and whether they are even qualified to execute on the subtleties of social interaction and shared online practices. A deck such as this one demonstrates quite clearly the inadequacies in social thinking and is a testament to the object and reward paradigm that seems to have taken over many game-like social platforms. These are nearing mythical status now as game-ification is installed as the new organizing principle for the design of social tools. A welcome counterpoint to which is the recent revelation from Foursquare that tips and recommendations will feature more prominently in their redesign (at last, we may have a real reason to checkin!).

Where, in this document, is presence? Where is reputation? Where is credibility? Where is there any sensitivity to the many different types of users, whose motives and motivations vary by personality and whose styles and habits of using social tools are distinct? Where is the recognition that social tools are embedded in real social practices? In fact, where’s the user-centric appreciation of experience that has served us so well in the past? At what point did we become so invested in design that began to view user behaviors (and presumably social outcomes) as a direct response to product features? But I digress. I’ll let you be the judge.

From SCVNGR’s Secret Game Mechanics Playdeck, with my commentary added.

1. Achievement

Definition: A virtual or physical representation of having accomplished something. These are often viewed as rewards in and of themselves.

Example: a badge, a level, a reward, points, really anything defined as a reward can be a reward.

My commentary: Achievement is but one of the relations users form to reward representations. In fact, achievement-reward is tautological. It belongs to the very definition of reward that it proves achievement.

At stake is how does the user relate to the representation. Note that these involve relations not captured as achievement, but having meaning for the user nonetheless. Also note that the meaning of these for users may be social: they are a reflection of the user’s sense of his/her social position, status, rank, membership, etc — all of which are validating but which bestow meaning not just for reasons of achievement. In fact some of the highest forms of validation result from receiving gifts, from recognition by peers, and other attributions obtained not from direct achievement but from indirect acknowledgment by community.

  • The user may identify with it: user is a winner, a mayor, an expert, number 1.
  • The user may feel s/he possesses it: the representation is a thing, a quality, an attribute of personality, a sign of social status, a symbol of membership, etc.
  • The user may identify with the group the representation symbolizes: the user now feels a sense of membership and belonging, as in a fan-team insignia relation.
  • The user may want it or aspire to it: the user relates to a reward because it represents an image of what the user wishes for, including wishes to be perceived as. Luxury goods represent social status to individuals, allowing them to feel “rich” even if they are not.

Achievement is an accurate description of one type of activity-response relation, but only one. It misses the social dimensions of partnered and social play (two or more players). It misses the motivations associated with beating an opponent, and fails to distinguish between the “reward” of beating one’s own game play vs beating the game. It assigns too much of the experience to a linear and direct outcome of individual activity, where in social gaming much of the pleasure and motivation comes from activity mediated by social perceptions and dynamically changing social orders.

2. Appointment Dynamic

Definition: A dynamic in which to succeed, one must return at a predefined time to take some action. Appointment dynamics are often deeply related to interval based reward schedules or avoidance dyanmics.

Example: Cafe World and Farmville where if you return at a set time to do something you get something good, and if you don’t something bad happens.

My commentary: This is not a dynamic, but a basic form of episodic framing. It states, simply, that in framed activities, some actions may be coupled to temporal intervals or to episodic markers. “Time” as mentioned here actually should be subdivided: time as in a specific point in time (friday, noon) and time as in sequence (after steps 1, 2, 3 have been completed). (All games are an experiential frame: they are structured and organized, have rules constraining behavior, enabling participation, and shaping both imagined, real, and expected outcomes.)

There is no social dynamic suggested here. Nor is there a behavioral dynamic, such that there’s no motivation explained or observed. Just a user’s necessary response to a temporal or sequential contingency. All games take time and all game events happen in order as set by game rules and design.

3. Avoidance

Definition: The act of inducing player behavior not by giving a reward, but by not instituting a punishment. Produces consistent level of activity, timed around the schedule.

Example: Press a lever every 30 seconds to not get shocked.

My commentary: I take umbrage at the claim that behavior is induced by the withholding of game rewards and punishments. Player behavior is sustained by user interest and that interest belongs to the user. In social games, activity levels of other users can be as compelling to users as the provision of game rewards. Among many other factors that may explain why a player plays, and with what degree of conscious and subconscious interest. Avoidance is a non-rule and explains nothing.

4. Behavioral Contrast

Definition: The theory defining how behavior can shift greatly based on changed expectations.

Example: A monkey presses a lever and is given lettuce. The monkey is happy and continues to press the lever. Then it gets a grape one time. The monkey is delighted. The next time it presses the lever it gets lettuce again. Rather than being happy, as it was before, it goes ballistic throwing the lettuce at the experimenter. (In some experiments, a second monkey is placed in the cage, but tied to a rope so it can’t access the lettuce or lever. After the grape reward is removed, the first monkey beats up the second monkey even though it obviously had nothing to do with the removal. The anger is truly irrational.)

My commentary: This one is also tautological. Behavior is the manifestation of psychology. Behavior is expectations. To say that behavior changes with changed expectations is making up a rule where there’s nothing but what’s already perfectly obvious. It’s like saying that people make new choices when they change their minds.

5. Behavioral Momentum

Definition: The tendency of players to keep doing what they have been doing.

Example: From Jesse Schell’s awesome Dice talk: “I have spent ten hours playing Farmville. I am a smart person and wouldn’t spend 10 hours on something unless it was useful. Therefore this must be useful, so I can keep doing it.”

My commentary: Again, a platitude of a rule. There’s no game rule in the observation that sometimes people continue to do what they’ve been doing. Habit would be a better term, and would permit one to at least account for game playing habit, social habit and pastime, routine, addiction, and distraction. Those, at least, are behaviorally differentiated and user-centric.

6. Blissful Productivity

Definition: The idea that playing in a game makes you happier working hard, than you would be relaxing. Essentially, we’re optimized as human beings by working hard, and doing meaningful and rewarding work.

Example: From Jane McGonical’s Ted Talk wherein she discusses how World of Warcraft players play on average 22 hours / week (a part time job), often after a full days work. They’re willing to work hard, perhaps harder than in real life, because of their blissful productivity in the game world.

My commentary: Who says we are optimized by working hard? Are we then confused by distraction? How about when we get lost in distraction? And can’t distraction be unproductively compelling? This makes no sense to me at all, and worse, makes a grand claim to human psychology that is at once deeply biased, culturally insensitive, non-specific (to psychological and personality differences), assigns personal motives to game participation, and even manages to establish a contradiction between what is work and what is play.

7. Cascading Information Theory

Definition: The theory that information should be released in the minimum possible snippets to gain the appropriate level of understanding at each point during a game narrative.

Example: showing basic actions first, unlocking more as you progress through levels. Making building on SCVNGR a simple but staged process to avoid information overload.

My commentary: Ridiculous, and ignores everything we have learned from narrative/story theory, besides which it also insults learning theory, learning modes, and conflates all game events to “snippets of information.” Information provided to a game player that s/he has leveled, has been awarded points, has a new team role, is being attacked are each meaningful only in context. Context, not information, frames the meaning of information, and defines what and how much information serves the purpose of sustaining game involvement. Information provided within a game is a game event.

8. Chain Schedules

Definition: the practice of linking a reward to a series of contingencies. Players tend to treat these as simply the individual contingencies. Unlocking one step in the contingency is often viewed as an individual reward by the player.

Example: Kill 10 orcs to get into the dragons cave, every 30 minutes the dragon appears.

My commentary: Besides being redundant (both “chain” and “schedule” imply serialized activity or events), this rule seems to say that players understand game play sequences. I think we got that when we were toddlers. All game play engages users in serialized activity for which there are proximate actions and contingent events. That’s the nature of a game — it’s a fiction understood. Game players may like to know what happens, or may welcome surprises. In social gaming, the involvement of others, especially when their communication is part of the play, adds to the experience. And communication cannot be accounted for by scheduling.

9. Communal Discovery

Definition: The game dynamic wherein an entire community is rallied to work together to solve a riddle, a problem or a challenge. Immensely viral and very fun.

Example: DARPA balloon challenge, the cottage industries that appear around McDonalds monopoly to find “Boardwalk”

My commentary: Episodic involvement of an audience, or part of an audience, is explained best on sociological grounds, not by means of the discovery concept. What is discovery for some is mob rule, action, suspense, or teamwork to others.

10. Companion Gaming

Definition: Games that can be played across multiple platforms

Example: Games that be played on iphone, facebook, xbox with completely seamless cross platform gameplay.

My commentary: No comment but that it’s poorly named, since “companion” suggests partnered play. In either case this is a product feature, not a dynamic.

11. Contingency

Definition: The problem that the player must overcome in the three part paradigm of reward schedules.

Example: 10 orcs block your path

My commentary: All activity that hasn’t finished is contingent. Better would be to differentiate among contingencies. Those would include coupling (of user action to response); proximate contingency (what’s next); distant contingency (what happens later); social contingency (change affecting all players); etc.

12. Countdown

Definition: The dynamic in which players are only given a certain amount of time to do something. This will create an activity graph that causes increased initial activity increasing frenetically until time runs out, which is a forced extinction.

Example: Bejeweled Blitz with 30 seconds to get as many points as you can. Bonus rounds. Timed levels

My commentary: Time constraint. That players behave increasingly frenetically is a supposition suggesting a relation between user experience (frenetic) and activity intensity (speed of activity). I don’t think we all experience time constraints in the same way. Some potential players may in fact avoid games because of the stress-inducing panic that comes at the end; others may live for it. Again, not a dynamic, just a game design choice to involve a clock and to constrain the play to a set time frame.

13. Cross Situational Leader-boards

Definition: This occurs when one ranking mechanism is applied across multiple (unequal and isolated) gaming scenarios. Players often perceive that these ranking scenarios are unfair as not all players were presented with an “equal” opportunity to win.

Example: Players are arbitrarily sent into one of three paths. The winner is determined by the top scorer overall (i.e. across the paths). Since the players can only do one path (and can’t pick), they will perceive inequity in the game scenario and get upset.

My commentary: Awkwardly phrased but accurately observed. Perhaps the perceived or experienced social inequality could be captured in the dynamic as intentional unfairness. Still, this is less a dynamic than a reporting problem: game state or status can be reported equitably to its players, or not. At issue is whether design or reporting creates advantage. Advantage can itself be structured into game play as a form of reward (as in qualifying rounds in many sports that reward players with advantageous starting positions).

14. Disincentives

Definition: a game element that uses a penalty (or altered situation) to induce behavioral shift

Example: losing health points, amazon’s checkout line removing all links to tunnel the buyer to purchase, speeding traps

My commentary: Disincentives are used in game mechanics, but are not the same as punishments. Punishments would be better called “penalties.” What matters more than the disincentive (what happens if you’re bad) is the rule that articulates the right and wrong ways to play. These rules should accommodate individual experience of play as well as game design and also the society of players. Red cards for tackling in soccer protect players from injury as well as disincentivize hacking tackles as well as improve play for soccer players and fans overall. Ask what function the disincentive plays and at what level of game play.

15. Endless Games

Definition: Games that do not have an explicit end. Most applicable to casual games that can refresh their content or games where a static (but positive) state is a reward of its own.

Example: Farmville (static state is its own victory), SCVNGR (challenges constantly are being built by the community to refresh content)

My commentary: I prefer the term “open” to describe frames that are open ended. Endless suggests a tedium. This dynamic risks missing the user experience, wherein “endless” may just be a fun personal habit. (I’m playing again. I like it.)

16. Envy

Definition: The desire to have what others have. In order for this to be effective seeing what other people have (voyeurism) must be employed.

Example: my friend has this item and I want it!

My commentary: Envy is undifferentiated here. Envy is the relation of Subject : Subject (Attribute). Voyeurism is entirely different and not needed here. All that’s needed is a value system that attributes value to the Attribute which gives envy its pitch and tone. In this way we become envious of wealth, looks, power, ability, and what have you. All are different and all are explained as much by what the observer relates to (desires) as by what the perceived possesses. I do not envy political power and a politician does not make me envious. Voyeurism is a distinctly different social relation comprising parts anonymity, privacy, ethical norms, fantasy, and image.

17. Epic Meaning

Definition: players will be highly motivated if they believe they are working to achieve something great, something awe-inspiring, something bigger than themselves.

Example: From Jane McGonical’s Ted Talk where she discusses Warcraft’s ongoing story line and “epic meaning” that involves each individual has motivated players to participate outside the game and create the second largest wiki in the world to help them achieve their individual quests and collectively their epic meanings.

My commentary: I like the term and I have a lot of respect for McGonigal (misspelled above). But this could be differentiated further. There is no epic meaning. There may be situations in which players are highly motivated by a higher cause or calling; or by crowd psychology (action, thrill, spectacle, synchronicity); or by abstract principles (doing right, being good, giving back); and so on.

Meaning may be meaningful because it is spontaneous, or because it responds to a situation. The concept of epic as grand narrative arc normally involves a situation that calls an individual to exceed him/herself in their response as action. But may also be the emergence of higher power within the individual. This is epic as England winning the world cup in 66 or epic as in Gandhi.

18. Extinction

Definition: Extinction is the term used to refer to the action of stopping providing a reward. This tends to create anger in players as they feel betrayed by no longer receiving the reward they have come to expect. It generally induces negative behavioral momentum.

Example: killing 10 orcs no longer gets you a level up

My commentary: Woah. I think this one describes what happens when players quit. That players quit is obvious, but hopefully we’re a bit more sophisticated than the Pavlovian description here suggests. Some try again. Some create new accounts and user name and play even harder next time. I guess they’d have to be described by the Lazarus dynamic. Also known as the Resurrection dynamic, and not to be confused with the Easter Egg.

19. Fixed Interval Reward Schedules

Definition: Fixed interval schedules provide a reward after a fixed amount of time, say 30 minutes. This tends to create a low engagement after a reward, and then gradually increasing activity until a reward is given, followed by another lull in engagement.

Example: Farmville, wait 30 minutes, crops have appeared

My commentary: Why not cal them timed rewards and scratch the part that tries to explain rhythm as a directly-induced behavioral response to timed game intervals.

20. Fixed Ratio Reward Schedule

Definition: A fixed ratio schedule provides rewards after a fixed number of actions. This creates cyclical nadirs of engagement (because the first action will not create any reward so incentive is low) and then bursts of activity as the reward gets closer and closer.

Example: kill 20 ships, get a level up, visit five locations, get a badge

My commentary: I’m beginning to wonder if the author of these game mechanics is OCD, ADD, or both.

21. Free Lunch

Definition: A dynamic in which a player feels that they are getting something for free due to someone else having done work. It’s critical that work is perceived to have been done (just not by the player in question) to avoid breaching trust in the scenario. The player must feel that they’ve “lucked” into something.

Example: Groupon. By virtue of 100 other people having bought the deal, you get it for cheap. There is no sketchiness b/c you recognize work has been done (100 people are spending money) but you yourself didn’t have to do it.

My commentary: This one could be differentiated further. There are serendipitous events which may be well described as a free lunch. But there are also gifts. There are also shared benefits. There are targets achieved by means of collaboration (in which work is often not equally shared and results not equally deserved). The dynamic seems to want to identify a relation between effort and conscience, but if this is the case then social factors have to be considered.

22. Fun Once, Fun Always

Definition: The concept that an action in enjoyable to repeat all the time. Generally this has to do with simple actions. There is often also a limitation to the total level of enjoyment of the action.

Example: the theory behind the check-in everywhere and the check-in and the default challenges on SCVNGR.

My commentary: I’m thinking OCD. But the focus on simple actions still has me wondering if it’s ADD. The somewhat poignant remark at the end about a limited total level of enjoyment has me thinking OCD. Possibly a game tester.

23. Interval Reward Schedules

Definition: Interval based reward schedules provide a reward after a certain amount of time. There are two flavors: variable and fixed.

Example: wait N minutes, collect rent

My commentary: I’m beginning to sense a real problem with this author’s experience of time. But it does seem that he or she has figured out when the rewards come. That’s good. Because apparently these games are completely lacking in content and other people.

24. Lottery

Definition: A game dynamic in which the winner is determined solely by chance. This creates a high level of anticipation. The fairness is often suspect, however winners will generally continue to play indefinitely while losers will quickly abandon the game, despite the random nature of the distinction between the two.

Example: many forms of gambling, scratch tickets.

My commentary: Oops I spoke too soon. Add to fixed and variable: surprising. And there are other people now, too. It’s nice to know that their behaviors predictably group them into winners and losers (those being people who play and those who quit). I have to agree that fairness is suspect. Nothing’s fair. You’re playing and playing and it’s regular and timed and then it gets a bit more rhythmic and suddenly BLAMO the lottery rule delivers a punishing blow. Sigh.

25. Loyalty

Definition: The concept of feeling a positive sustained connection to an entity leading to a feeling of partial ownership. Often reinforced with a visual representation.

Example: fealty in WOW, achieving status at physical places (mayorship, being on the wall of favorite customers)

My commentary: Loyalty is not related to ownership any more than betrayal is an attribute of the dispossessed. If loyalty is reinforced with a graphic or icon then something is represented. If something is represented it must have been achieved (rule 1). If it was achieved, there is no loyalty, but only an individual sense of achievement (rule 1) owing probably to extended bouts of serialized game play sustained by varying levels of intense anticipation of fixed and/or variable rewards obtained by the successful selection of contingencies. The word “addict” as substitute for loyalty comes to mind.

26. Meta Game

Definition: a game which exists layered within another game. These generally are discovered rather than explained (lest they cause confusion) and tend to appeal to ~2% of the total game-playing audience. They are dangerous as they can induce confusion (if made too overt) but are powerful as they’re greatly satisfying to those who find them.

Example: hidden questions / achievements within world of warcraft that require you to do special (and hard to discover) activities as you go through other quests

My commentary: It’s the trap door in LOST. He’s down there pushing the button every 108 minutes. Here’s a meta game for you. Sports on tv are played by players whose skill playing the game is required by their teams to play the game which is watched by fans for whom it’s a game and by tv audiences at home, who listen to the game play narrated by commentators who often play games with their analyses. About 98% of the people who enjoy sports get this. Any frame can be embedded in other frames. Re-framing is what makes social games fun to play with friends: the game is played as a game (player against himself/herself and the game) as well as against others as well as having meta social meaning for its being a social pastime.

27. Micro Leader-boards

Definition: The rankings of all individuals in a micro-set. Often great for distributed game dynamics where you want many micro-competitions or desire to induce loyalty.

Example: Be the top scorers at Joe’s bar this week and get a free appetizer

My commentary: Micro is unnecessary but I like the idea of sets.

28. Modifiers

Definition: An item that when used affects other actions. Generally modifiers are earned after having completed a series of challenges or core functions.

Example: A X2 modifier that doubles the points on the next action you take.

My commentary: Not a dynamic but a game rule.

29. Moral Hazard of Game Play

Definition: The risk that by rewarding people manipulatively in a game you remove the actual moral value of the action and replace it with an ersatz game-based reward. The risk that by providing too many incentives to take an action, the incentive of actually enjoying the action taken is lost. The corollary to this is that if the points or rewards are taken away, then the person loses all motivation to take the (initially fun on its own) action.

Example: Paraphrased from Jesse Schell “If I give you points every time you brush your teeth, you’ll stop brushing your teeth b/c it’s good for you and then only do it for the points. If the points stop flowing, your teeth will decay.”

My commentary: Some confusion here manifest in whether players play for the game play, or for the outcomes of game play. Both are always worth taking into account. But I fail to see how this becomes moral hazard.

30. Ownership

Definition: The act of controlling something, having it be *your* property.

Example: Ownership is interesting on a number of levels, from taking over places, to controlling a slot, to simply owning popularity by having a digital representation of many friends.

My commentary: You guys with me on this? *One ring to rule them all*? Yes? I’m glad to see it finally confirmed that Wall St is a game.

31. Pride

Definition: the feeling of ownership and joy at an accomplishment

Example: I have ten badges. I own them. They are mine. There are many like them, but these are mine. Hooray.

My commentary: Three things that are themselves distinct, two of which are already defined here as dynamics (rule 1, rule 30), inversely related to rule 16, possibly as precondition for rule 25? Completely ignores the social recognition conventionally associated with pride. But perhaps that social recognition is mediated by means of rewards and representations. In which case we would have a nice attachment theory of mediated social recognition, achieved not through interaction but through substitutes: socially visible representations and awards.

32. Privacy

Definition: The concept that certain information is private, not for public distribution. This can be a demotivator (I won’t take an action because I don’t want to share this) or a motivator (by sharing this I reinforce my own actions).

Example: Scales the publish your daily weight onto Twitter (these are real and are proven positive motivator for staying on your diet). Or having your location publicly broadcast anytime you do anything (which is invasive and can should be avoided).

My commentary: Not a dynamic, but a system constraint. Visibility of players and play is a product choice. Its influence on player experience and play will be explained by the user’s personal and social investments. In either case, the act of sharing one’s play socially is not for the reinforcement of one’s own actions. That would be anti-social.

33. Progression Dynamic

Definition: a dynamic in which success is granularly displayed and measured through the process of completing itemized tasks.

Example: a progress bar, leveling up from paladin level 1 to paladin level 60

My commentary: not a dynamic but a design choice.

34. Ratio Reward Schedules

Definition: Ratio schedules provide a reward after a number of actions. There are two flavors: variable and fixed.

Example: kill 10 orcs, get a power up.

My commentary: I’m beginning to think that instead of variable and fixed we just say regular/irregular. Either way we’ve got temporality covered here. More than covered. Completely nailed to the floor.

35. Real-time v. Delayed Mechanics

Definition: Realtime information flow is uninhibited by delay. Delayed information is only released after a certain interval.

Example: Realtime scores cause instant reaction (gratification or demotivation). Delayed causes ambiguity which can incent more action due to the lack of certainty of ranking.

My commentary: See prior comment.

36. Reinforcer

Definition: The reward given if the expected action is carried out in the three part paradigm of reward schedules.

Example: receiving a level up after killing 10 orcs.

My commentary: See prior comment on rule 31.

37. Response

Definition: The expected action from the player in the three part paradigm of reward schedules.

Example: the player takes the action to kill 10 orcs

My commentary: Ditto.

38. Reward Schedules

Definition: the timeframe and delivery mechanisms through which rewards (points, prizes, level ups) are delivered. Three main parts exist in a reward schedule; contingency, response and reinforcer.

Example: getting a level up for killing 10 orcs, clearing a row in Tetris, getting fresh crops in Farmville

My commentary: Help me, I’m melting.

39. Rolling Physical Goods

Definition: A physical good (one with real value) that can be won by anyone on an ongoing basis as long as they meet some characteristic. However, that characteristic rolls from player to player.

Example: top scorer deals, mayor deals

My commentary: Complete mental paralysis threatens as I try to distinguish between goods and rewards, and between the pride of ownership and the reward structure of having an actual physical good (real value).

40. Shell Game

Definition: a game in which the player is presented with the illusion of choice but is actually in a situation that guides them to the desired outcome of the operator.

Example: 3 Card Monty, lotteries, gambling

My commentary: Not a dynamic, but basic game design. The game player will always experience choice as choosing. The designer has designed the game’s play, its rules, and outcomes. Illusion doesn’t enter the picture because we’re talking here about playing games.

41. Social Fabric of Games

Definition: the idea that people like one another better after they’ve played games with them, have a higher level of trust and a great willingness to work together.

Example: From Jane McGonicgal’s TED talk where she suggests that it takes a lot of trust to play a game with someone because you need them to spend their time with you, play by the same rules, shoot for the same goals.

My commentary: Games are a social pastime. Glad to see that noted, even if it took 40 preceding rules to get to it. It should be noted that in 1969 El Salvador and Honduras went to war for 106 hours after playing each other in a soccer match. It is known as the soccer war.

42. Status

Definition: The rank or level of a player. Players are often motivated by trying to reach a higher level or status.

Example: white paladin level 20 in WOW.

My commentary: Rank is fine. “Status” is unnecessary and in the day and age of status updates, confusing. Possibly explained by rule 31.

43. Urgent Optimism

Definition: Extreme self motivation. The desire to act immediately to tackle an obstacle combined with the belief that we have a reasonable hope of success.

Example: From Jane McGonical’s TED talk. The idea that in proper games an “epic win” or just “win” is possible and therefore always worth acting for.

My commentary: Neither a dynamic nor an accurate description of human affect. Cautious optimism better modifies optimism. Urgency is useful in characterizing need. Would be difficult to distinguish from “desperately hopeful.”

44. Variable Interval Reward Schedules

Definition: Variable interval reward schedules provide a reward after a roughly consistent amount of time. This tends to create a reasonably high level of activity over time, as the player could receive a reward at any time but never the burst as created under a fixed schedule. This system is also more immune to the nadir right after the receiving of a reward, but also lacks the zenith of activity before a reward in unlocked due to high levels of ambiguity.

Example: Wait roughly 30 minutes, a new weapon appears. Check back as often as you want but that won’t speed it up. Generally players are bad at realizing that.

My commentary: Totally redundant with rule 23, and conflates the two kinds of time: duration and sequential (time it takes for Z to happen, and sequential ordering of X,Y,Z).

45. Variable Ratio Reward Schedule

Definition: A variable ratio reward schedule provides rewards after a roughly consistent but unknown amount of actions. This creates a relatively high consistent rate of activity (as there could always be a reward after the next action) with a slight increase as the expected reward threshold is reached, but never the huge burst of a fixed ratio schedule. It’s also more immune to nadirs in engagement after a reward is acheived.

Example: kill something like 20 ships, get a level up. Visit a couple locations (roughly five) get a badge

My commentary: Again, conflates the two kinds of time. An “unknown amount of actions” simply states that the sequence is unknown. Is a again a game rule.

46. Viral Game Mechanics

Definition: A game element that requires multiple people to play (or that can be played better with multiple people)

Example: Farmville making you more successful in the game if you invite your friends, the social check-in

My commentary: Completely misses viral distribution dynamics, which are part distribution system, part communication, and part social graph.

47. Virtual Items

Definition: Digital prizes, rewards, objects found or taken within the course of a game. Often these can be traded or given away.

Example: Gowalla’s items, Facebook gifts, badges

My commentary: And I think we’re back to rule 1.


  • I'm with you that there's a lot of inconsistencies and issues in this list. I'm curious though, a lot of your responses start with “Not a mechanic, but a (design choice / game rule / product feature / system constraint)”… how are you making the distinction between what you consider a “mechanic” and what isn't? Couldn't you argue that every single element of a game is by its vary nature a design choice and/or product feature?

    I'm also curious as to how would you envision this list completely rewritten. What's your definitive list of game mechanics?

  • Mark,

    Thanks for commenting. First off, I used mechanic and dynamic somewhat interchangeably and apologize for that. The field is often titled game mechanics; principles sought after however are dynamics.

    Where I suggested that the rule in question pertained to a product feature, game rule, or design choice, I did so because we already have approaches to those. What I objected to was the implication that some of these rules described naturally occurring dynamics of user behavior and game rules and design. So:

    a) rules that were actually design or game rule attributes should not be described as causing user behaviors — unless that can be explained.
    b) I don't see how those behaviors could possibly be explained *in general,* because I believe that there are different kinds of users, and that in social media, user behavior depends on a user's psychology — sense of self, ways of relating and communicating with others, sense of social, and so on.
    c) I did not see any accommodation of the social practices that develop around social gaming, and which have made them popular; nor see any description of social factors at work in social gaming. Behaviors were described too simply, without any grounding in psychology; as a direct outcome of game rules; and without any inclusion of the game's embeddedness in social life.

    To your last question — how would I approach this. I have outlines and could do so, but frankly it would be a bit of work, and I don't work at a social gaming company 😉

    If I did, the framework would have to include:

    a) Incentive models that work for and appeal to different kinds of users (see my personality types on http://www.slideshare.net/gravity7). Any social interaction design must have distinguish between the common ways in which people use media. Just as in education, we have ways of distinguishing among different kinds of learners.
    b) I would build out a model of social incentives and relate them to user types as well as to social game outcomes
    c) game communication and social ranking should include real world factors — not just in-game factors
    d) relationships among players should include real world relationships, and the relational stuff in particular that can be lifted out of the everyday and embedded in social gaming context
    e) possibly account for similar transactions among strangers
    f) design economic and distributive models to account for the ways in which we transact, trade, exchange, wager, barter, gift and purchase. In other words design game economics different, and more social, than commercial economics. (Anthropologists have sourced many interesting forms of ritual exchange; we should reference that stuff — many users would find it vastly more compelling than the simple behavior-reward structure that governs badges/achievements/points)
    g) I would design frameworks separately from content, and for a social gaming company, have them on hand as game structures into which content might be poured. However, I would also
    h) design genre subplots and narrative stuff appropriate to certain kinds of games. In other words, structure may be designed abstractly (as attempted by SCVNGR, tho it fails to achieve structure and is only a list of unrelated “rules”), but game play is content and context specific. Think of it as film theory: you can frame the needs of a star vehicle, an ensemble film, a buddy film, etc. Those are narrative structures. But then idioms include the thriller, an action movie, romantic comedy, etc. I'm sure screenwriters do this: what kind of show is this (it's an ensemble cast show for teens); what's the setting (this articulates content and story points available to you.)


  • “What's your definitive list of game mechanics?”

    There is no definitive list of game mechanics. There are *patterns* that recur because of proven utility. But new game mechanics are invented regularly, and always have been throughout history.

  • Hi Adrian,

    Thanks for your response… I appreciate hearing your take on this, esp. your ideas on re-thinking the approach to frameworks.

    I also think that an important distinction you made was around the need to treat different user personalities as unique personalities within these mechanics. I've been casually researching player psychology in MMORPGs for a few years now and it's become painfully obvious that while the idea of “gamification” in modern applications seems to be gaining momentum, there is still a long way to go before these efforts really *click* with users. A lot of companies don't seem to understand that simply slapping a leader-board on something doesn't automatically make it “fun”.

    If you're not already familiar, I think you'd appreciate some of the work done by Nick Yee (http://nickyee.com). He's done a lot of great research into the psychology that motivates gamers.



  • Oh, absolutely. Actually Raph, you're the perfect person who could answer this for me: Just like with software design patterns, although they're always evolving and changing, the Gang of Four put together a comprehensive (although certainly not definitive) list of best-practice patterns. Does such a “standard/common” collection of patterns/mechanics exist within the gaming sector, or does each company go by their own interpretations and experience?

    From what I can tell, everyone has their own take on this. Perhaps this is because these patterns are flexible/subjective based on how they're being implemented? I'd love to see a really detailed look at the most widely used mechanics that discusses pros/cons/pitfalls and typical usage, etc… then again, they'd probably look quite different if implemented in an MMO vs. a business app.

    BTW, I was a HUGE fan of SWG back in its prime. It's still the standard by which I measure all other games. Great work!



  • You can’t give it, can’t even buy it, and you just don’t *get* it.

  • I think there is some confusion here. The author has dismissed any of the terms that have derived from behavioural psychology. This is going to be the inevitable response of game designers, as the authors of the original card deck did not make any attempt to explain the context of behavioural psychology, rather presenting these terms as if they invented or discovered them. In short, principles such as schedules of reinforcement, extinction and behavioural momentum have been experimentally established over hundreds of experiments and have been found useful in the study of both animals and humans. Essentially, they are a scientific method for describing and explaining observed behaviour. Thus, they will be useful to the game designer, but only if they understand WHY they are useful. It is not useful to just throw the words around with a vague understanding of what they mean.
    In summary; both the original authors were wrong to not explain why behavioural principles are important, and the current author was wrong to dismiss them.
    I reccomend anyone who is interested in understanding why behavioural psychology is useful, to consult the following books, which should be in every university library:
    Skinner, B.F. (1974). About Behaviorism.
    Catania, A.C. (1998) Learning (2nd Ed.).

  • I think there is some confusion here. The author has dismissed any of the terms that have derived from behavioural psychology. This is going to be the inevitable response of game designers, as the authors of the original card deck did not make any attempt to explain the context of behavioural psychology, rather presenting these terms as if they invented or discovered them. In short, principles such as schedules of reinforcement, extinction and behavioural momentum have been experimentally established over hundreds of experiments and have been found useful in the study of both animals and humans. Essentially, they are a scientific method for describing and explaining observed behaviour. Thus, they will be useful to the game designer, but only if they understand WHY they are useful. It is not useful to just throw the words around with a vague understanding of what they mean.
    In summary; both the original authors were wrong to not explain why behavioural principles are important, and the current author was wrong to dismiss them.
    I recommend anyone who is interested in understanding why behavioural psychology is useful, to consult the following books, which should be in every university library:
    Skinner, B.F. (1974). About Behaviorism.
    Catania, A.C. (1998) Learning (2nd Ed.).

  • Conor,

    I'll be the first to admit that I'm not a big fan of behavioral psychology. There are well over a hundred schools of psychology, none of them “scientific,” and none of them without flaws, generalizations, and so on.

    In social gaming, where action is aware of the participation of others, I believe the reflexive and communicative aspects of “behaviors” should be taken into account.

    Question would be, for behavioral psych:

    –How are behaviors observed in the context of real world situations modified in a) mediated situations and b) game (non-serious action) situations?
    –What is the conceptual framework for a behavioral psychology of social interaction? What's the communication model? The social action model? Are social activities just behaviors? I don't think so — at all.

  • Behavioural psychologists would suggest that social behaviours are behaviours like any others, dependent on antecedents and consequences – Just that those antecedents and consequences are social rather than physical or tangible. I'm sure that smarter and more informed people than me have investigated these issues it's beyond my own reading – and is straying into the territory of philosophy.

    The reason why I respect behavioural psychology is that it is practical and pragmatic. They ask falsifiable questions and then do the experiments. For this reason, I think that there is a lot in the literature that can help us in the process of game design. For example, variable intervals of reinforcement have been found to explain gambling behaviour (i.e. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1279805/ ). Now, thats not to say that there couldnt be more philosophical or existential explanations given – and thats fine. But the fact is, you can manipulate the schedules on which jackpots are given and you will observe changes in peoples gambling behaviour. That works! There's no theory given for why it works – just a rule. I would imagine that such rules would be useful when designing games.

    I would suggest that looking to behavioural psychology to explain the entire appeal of social games would be a complex and problematic issue. However, there are definitely machanics in social games that are based on concepts that have been proven to work by behavioural psychologists. For instance, the mechanic where you must wait a certain amount of hours to harvest a particular fruit in Farmville IS a fixed interval. This is just a descriptive term and it describes precisely that situation. So understanding how these mechanics are based on behavioural psychology, and how sheduling rewards differently can lead to different patterns of behaviour, I would argue, is useful.

    The point I was making in my original post was that this stuff is useful if understood properly and to dismiss it is wrong – I stand by that!

  • Conor,
    I have no problem with behavioral psychology if its arguments and claims are presented as such, and bracketed to exclude that which behavioral psych does not lay claim to. I didn't see that in the game deck, which failed to even connect behavioral claims to a logic of any kind (points were made alphabetically). I'm just not a big fan of using behavioral psych as an approach to social interaction. For that, I prefer disciplines oriented to meaning production and exchange, to social action, and to communication. They're robust and well articulated. It's true that game mechanics involve phenomena described and tested by behavioral psych. But that covers only the play action of, say, the rules and play of craps. It does not cover the social phenomena of a “hot game,” the practice of free drinks at the casino, or any of the contextual and environmental stuff that makes a game of craps at a hot table inside a happening Vegas casino much different than a game of solitaire played on the computer at home. Social gaming with friends, is, to me, less than the former but more than the latter. I just think one should seek more than a description of game mechanics by means of fixed rules, and more of a description of what differentiates a social game from a game per se.

  • I find this most interesting! Can’t wait to read more about it…

  • I really wanted to learn more about your approach but I found it hard to deduce a consistent apparoch to social dynamics. I’m not suggesting that one doesn’t exist on that it’s lacking, on the contrary – it’s probably the commentary structure. What would you suggest as a better way to understand your approach?

  • Thanks for asking. Agreed that it’s not clear from this post — as I take a lot for granted here.

    All my posts on social interaction design are here:

    You might find this primer helpful:

    Or this overview

    Thanks for commenting!

  • A seminal list of 47 points, having fun picking which are applicable to gamification of work.

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