Checking in: brands and social games

A lot of folks in social media have had their interest piqued by social games and so-called gamification of online practices. Brands, too, have heard about social games. And about the promise of deeper engagement, incentives and rewards, and richer interactions. Luckily for everyone involved, basic means of capturing, counting, and rewarding user activity abound. Enough so, that the more they are used, the less they count.

The problem with companies interested in applying “game mechanics” to their brand experience begins with the premise addressed by social gaming. “How do we make it more engaging? More fun? More rewarding?”

Brands ask: “How do we achieve that, by doing more of this?” See, the brand’s first mistake is in the frame of the question. Brands don’t “do” anything. The world is not full of users thinking about brands, waiting patiently (or not) for brands to hurry up and improve their experiences.

Social tools are about the user. About what the user thinks, wants, finds, interesting, and does. And with whom, for whom, in front of whom, and why, and what for. A rich and complex social field whose hub is in every case a single person, seated likely, at a box with a screen.

So brands don’t “do” anything to reach and engage this user. Least of all turn themselves into a game whose simple rules of play reward consumers with prizes and discounts. Think about it. That’s a brand saying to the consumer, and possibly his or her friends too: “This really is all you matter to us. We don’t expect you to think any more of us than all the rest of those discounters. So we’re giving away what we can afford to lose.”

In short: The value of this offer, and the value of the action you take to earn it, is the value we place on this relationship.

Social tools were meant to restore and innovate social and customer relationships. To invigorate leads and make loyal customers feel special — special enough to share with friends. And instead, so many brands think that games and game mechanics offer some kind of deep insight into what people do online and why. A cynical symbiosis between designer and marketer threatens to hollow out the genuine appreciation many brand managers and social media types have for consumers and customer loyalty.

Game mechanics offer no greater insight into consumer behavior than price discounting offers insight into consumer purchase decision-making. And what’s more, use of game mechanics that promise some kind of generic leverage on user behaviors will only net you generic branding. Who wins that game?

Social games work, and work for reasons that are explained not by mechanics, not by brand messaging, and not by deals and rewards. Social games work because they combine story and rules, character and competences, Self and social status, pride and reputation, attention given and received, generosity and its return.

And regardless of whether or not patterns may be found in the aggregate user behaviors of social game players, these patterns neither explain by cause, describe with insight, nor predict with certainty, the motives beneath or experience of social game play. Game designers too readily conflate the game rules for the playing of games.

Brands would be advised to consider the opportunities presented by social games and “gamification.” But to move quickly past the simple forms on offer today, and to a more sophisticated understanding of relationships, structures of interaction and communication, rewards, and time. The brand intends to be around. Does it need the same consumer to be around also?

Starting with the goals they have for their use of social media in branding, marketing, sales, and service,  brands should consider the kinds of users they need. Need not from a business perspective, but from the perspective of social engagement. For as we noted, users don’t have the brand in mind. They have themselves, their friends, peers, and audience in mind.

People are different, and use social media differently and for individual and particular reasons. So brands should consider how to reach certain kinds of users. Again, not for what market segment they belong to, or for their “influence” on social media. But for how they use social media. This is where real social gaming comes into view: people differ by their styles of social media use, their personality and character, and by their habits of use.

When social dynamics occur on social tools, it’s because of the relationships between users and how mediation animates them. Pundits, critics, connectors, socialites, inviters, aspirers, experts, champions — these and other kinds of behavior produce dynamic social interactions. In the aggregate, these trend as scale and time both amplify and distort small differences into noticeable features.

Competent users of social tools know and recognize these phenomena. These are the game features that really matter. But where is this noted in social game design descriptions? What is explained often as a game mechanic is in fact a matter of stylistic variation when it comes to actual “game play.” Take some examples:

  • How an inviter invites may suggest allies, collusion, favoritism, favors, and debts
  • Who an inviter invites may be tactical, strategic, pre-emptive, reciprocating, or magnanimous
  • Why an aspirer follows may be out of self-interest, to be seen with a celebrity, to capture comments, to be followed him/herself, by anyone, or by the celebrity
  • Why an expert shares may be to solicit attention, praise, and acknowledgement, to capture followers, to address a critic, or compete with a peer, to reinforce a reputation, or to establish a new one

There are many kinds of personalities and behavioral differences in play online, each of value to brands and to games alike, for their contribution to real relationships and to different social dynamics.

This is where the real social gaming occurs. And why the emphasis should be placed on social games, not game mechanics. Because getting the most out of social games requires that you grasp the playing of the game. Not just the rules, mechanics, or design. But the playing, with all of the differences in competence, skill, and personality that attach to the players themselves. With all of their real and actual relationships and motives. With an interest in outcomes that matter, that are material, for the user and for the brand.  To wit, getting past the game play, and to playing the game.

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