Tag Archives: games

What’s in a game? Free-riders and the participation problem

Major online communities such as Reddit, Digg, and Slashdot are at the cornerstone of the social web: crowd-sourced content hubs that tackle the difficult task of collecting, evaluating, and promoting quality user-generated content. Loosely related, these platforms all perform a similar task of meta-moderating—or curating—content by tasking users to submit, up vote, or bury content based on its perceived value.

Source: Reddit.com

The only way to stratify the wealth of content they gather and distinguish it within these communities is to use intangible tiers of reputation and visibility. The idea to convert currencies of attention and reputation directly into positive feedback (ie. ‘Karma’ points) provides some tangible marker of digital success. The more popular or approved a piece of content is, the more visibility it—and its creator/poster—gains. The reputation-based Web is all about communities, participation, and peering; it is not, however, about authorial control or objectively professional qualities. Regardless, they are popular to a staggering degree and produce and promote untold amounts of content every minute of the day.

Inside and behind this content overload is a fundamental question of motivation: why does anyone contribute at all?

It seems that the mechanics at play here are some of the most interesting  qualities disseminated in economics, maths, and psychology: specifically, the ideas behind game theory.

The essential kernel of game theory is easy to grasp. Game theory is founded on a very simple but powerful way of schematising conflict. The underlying mechanics of John Von Neumann’s theory of economic games models the behaviour of perfectly logical parties interested only in winning. The dilemma of online producers and consumers alike resembles a game where players can only win by having access to quality content. Communities like Reddit and Slashdot expose this content through necessary participation, but those who contribute nothing still benefit from the results even if they put in no work to achieve them—often known as the free-rider dilemma.

The free-rider game is originally based on public transport, but remains true for modelling online communities. It posits that those who are willing to pay for the use of the railway system subsidise those who do not, because a single non-paying commuter is unlikely to bankrupt the whole system or take up an unreasonable amount of room on the train. Reddit users can easily rationalise lurking or browsing to their heart’s content, because their non-participation has a minuscule effect on the health of the system and the entire systems keeps chugging along.

And here’s the thing: the free-riders are right. They can reap all the benefits of vibrant, online communities without contributing any energy themselves. It is perfectly rational and provides the best possible outcome for the end-user. There is nothing wrong with thinking this way, that is, until everybody starts thinking ‘rationally’. Individually rational action—letting others do the participatory work—leads to a collectively irrational outcome: no one has any access to content—the trains stop running. The bargain of leeching off the system is a fiction; and ultimately, the only bargain offered by non-participation is a Faustian one.

But, since these repositories of user-generated content represent a kind of online collectivism that mired in an anonymous tide of mass mediocrity it is almost impossible to rely on anything other than the altruism of enthusiastic amateurs to produce meaningful work. Web 2.0 has demonstrated a frightening degree of indifference to participation as beautifully outlined by Jakob Nielsen’s treatise on participation inequality, and the intermittent contributions of idle users cannot be relied upon. However, the reputation-based currencies (such as ‘karma’) that these content-aggregators employ might as well be labelled as the bribes they are, because without an overt reward system, these communities would languish.

Source: Nielsen Group

With that in mind, these communities are resoundingly successful at encouraging contributions. Even if their scoring systems can be criticised as self-aggrandising, self-indulgent, and insular, the economics of reputation do directly encourage users to actively work within the rules of the system: it is effectively bribing them to participate. And in doing so, the system becomes universally more valuable to everyone. So long as users participate actively in posting and rating content they are organising the platform and allowing content to move properly through the system. Sure their internet points may be relevant only to their digital peers, but they are a powerful motivator so long as they derive some meaning from their boosted reputation.

Remembering that most-users don’t participate—and that they’re perfectly rational to do so—I’d love to hear why some of you do choose to get involved!


Huxley’s Nightmare: Twitch plays Pokemon

Famed science-fiction author Aldous Huxley dreamed a of dystopia in his novel Brave New World whereby the onslaught of trivial media had transformed the character of society into a burlesque. Years earlier, his grandfather—and noted evolutionary biologist—T.H Huxley had first supposed that a million monkeys on a million typewriters might one day collectively compose Shakespeare.

Neither Huxley could reasonably have anticipated that their speculations might converge and manifest themselves through the lens of Nintendo’s Pokemon franchise.

Source: imgur user Rhycool

In February 2014, a user identified as ‘twitchplayspokemon’ launched a channel on Twitch.tv—an online platform for live-streaming video games—running an emulated version of Pokemon Red, an 18 year old Gameboy game. Twitch.tv boasts a lively community of gaming enthusiasts streaming, watching, and interacting around a shared interest in playing and experiencing games. The community dynamics hinge on chat features embedded in the Twitch platform, and the interactions between streamers and viewers transforms typically solitary gaming pursuits into social experiences.

Twitch plays Pokemon takes this community interaction one step further, and by bootstrapping a chat-parsing bot onto the emulator viewers can input commands into the chat stream to dictate the inputs of the game. Typing in simple “up”, “down”, “left”, “right”, “A”, “B”, or “start” will feed the corresponding action into inputs for the game.  Predictably, thousands of people clamouring in chat and spitting out hundreds of commands simultaneously creates unmitigated chaos. The avatar gets stuck on terrain, he constantly flits between menu screens, spins around in circles, and ultimately behaves like a man possessed. Without pattern or purpose, the result is a bizarre mix of the trivial and captivating. For every hour spent in inaction and anarchy, brief flurries of cooperation incrementally nudge the game forward and demonstrate a complexity of collective action that verges on impossible.

This communal watch-and-play experience showcases some of the best and worst qualities of user-driven content; Web 2.0’s greatest strength also represents a terrible vulnerability, to aggregate the wisdom of the masses you have to invite their madness in too. The beating heart of Twitch.tv lies in its users coming together to share and interact, but their collective activity does little to build a community. Far from it, as TwitchplaysPokemon has demonstrated time and time again the contributions of the many are not necessarily helpful. In fact, the disruptive—often maliciously antagonistic—anarchy of the users creates something wholly unique and unanticipated from what should be relatively mundane, boring elements.

Source: imgur user Rhycool

Counterpoint to Tim O’Reilly’s position that harnessing collective intelligence has an effect liken to that of the sum being greater than the whole, the Twitch community thrives not on inclusiveness and cooperation like so many other Web 2.0 hubs, but rather on the toxic levels of animosity and trolling behaviour between users. The raw energy and interest that Twitch produces is not generating a collectively ‘intelligent’ behaviour across the sum of interactions. While there is something to be said for the collective joy of achieving the most basic goals when 100 000 voices are all arguing at once, the most compelling part of Twitch—the thing that binds the community together—is how devastatingly broken it all is.

After more than 2 weeks of continuous play, Pokemon was finally beaten. This is either an incredible feat of crowd-sourced collaboration, or a tacit endorsement that monkeys might well compose Shakespeare given time. If nothing else it opens the way for a new approach to how games and gaming are consumed and integrated on social platforms. The potential for participatory collaborations on Twitch need no longer be constrained to a simple viewer/streamer relationship. The possibilities for building a community—nay, a society—around even the most trivial of media, when experienced cooperatively, is limitless should Twitch—or other platforms—choose to leverage this position.

Looking forward, it certainly appears that Twitch plays Pokemon has ushered in a brave new world for Twitch.tv.


Gamification Part 2 A Plan for Play

So, I’ve soap boxed about what’s wrong with gamification but how would I actually do something good? What would *I* do to design library-games for a school that worked?

Anyone who’s listened to me talk about this for any length of time will know I’m a big fan of Amazon’s ecosystem. And their Kindle FreeTime initiative—pictured here—is an amazing leap forward in integrating gamification in a meaningful way with kid’s reading practices.PAperwhiteFreetime

There’s no universal panacea for getting gamification to work across different contexts. But, the FreeTime idea of allowing parents or teachers to set individually customised goals, and reward them appropriately really resonates with me.

Rewarding students for borrowing and returning books simply invites cheating, or gaming, the system—a delicious irony I realise. Integrating meaningful tracking metrics into a digital-reading experience is a far more robust approach to fusing play and engagement with ordinary reading activities. There’s an element of mastery to the experience too! Tracking and improving reading speed in a session or over time gives readers goals to meet and surpass. Tackling longer, harder books allows them to see their growth over time, and the achievement is a real, measurable thing.

This of course is entirely dependent on using eReading devices. But devices are becoming so ubiquitous in children these days that there’s no reason to hold back on this idea. Moreover, issues of attention and engagement are critical in young students, and reaching out to them on the platforms and devices they already use is key to getting them on board with literacy. If they see reading–and the rewards for reading–as just another thing they do on the devices they already use then traditional reluctance to pickup a book may diminish.

I’m not in favour of ‘tricking’ students into reading or getting involved in the library. But, coming to them on their own terms and saying “Hey, I get that you like your devices; I get that you like games; did you know we offer a way for you to access library content on your device in a way that acknowledges and tests your reading skills?” seems like a reasonable approach that is low-key enough to at least be worth a shot.

To launch a pilot program like this, I’d be in favour of custom developing unique apps that reflect the character of a given school environment. Every school–and every student–is different, and there’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all approach to designing activities that work for every library.

Failing all that, I’m keeping an eye on what Amazon do next with the rollout of FreeTime. When the new Paperwhite Kindle’s launch in October I’m certainly expecting a gamechanger!


Games, Gaming, and Gamification – Part 1

This is the first in a series of posts about Games, Gamification, and Libraries.

There’s a certain stubborn snobbery that associates gaming with children, which therefore assumes that adults who engage in meaningful play-based activities must be in some way juvenile too. It’s a huge generalisation, but there’s a pervasive unpleasantness demonstrated by a certain, narrow-minded breed of professionals that ‘objectively’ rules out games and gamification in a completely arbitrary way that doesn’t need to be explained, defended, or evaluated.

And that’s hugely frustrating!

To derail from the broader discussion for a moment, I’d just like to contextualise my soap boxing a little. I’m pretty savvy when it comes to games and gaming—in fact, if Gladwell’s litmus test of ’10 000 hours of an activity make you an expert’ then I’ve certainly covered the requirements a few times over.  Just this past week I participated in the Indie Speed Run 48 hour game jam—an excellent idea in the middle of a solid block of university assessment. This game jam tasked my team and me with the complete design and development of a game in just 48 hours with a random set of elements to include and adhere to.


Immersing myself in a rapid-fire development environment for a whole weekend left me asking some of the high-level, design questions that are fundamental to all sorts of manifestations of ‘games’.

These core principals of play design—whether they in a 2D side-scroller or a library catalogue—ask the same sorts of questions about attention, motivation, and engagement. In taking on the mantle of a game designer I had to ask myself these questions in order to find meaningful verbs to describe play-based activities beyond the mundane tasks being performed.

Take Trove’s text correction initiative for example. Here we have a dull set of actions such as laborious information parsing and data entry. But, it’s packaged in such a way that we see it as exploration, discovery, and competition. Checking and correcting OCR’d articles becomes a quixotic race-to-the-top of who can demonstrate the highest level of commitment. Sure, it’s a highly insular community. But, within the space provided by Trove an entire currency of reputation has grown up around the dubious honour of correcting the most articles.

This isn’t profoundly high-level game design; but it works. The layers of progression and incentives give a positive feedback loop that rewards commitment and engagement. But, bootstrapping game systems onto existing mechanics is always going to be inherently flawed.

This is no ‘ground-up’ design. It’s simply re-contextualising something that already works and trying to make it fun and engaging. It’s really just expressing an existing system through new mechanics.

Play shouldn’t feel like work, and there is a wealth of work that needs to be contributed to libraries. Social data that enriches a catalogue such as tagging, reviewing, recommending, relating, and classifying records enriches a library in an amazing way. Slapping the veneer of a game onto the catalogue to ‘trick’ people into doing this work feels disingenuous, and smacks of exploitation.

Really, it’s a fundamental question of putting content into a game, rather than bootstrapping a game onto content.

Serious games have an element of mastery: your engagement and fun come from a progressive, skill-based unlocking of content. Gamification without meaningful mechanics might as well be a workplace KPI that just tracks your threshold for filling arbitrary quotas to achieve recognition.