πŸ“» β€” How to Properly Think (and Use) “Game Theory” in Your Community without Making it Suck

Reading Time: ~ 4 min.

Morning yenizens!

Before we jump in, here are a few good reads from around the internet!

  1. It’s worth noting what folks are searching for. Those toy doodles though.
  2. Covid19 in McKinsey charts. Data doesn’t lie.
  3. The history of doom-scrolling (podcast).
  4. The most successful Substack author.
  5. Bye flash.
  6. App privacy labels for chat applications (via App Store).
  7. Remote work needs better / different types of leaders, managers.
  8. Indie apps… is one helluva drug; you should try it.

Okay, let’s jump into this important topic of “gamification” and community, shall we? It’ll be fun, I promise.

To infinity & community,

β€” john

via Axios

Is it just me or is every social media network starting to look / feel the same? It’s not an accident, of course, as the cloud orchestration of decentralized technology architectures paved the way for community and communication orchestration as well β€” at the data and operational level.

This is one of the big challenges of 2021 β€” and one of my predictions.

As a consequence, creators, founders, entrepreneurs, and community builders everywhere are feeling the “weight” and pressure of making sure that their projects present, establish, market, and brand a compelling vision for the future (their “why“) that has obvious and transparent value.

Unfortunately, the growing pressure for “uniqueness” has tempted some creators and community leaders to over-leverage gamification in their systems β€” I heard a podcast just the other day of a well-known “community expert” who mentioned that she’s experimenting with “gamification” inside her Slack-based setup.

I think I could have died. I tweeted this as a response:

I’ll admit that this probably wasn’t the best thing to tweet, but, the truth is as sobering as it is true:

The best communities require ZERO games to be useful.

Consequently, if you find yourself trying to overly-“gamify” your community or project, remember that there’s a strong possibility that you’ve actually identified a fundamental problem with the community itself; or, at the very least, you haven’t iterated and/or experimented recently enough to continue to be (and stay) competitive and to continue to deliver top-line value.

This begs an interesting (and simple) question of… “Why?” Why are so many community leaders over-correcting with gamification as a strategy and tactic? I believe the root-cause is a a fundamental lack of understanding of what “gamification” really is.

To do that, we have to think clearly about Game Theory and how that actually works in real-life.

For sake of simplicity (and speed), here’s what you need to know about Game Theory, it’s impact on community building, and the development of trust within a network (this was also a large part of my Masters in Education work in graduate school):

  1. Repeat Interactions β€” Trust is built through the connection & engagement between humans on the internet. But the system (i.e. culture, community infrastructure, environment, leadership, etc.) must inform members to expect these interactions. Trust is built because members know that it’s going to happen AND then experiences that interaction.
  2. Win-Wins Must Be Possible β€” A truly effective game creates non-zero-sum outcomes. Meaning, both (and/or all) players can experience a positive outcome at the same time without taking value away from others in the process.
  3. Consistent Communication β€” Trust breaks down when there are too many gaps in communication as the lifeblood of any community is consistent, clear, and well-run communication (systems).

These 3 things are the fundamentals of what most consider to be generalized “game theory” β€” obviously, building anything is a multi-variate problem and so much of your current environment and/or system has elements native to them that are in direct opposition to the aforementioned.

Consequently, it’s your job to create and design a culture and environment that allows β€” maximally β€” repeat interactions, the possibility of “global” and “shared wins” as well as low chances of systemic miscommunication.

Build Your Universe in a Way that Reflects Your Community Values

The most important lesson that I’ve learned as a coach, mentor, educator, and software designer is that the game that you build is the game that you and your community will play.

This seems obvious and self-explanatory but most folks do not seem to give this much thought as they build, construct, and design their communities.

The fundamental mechanics of Game Theory remind us that “the player” is in a controlled environment that you devised and that environment (or in-game world) either generates increasing levels of trust or it spends it because the environment, itself, is antagonistically-designed.

Sometimes we build communities that ultimately kill our members… just like games that seem impossible to beat β€” I can think of a few (retro) examples:

  1. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for NES
  2. Friday the 13th for NES
  3. Battletoads… OMFG.
  4. CONTRA (w/o cheat codes)
  5. Ecco the Dolphin
  6. The Simpsons
  7. Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee
  8. The Lion King
  9. Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts
  10. Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!

… did I miss one? Let me know in the comments!

I mean… seriously. If you beat any of those in the 80’s or 90’s (or even today without cheating)… you’ve unlocked GodModeℒ️!! πŸ˜‚

The point is this: The game developers built and designed the worlds in ways that specifically frustrated their (community) members as they attempted to reach their “final” destination: A positive, conclusive outcome.

Many projects, businesses, and communities do the exact same thing! They make it difficult (or difficult to see, understand, or grok) these two things:

  1. What are the shared, positive outcomes?
  2. How the hell do I get there (and win)?

Successful games, as told by gross receipts and revenue, share similar features: They all have understandable “pathing” and they’ve created (variable) rewards based on player performance. Great communities do similar things in their programming and information architecture.

You see, when the community β€” ITSELF β€” acts against the development and nurturing of trust within the system, you fail the basic test of usable game theory for your project and community.

The important difference is the fact that a community defaults to “multi-player mode” and allows for the player to define and (re)create the game as well!

And, as we were reminded via last week’s issue on purpose-built communities, collaborative production is an important, must-have ingredient because great communities always build stuff together.

The bottom-line is this: To properly use “game theory” in your community you only need to re-imagine / re-engineer your existing workflows to maximize the opportunity for repeat interactions, create environments where “win-wins” can happen more often, and use tool(s) that simplify communication to your already-decentralized audience.

That’s it.

If you’re trying to instrument “more engagement” through metadata or “deep analytics” β€” you’ve headed down the wrong path:

We can do much, much better my yenizens! Let’s do that this year.


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