Welcome to the Decade of Games
Posted on Harvard Business Review: September 9, 2010 9:45 AM
For those of you still trying to wrap your head around the meteoric rise of social networking over the past decade, this post might hurt a little bit. Because just as you and most of the world were getting a handle on it, the decade of social abruptly ended.
I don't mean that we will stop using Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr to share with our friends, colleagues and families. In fact, quite the opposite is true, our combined usage of these social networks will continue to increase. Rather, the decade of constructing the social layer is complete. The frameworks that we'll use to share socially are built, defined and controlled. Construction on the social layer ended with the launch of Facebook's Open Graph protocols over the last several months. All the interesting social stuff that will occur over the next decade (and there'll be lots, I'm sure), will exist within this predefined framework built and controlled by Facebook. In short, the decade of social is over.
What's taking its place? The decade of games.
When you hear games, you probably immediately think about things like World of WarCraft, the Nintendo Wii and Farmville. And while those are huge (and will get even bigger) I'm talking about the underlying game dynamics that are the core building blocks of those games. And in this decade of games, these game dynamics will move far beyond your computer screen and into decidedly non-game like environments, like the way we court customers, engage with others at work, discover where to hang out on Saturday nights and what, when and how we choose to purchase. More and more of these dynamics are being cleverly leveraged in real-world scenarios to influence your behavior. While the last decade was all about connections and integrating a social fabric to every facet of our digital and analog existence, this next decade is all about influence.
Game dynamics are fast becoming a critical currency of motivation. Their power lies not in connecting us to our friends, but in directly influencing our individual behavior.
The decade of games is starting now because cultural and technological shifts have led us to a perfect convergence of reach, relevance and demand. We're able to reach people anywhere at any time thanks to the powerful mobile devices that now travel everywhere we go. Facebook's Open Graph enables us to provide relevance to anyone with instant access to the social graph of connections. And there's the demand. Traditional forms of entertainment (movies, television... remember books?) are in a rapid decline. The demand for entertainment hasn't decreased, it's just shifted to a more interactive, pervasive form of entertainment. It's shifting to games.
I've been playing games for at least half of my life (granted, I'm only 21) but that's still a long time. And, I'm currently the Chief Ninja (that's the non-game company equivalent of CEO) of SCVNGR, a Google Ventures backed mobile gaming company. Needless to say, I tend to think of life as a giant game. A somewhat poorly designed for sure, but one big game nevertheless. I enjoy watching how game dynamics subtly, often invisibly, influence almost everything that everyone does.
At SCVNGR, we've been able to examine the statistical effects of introducing game dynamics into situations that are decidedly not games. We've seen simple game dynamics increase traffic to locations 4X over a matter of days. We've seen others extend the average amount of engaged time consumers spend at a business by upwards of 40%. This propagation of game dynamics into the real world via the social graph and mobile devices will have powerful business consequences for those who understand how to leverage them.
At SCVNGR we like to joke that with any seven game dynamics you can get anyone to do anything. So with that, I'll present three of our favorites here:
The Appointment Dynamic
The appointment dynamic is a famous game mechanic in which to succeed a "player" must return at a predefined time to take a predetermined action. It's simple and immensely powerful.
The appointment dynamic is powerful enough to alter the behavior of an entire generation — "happy hours" are appointment dynamics, as is the pervasive game "Farmville" by Zynga. But we've barely scratched the surface of what it can do. Imagine companies like Vitality leveraging this dynamic to improve the adherence rate to often less-than-pleasant medicinal regimens, or the government creating a large scale game (with financial incentives as rewards) to alter traffic patterns to decrease highway congestion in the mornings.
The Progression Dynamic
In the progression dynamic, a "player's" level of success is displayed in real-time and gradually improved through the completion of granular tasks. Somewhere deep-rooted in the human psyche we have this desire to complete any progression dynamic put in front of us as long as the steps to do so are itemized and clear. With this as a known dynamic, it's not hard to envision the ways that this can be leveraged even further in the real-world.
The canonical "game" example of the progression dynamic exists in Blizzard's World of WarCraft, the most popular immersive online game with over 11 million monthly players. In WoW players follow a well-defined progression dynamic as they level-up from a weak paladin level 1 to an unbelievably powerful paladin level 60 by completing missions and tasks.
But like most game dynamics, real-world implementations of this mechanic are not hard to find. Coffee shops regularly use this dynamic with their "buy nine cups of coffee and your 10th is free" cards. Next time you log into LinkedIn, check out how complete your profile is. If you're one of the lucky ones who's figured out how to have a complete LinkedIn profile, then you've won this specific game, but for the rest of us, you'll see a now familiar looking progression dynamic, urging us to take a couple more steps to move that blue progress bar from the left edge of the screen to the right.
Communal discovery is a mechanic which involves an entire community working together to solve a problem.
The reason I've saved the communal discovery dynamic for last is that it, perhaps more than all others, presents incredible opportunities to positively influence the world as we enter this decade of games.
In an effort to illustrate the immense data-collection power of the now mature social layer (and incidentally the burgeoning game layer), DARPA launched a challenge late last year. They hid 10 red balloons at different locations all across the continental United States and offered $40,000 to the first team to correctly identify their locations. The winning team (a group from MIT) constructed a strategy that in many ways mirrored a pyramid scheme. It was a cleverly constructed waterfall of incentives that encouraged massive cooperation. Essentially everyone to give them data about any balloon's location won some portion of the prize money based on how many other people also submitted the location of that balloon. This created positive communal incentives across what rapidly became a large and self-propagating network. Their strategy managed to accurately identify all locations in less than 9 hours.
This communal discovery mechanic is immensely powerful and, as DARPA so elegantly displayed, can be used to solve immensely difficult problems in record time.
These are just three out of a myriad of game dynamics that will act as the core building blocks used to construct the game layer over the next couple years. We're right at the beginning of this decade of games and so now is the time for everyone to learn about these game dynamics and discover new ones. Smart companies will take this time to look at their product portfolios and community behaviors through the lens of game dynamics. Where could you employ progression or appointment dynamics on the existing social graph or through mobile to encourage upsells or repeat visits? The time is now to map out your game dynamic strategy. The more people that help in the construction of these frameworks, the better they will be. So, go play some games. Then start building.
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