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Understanding Social Engagement

Recently, my 5-year-old daughter started playing Minecraft Pocket Edition. Right after I downloaded the game, she picked up the iPad, generated a new world, and began building a house. Minecraft has a bare-bones interface, with no helper tips or tutorial. How was she able to play so fluently on her first try?

Simple: she’d be watching her big brother play Minecraft on the family computer for months. She was ready.

Games have an experience arc  of  learning –> practicing –> mastering that’s particularly well suited to group bonding. Everyone has to learn the rules, so there’s a natural teach/learn social relationship between experienced players and newbies (e.g. my son and daughter). Good games are designed to let you “practice the rules” – you jump in, make mistakes and learn from them. Part of Minecraft’s magic is that your mistakes are visible and easy to recover from. When Lila started building her first Minecraft house, she was wasn’t sure of what to do – but she quickly figured it out by placing and hacking blocks.

Social engagement is the glue to holds people together over time. The beating heart of social engagement is shared activities — things that you do together. Families who play Minecraft (like mine) are enjoying a digital version of what families have always done – playing games together to have fun and strengthen their bonds.

Because Minecraft is so easy to experiment with AND is missing the usual built-in tips and tutorials, players are learning the ropes from each other – and from the myriad Minecraft Wikis, fan pages and youtube videos that have proliferated to fill in the knowledge gaps.  Sometimes, less is more when it comes to social engagement and UI.

If you want to create a digital service that drives SUSTAINED engagement, think about the shared activities that bring your players (AKA users, customers) together. What can people DO together (both synchronous and asynchronous)? How can they learn from each other? What can they co-create? How can they add value to each other’s experience, even (or especially) when they’re at different levels of mastery? These questions apply to ANY digital service that wants to build lasting social engagement. People will come for the service – but they’ll stay for the relationships, and the activities that keep those relationships humming along.

Collaboration in Minecraft

What’s so compelling about Minecraft? Why is it so popular? This presentation from Lucas Gillispe at looks at some aspects of Minecraft that makes it engaging and successful for his students, including:

  • Flexible Sandbox+Survival Game 
  • Locally Hosted Servers
  • No Subscription Fees
  • Appropriate for all ages K-12

These features help explain why Minecraft is popular with kids and educators – but it’s also a gaming environment that stimulates and supports collaboration. How does Minecraft accomplish that? Let’s start by taking a look at the core Social Actions in Minecraft (click here to learn more about this analytic technique)

In survival mode, players COMPETE with the system to survive the night – which adds urgency and excitement to the play experience.  There is no built-in PVP – no battles or leaderboards – no assigned missions or goals. The emphasis is on exploring the environment, learning the system,  and choosing your own goals to pursue. Players compete with the SYSTEM – not with other players – and that sets a tone.

Players EXPRESS themselves by building structures, either alone or with others. In survival mode, structures are functional – but the amazing complexity, size and detail of structures that people build in Creative mode are all about self-expression. And technically-savvy enthusiasts can express themselves by creating and sharing MODs that extend the Minecraft gameworld.

Whenever a new Minecraft game is launched, players EXPLORE a vast, procedurally-generated landscape that’s different each time. There is no polished built-in tutorial – players learn the system by jumping in and building structures to survive the night. They can also explore the rules and world by talking with their friends, logging into private servers, exploring Wikis, blogs, and YouTube channels, and even attending MineCon – the annual gathering for Minecraft fanatics.

Minecraft has no built-in social structures like teams and friend networks – yet Minecraft players COLLABORATE in a variety of powerful ways. On locally hosted servers and LANS, players build vast, complex structures together – and  sometimes form spontaneous role-based teams to tackle large projects. On Wikis, blogs, websites and message boards, players share stories and tips, and upload elaborate videos detailing the amazing things they’ve learned to build from the rich substrate of Minecraft blocks. A growing movement of educators are using Minecraft to teach math, physics, history – and they’re assigning projects and challenges that require students to collaborate.

So after digging in, we can see that Minecraft has no bult-in rewards or missions that drive collaboration – it’s an emergent property of the core gaming systems and social actions available to the players. I also think it’s a testament to restraint – what the developers LEFT OUT is as important as what they included.

What do YOU think? Do you play Minecraft? If so, how do you like to play – solo, or with other people? What do you think makes Minecraft such a great collaboration platform?

getting shout-outs from preteen boys

A few years back, I purchased a Mario outfit on eBay for my (then preteen) son to wear on Halloween. The outfit was a big hit that year – and then it went into the dress-up trunk.

This year, I rescued the red Mario baseball cap from the bottom of the bin and wore it all summer. This had the delightful side effect of eliciting spontaneous shout-outs from preteen boys wherever I went – “I like your hat!” “Are you a Mario fan?” “Hey Mario, where’s Luigi?”

It’s wonderful to spread joy and connection through beloved games.  I’m just starting to play Mario Kart with my 5-year-old, who thinks it’s a blast. Mario forever!

I’m curious – what’s YOUR favorite Mario game? Do you play with your family and/or friends, or by yourself?

Non-Zero: Designing for Collaboration

I’m giving a talk next week at Stanford on Collaboration and Collective Action in social gaming. This talk picks up where my TEDx Talk on Collaboration and Community Building leaves off. To me, games are fun structured experiences with rules and goals – a definition that encompasses both zero-sum and non-zero-sum games.   I’m going to explain why that’s important, look at the audience and platform trends in social gaming, and take a deep dive into the collaborative structures and systems that are driving category-defining games like Minecraft, Foldit, and Kickstarter.

Hope to see you there.

Designing Sustained Engagement: 3 Questions to get you started

Today, while checking out a friend’s Kickstarter project, I noticed the pie-shaped investment categories widget on the profile page. It’s a simple, compact progress mechanic that shows which categories you’ve invested in.  This widget provides a quick visual overview of investing activity (rollover each pie segment to see the category) – and a subtle suggestion to “fill out” the pie by broadening your interests.

On Kickstarter, what you invest in is a good proxy for your passions, aspirations and hobbies. It’s easy to see someone’s investment history on their profile;  you can also browse (and potentially support) the projects they’ve backed. If you follow your friends on Kickstarter, you’ll get notices when they back new projects. The ongoing flow of projects and friends’ activity provides entertainment, inspiration and a sense of being part of something bigger. I’ve cancelled notifications on most websites I use – but I look forward to getting Kickstarter emails, because the content is almost always interesting to me personally.

What makes a digital experience engaging over time? How do you grab people’s attention during onboarding – and keep them interested and coming back for months, even years? The answer is… there is no one right answer, no magic universal formula. People are motivated by a variety of different experiences. Just look at today’s gaming landscape – from adrenaline-pumping shooters to slow-paced puzzlers to the sandbox-style creative freedom of Minecraft, one person’s beloved game is another’s worst nightmare.

To drive sustained engagement, you need to think about who you’re designing for, what motivates them, and how their experience will unfold over time.  As you’re formulating your product vision and engagement strategy, here are some good starter questions to ask.

1) Who are your players? What’s their Social Engagement Style?

Knowing who you’re designing for is crucial, especially if you’re integrating game design into your service. Ever heard of Customer Development? This concept –  popularized by the Lean Startup movement – is about understanding and testing out WHO is going to use your service. There are a wealth of resources available to help you create smart, testable hypotheses about who your early-adopter players are.

Once you’ve identified your core target audience, you can use our Social Engagement Styles matrix as an analytic framework to think through player motivations. Are you players motivated by Competition? Collaboration? Visible Achievement? Exploration? Self-Expression? What’s most important? What’s missing from their lives? How does their behavior shift at different times in their lifecycle? What qualities reinforce their identity, and tap into their aspirational view of themselves?

Kickstarter plays to our aspirational desire to be patrons of the arts and support projects that we believe in. With an ever-growing variety of projects,  it’s a gold mine for Explorers – and the multi-tiered investment structure lets you Collaborate with a few clicks and a low $$ committment. You can see which friends backed a project – but not how much they contributed, which minimizes competition.

2) How will you define, measure, visualize and reward Progress Over Time?

People are deeply engaged by learning new things, attaining skills, and making progress along a meaningful continuum. What can YOUR players get better at? What skills are they developing when they engage with your service over time? What metric are they improving – and what makes that metric meaningful? What new powers, access and privileges open up as they progress?

Figuring out the right progress metrics for your system can be tricky. Sometimes, it’s straightforward – e.g. for students, progress metrics are structured around grades, courses, degrees, and certifications that open doors to the next level of schooling – and new job opportunities. For shoppers, it’s more varied – some care about saving $$ and finding rock-bottom prices; others are avidly building a collection of limited-edition designer clothes; still others are showing off their fashion choices to online buddies.

Your progress metrics should leverage the core value of your service – AND tap into the motivations and aspirations of your target players. Kickstarter’s simple progress metrics are a good start – but they have the data to know how often you’ve funded winning projects, and how early you were in those decisions. There’s a real skill buried in that data – it’s up to Kickstarter to decide what they want to do with it.

3) What Happy Habits drive sustained engagement during onboarding, habit-building and mastery?

Happy Habits are engagement loops that stimulate ongoing positive emotions. What’s the emotional arc for first-time players? What’s the trigger (internal or external) that reminds them to return? What kind of feedback and sense of progress do you provide? What’s the emotional payoff? Think about the emotional arcs and loops that your players experience during onboarding, habit-building and mastery. If you can design a compelling feedback loop that helps your players gain skill and move towards mastery of something they care about, you’re off to a good start.

Negative Messages and Emotional Clutter

I saw this ad today in an educational newsletter I subscribe to. I had a mixed and uncomfortable emotional response.

One the one hand, I’m annoyed by the suggestion that I have something to worry about – e.g. “you could be doing MORE to bolster your child’s self-confidence!!!”  That idea intrudes on my thinking in a way I don’t appreciate – and I see through the obvious emotional manipulation. Sure, make me worry about something, make me feel guilty – then offer me a solution to purchase to remedy those bad feelings.  No thanks.

On the other hand, this ad is connecting art and creativity with self-confidence, something I ALREADY BELIEVE (as a creative type person with creative kids). In fact, I was just thinking about enrolling my son in a local art class, once his back-breaking 8th grade homework load settles down. But not because I’m looking to boost his self-confidence, at least not directly — it’s because he LOVES art and drawing and clearly thrives whenever he’s in an art-focused social setting. It’s a subtle but crucial motivational distinction – and for me, the difference between clicking through the ad and deleting it.

As a product designer, I know that people are driven to action via their pain points, and one person’s deeply felt need is another’s “manufactured pain.” I know that fear-based marketing works on a lot of people – and sometimes it works on me. But more often than not, it’s a BIG turn-off. If I have a choice, I want to filter out these messages – they’re emotional clutter in my busy day. I respond much better to inspiring messages that tell me things are OK and could get EVEN BETTER – e.g. Apple Ads.

So what’s the upshot?  I cancelled my subscription to the educational newsletter, which was a “nice to have” but not crucial.  One less thing in my inbox; one less channel for ads that elicit guilt and anxiety to reach me. WIN.

What about you? Are you aware of, susceptible to, or skeptical of negative motivators in marketing and advertising?