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Coop First: non-zero-sum games are reshaping our digital world

When you think of a game, what springs to mind?

Do you imagine winners and losers? Levels and leaderboards? Vast landscapes to explore? Friends gathered around a table? People working together achieve something bigger?

In game theory, there are two basic types of games: zero-sum games where players are opponents, with clear winners and losers – and non-zero-sum games where players are partners who win and lose together. You can see these game types in action  on playgrounds (and boardrooms)  around the world — boys love to play zero-sum games that involve rank-ordering within a pack, while girls gravitate towards non-zero-sum games that involve building and maintaining relationships. For more background on this, check out Deborah Tannen’s brilliant, insightful book You Just Don’t Understand – it documents how boys and girl use language to negotiate these different types of play.

The world of gaming  – both online and offline – is filled with zero-sum games that involve battles, prizes, rank-ordering, and clear winners and losers.  Score-keeping is a deep and interesting part of these games – and is at the heart of what makes team sports so engaging and fun to watch and discuss, as well as to play.

If you look at the world through a non-zero-sum lens, you see that building partnerships and relationships is a fundamentally different kind of game to play – one that has the potential to GROW THE PIE for everyone, rather than dividing up a finite pie amongst the winners. Think about a barn-raising, a quilting bee, a charity walkathon, a bunch of kids playing hopscotch — group activities with rules and goals and a quantifiable outcome that everyone enjoys together.  These games have scoring systems – but the score isn’t the main point; it’s more about the group effort, and the relationships built by playing together.

So what happens if you put head-to-head battles and rank-ordering on the back burner, and think Coop First? What gaming systems and features actually get people working together to achieve something greater than themselves? What playful activities can you imagine where people are partners, rather than opponents? That’s the vein I’m mining, and in the next few blog posts I’ll share my current answers  to those questions.

But first – what do YOU think? What collaborative and collective action systems have you seen lately that impressed you? Are you working on anything along these lines? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Collaboration @ Kickstarter

I’m fascinated by Kickstarter.  It’s entertainment, collaboration, and belonging all rolled up into a compelling social experience with real-world impact.  If I see that someone I admire has backed a project, I can’t resist learning more – I click on the link, watch the project video, and sometimes decide to back that project myself. When I do, I feel closer to the other backers – and to the creator. For the duration of that project, we’re a mini-community, united in our support of the vision and goals of the creators.

So how does Kickstarter enable this sense of connection and collaboration? To gain insight, let’s take a look at the core Social Actions in Kickstarter (click here to learn more about this analytic technique)

The entertainment value of Kickstarter is a big part of it’s ongoing allure. There is always a fresh stream of offbeat, surprising, creative projects to EXPLORE – and the creativity and passion expressed in Kickstarter videos makes them fun to watch.  Plus, you get the added “what-will-happen?” fun of seeing how the projects evolve over time as they succeed – or fail – to get funding.

Kickstarter doubles-down on people’s love of exploring by providing many different ways to explore. You can  search for your favorite pastimes or artists, or click on different lists to browse through featured projects. However you like to explore, Kickstarter makes it easy to keep clicking on cool stuff.

On Kickstarter, your identity emerges as you back projects – and if you’re a creator, as you run campaigns. Kickstarter players EXPRESS themselves by supporting projects they care about and want to see happen. Your profile showcases the projects and categories you’ve backed (but not how much you contributed). You see chronological project listings, plus a piechart icon showing which categories you’ve invested in. The visual icon style – blank areas, filled in as you take actions – suggests a progress meter or collection device, not necessarily in a bad way.

Kickstarter campaigns  have a game-like structure with time constraints, visible progress metrics, and a win/lose state. When you launch a campaign, you set your fundraising goal and the number of days you have to achieve that goal. If you meet your fundraising goal, you get the funds pledged – and if you don’t, the funds are returned.  Thus, players COMPETE with the system to get their project funded, which adds urgency and excitement to the overall experience, and drives social network outreach for everyone involved.

Within this same structure,  players COLLABORATE with each other – and the creator – by pledging funds and doing social outreach. It’s this productive coupling of collaborating with people while competing against the system  that leads to successful, purpose-driven collective action.