Sunday, January 14, 2007

The game design behind the five things blog meme

First, let's start off the exercise with an example. Here are three things about me (because I write too much for five to be worth wading through), as requested by at least two enchanting human beings, Mr. Edery and Mr. Booth. Note the links to their websites and consider the form and intent of the entries below.

1) Doctor Who
Television was uncommon in my household growing up for a variety of reasons. First, it clearly rotted your soul. Second, due to our unique location in the hinterlands of Maine, we received a mere three stations, two of which were pure Canadian syrup and one of which was PBS. Luckily, generations of liberal elite had conclusively proven that any show on PBS builds enormous pulsating (and vaguely British) brain mass. Look at Ira Glass. I’ll bet he watches PBS. My parents were fans.

Every Saturday night, my amazing mother would bake a whole wheat crust pizza and we would climb up the rickety ladder to the perennially unfinished television room at the top of our sprawling hand-built home. There, around an ancient television (the sort whose tube seemed nearly spherical), the entire family would gather and watch the latest glorious episode of Doctor Who. Cybermen, Saurians, the Master, and Chameleons circuit all rock my world.

This was a tradition that continued for at least a decade, through puberty, graduations and death. Every Saturday, whole-wheat pizza and the church of Doctor Who. The core of my being still sparkles when I see long scarves and alien rubber masks. I vividly recall the second episode: time travel, petrified forests, static electricity powered Daleks. The Bible never had a chance.

2) Chocolate
Once a month, we sneak off to a strip mall Starbucks where we greet the waiting cadre of chocoholics. With a flourish, we reveal our latest decadent discoveries. The evening becomes a whirl of luscious single origin dark chocolate, roasted nibs and bon bons. Roll the sound of that word around your mouth. “Bon Bon.” We’ve dabbled in local salt caramels and liquor filled delights purchased with adult credentials, but hell, anything less with than 65% cacao is barely worth the time.

There is a ritual to the evening. First, each owner snaps off small pieces of their sacrificial bar. The sound, hardness and texture noted. The aroma is inhaled. Next, each dark nub is placed upon napkins with its own special number. Then each person simultaneously lets a small fragment melt upon their tongue. “Oh, what a delightful front taste!” someone will exclaim. “I think I taste a fruitiness, perhaps a kiwi-peachish mélange?” queries another. We take careful notes. “No. 1: kiwi-peachish mélange? Right.

We completely make it all up. I don’t even know what kiwi-peach or burnt almonds taste like. There is an unspoken rule that no one criticizes anyone’s commentary, no matter how ludicrous. Chocolate tasting, it turns out, is not the exercise in snobbery I expected. There is no status to be gained or sommelier to impress. It's all a thinly veiled excuse to gorge upon one of God’s most marvelous sins.

(Give the Michel Cluizel Concepcion try. Pure chocolate nectar.)

3) Phones
I’m a reasonable social fellow and enjoy chatting on the phone or receiving phone calls from others. But making phone calls? Not so much. Throughout college I managed to never order pizza. This required intense subterfuge and occasionally Byzantine plotting. Starvation was certainly an option, but eventually someone else would be hungry enough that they could be bribed, manipulated or coerced into making the dread call.

My deeply rooted quirk manifests not as a phobia, but more of a nearly unstoppable subconscious urge to defer, to procrastinate. My productivity shoots through the roof when someone recommends I make a call. I clean, write old friends, start Very Important Essays, paint, etc. I can easily put off calls for months or even years.

This drives my wife crazy. She is the Phone Master. Just today she tracked down a foreign exchange student that my parents knew a decade ago. Phone call, after phone call until she had the girl's name, number and location 17 times zones away. For this I, the broken caller, worship the very ground she floats above in that angel-like Phone Master sort of way.

I won’t nominate other people because the chain must die at some point.

Take care

PS: A short analysis of the “5 things about myself” from a game design perspective
Now that the example is out of the way, let’s get a wee bit meta. What we here is an elegant social game. You play it by writing something about yourself and then nominate several more people to write about themselves. Some call it a meme, but it can be easily described in game design terms. To wit:
  • Tokens: the Writer, the Readers and the Target(s).
  • Basic Verbs: Write, Nominate and Read.
I leave the drawing out of the various atomic rewards as an exercise for the reader. :-) Here are some highlights.
  • Writer reward: The writer is rewarded because they get users to drop on by and see their post. Incremental feedback that suggests one’s reputation is increasing within a community is a strong motivator for many bloggers.
  • Reader reward: Readers are rewarded because they pick up new facts about the writer. This allows them to update their social model of the writer and typically increases their overall trust in the writer. This information allows them to rank the information on the site more appropriately for use in future decisions.
  • Writer action: The writer also gets to target others. This provides them with a very direct and low cost way of updating their mental model on information sources that they use on a regular basis. If they chose someone who continues the game, they also tend to get a back-link that leads more traffic to their website, pumping up their reputation score.
  • Target reward: The targets get immediate rewards through A) being given social attention and B) more concretely through the flow of traffic to their website. However, it gets a bit stickier than just that.
  • Target punishment: There is an opportunity for punishment as well. If the target chooses not to play, the writer will feel that their invitation was spurned and the relationship damaged. Since relationships are powerful social tools, having one damaged is a strong form of punishment that most people will seek to mitigate. In simpler terms, targets feel peer pressure to continue the game.
How you play the game matters. The execution of each action has subtle ramifications.

Uses of the write verb: When writing the five things, there is an urge to appeal to your target audience and build trust in your validity as an information source. If you are boring, readers experience burnout, you hurt your reputation and get double dinged for being the blind follower of a very silly fad. In my example above, each element targeted a very specific audience that I know reads this site.

Uses of the nominate verb: The choosing of Targets is the most interesting part of the game. The obvious strategy is to pick someone with whom you share a pre-existing social bond. Otherwise, the punishment feedback cycle has no hold over them. You also typically select someone with whom you would like to build a deeper long term relationship. The sharing of links is the modern equivalent of breaking bread together.

There are less traditional uses of the Target verb.
  • You can target blogs that are much more popular than you are. If you can score a link back, you can reap substantial traffic. The trick here is to provide a hook that overcomes the lack of peer pressure. Note that there is a little cost if you fail. For example, I could challenge Digg reader to provide 5 things that no one knows about them.
  • You can select blogs that you wish to validate on a personal level. Perhaps they intrigue you, but you’d like more details. I could challenge the good folks at the Escapist if they hadn’t been tagged already.
  • You can end the game.


  1. Brilliant! Why didn't I think of doing this analysis!

    Also, since you are analyzing the reward for the reader, then I suppose 'read' should be one of your verbs, no?

  2. Good call! Added it.

    take care

  3. This is BRILLIANT! Now can you do an analysis of the game design of my turtle? And a dildo? And the moon?

    Actually, why don't you just please stop before you make a laughingstock of yourself and all game designers! Thx!

  4. We could easily combine those first two suggestions... :-)

    take care

  5. hehe.
    Finally! a solution for the rest of us.

  6. "In my example above, each element targeted a very specific audience that I know reads this site."

    And who do you have in mind?

    Of course any one individual isn't sure to be particularly representative, but using my own data point:

    Dr Who - well I'm British so I know that show all too well, never did much like it but can see the value for it among all good (non British) Xenophiles of course. Of course, I'm aware of my own hypocrisy too as I'd quite likely be less of a critic of the programme if it were from anywhere other than here and I had to go out of my way to see it. Ed Wood for example!

    Chocolate - well, who doesn't like at least one of the following: chocolate, critical review, joking about it? Anyone who's experienced childhood should be able to empathise with that.

    Phones - ugh, phones. There are two kinds of geek, those who are in love with their smartphones and those who wouldn't dream of touching one so long as there's a call! To the best of my knowledge, there are no normal people who loathe phones to anything like the same extent. Your experiences broadly converge with mine on this one.

    In other words, I think you made three pretty hedged bets, which is of course a good tactic. Did you really have specific and differentiated groups in mind then in the first place?

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  8. Very nice article. I really liked it a lot and it gave me a few good pointers. Thanks!

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