What’s your high score on Twitter?

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What’s your next target for Twitter? 10,000 followers? How about beating your personal best of 32 retweets? And have you finished LinkedIn yet or are you still aiming for that elusive 500+ connections?

It is a term that may sound intimidating but, at its simplest, gamification describes the (increasing?) application of game principles to non-gaming situations. With this being 2015 the obvious parallel to draw is with video games but there’s no real reason for that. Everything from I Spy and Pontoon through to Snooker or Rock, Paper, Scissors contain principles that can be helpful when considering work from a gamification perspective.

The fundamental principles of gaming are rules, challenges, rewards, and a journey that the player goes on. Perhaps traditionally games also have competition and winners and losers (card games like Patience are the exceptions that prove rules) but today we understand the concept of the single player game. We can all play the game, and can all beat the game without anybody losing. All we have to do is learn the rules, explore the world, score the points, complete the levels and win the reward. More often than not the reward is simply the satisfaction of having played and won. Games don’t need anything else to keep people playing today any more than they did to keep the school boy trying to get to school without stepping on any of the cracks in the pavement in 1885.

Not all games are about numbers, points and scores but many are. In a video game context the High Score table on the early Space Invaders cabinets was a milestone. Now we could see what other people had achieved and, although not competing with them directly, we could try and best what they had achieved. We had targets and aspirations. As we played the game we could see our own score getting higher, tens becoming hundreds, hundreds becoming thousands. Something else was happening outside the cabinet too. Something was being triggered within us. In a very real sense we became part of that game and instinctively understood the importance of chasing points that didn’t mean prizes.

The same thing is happening now with Social Media. Last June I met Ian Pettigrew who opened my eyes to how far Social Media had come. It was that meeting that inspired this blog and one of my first posts. I said to Ian at the time that much of what was happening now in a flashy graphical user interface on the a World Wide Web I had seen years before in the BBS, IRC and other Internet platforms that we accessed via Telnet. I stand by that, but the key difference today is the gaming aspect and the race to the high score.

Like everybody on Twitter, I occasionally get followed by a lounge singer in Detroit, an aspiring model in Germany or a songwriter in Greece. These people always share the same Twitter stats: they are following something like 28,000 people and have about 16,500 followers of their own. These guys have no interest in reading any of my tweets, perhaps they never read the feed of their followers. The game they are playing is obvious – how many followers can they ‘get up to’ in order to give their public persona credibility and help to achieve celebrity status?

The cliché of Twitter being a party in which everybody is talking but nobody is listening is unfair, but there is an element of truth in it. I remember the first time I saw that a link to one of my blog posts had been tweeted to 17.5k people. Just imagine! Would the server cope? Would the blog crash under the strain of unprecedented traffic? I got 3 hits.

Perhaps LinkedIn is an even clearer example of the race to score points. The developers of LinkedIn clearly understand this and now tell me how I rank in different leagues: with my own ‘network’ and others in my organisation. Achieving 500+ followers now just gets you in the game. Once there, you can play against people you know, or complete strangers, and you will find both in your network if you’re honest.

None of this is to take away from the enormous value of social media and the benefits it brings. We all play games, and the world would be a worse place if we didn’t, but what does gamification mean for your own social media strategy? Perhaps for another day it would be good to think about what happens when we don’t start with Space Invaders but with role playing games instead. What happens when MUDs (online multi user dungeons) become MUWs (online mutli user workplaces).

Watch this space or, alternatively, feel free to invade it if any of this has got you thinking.

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