If you’re reading this, you’re probably on Facebook and Twitter. You might own a smartphone, iPod Touch, Nintendo DS, or other portable and Wi-Fi capable gadget. You might also play a game or two, every now and then.
Speaking as someone who grew up with a NES controller in my hand, it is no small personal disappointment that I’ve seen people connect through technology in all sorts of fascinating ways I could have never predicted–and yet when it comes to playing games with people, we’re still pretty much stuck with Zynga’s stupid Mafia Wars and Cafe World shit. Shit which is basically communal grinding and rubbing the rewards of said grinding in your Facebook friends’ faces. Shit which was cute when it was its own game, by Nintendo, called Animal Crossing.
Even current social gaming at its best consists of stuff like Facebook Chess, Scrabulous, and Words with Friends (iPhone/iPod Touch)–games which basically let you play classic board games with your buddies. To be sure, it’s understandable–designing a new game requires actual game design talent, and when your business model is based on lots of ad views you’re going to make your players do a lot of clicking before thinking about creating an entertaining game experience. Also, most of the people playing these games are probably playing them at work, so you can’t demand a whole lot of your players’ concentration. It’s basically adding a social dimension to stuff we already do (go on Facebook at work) and making a (shitty) game wrapper around it. And whether I like it or not, it seems to work.
So why fight it? Let’s take the Zynga Formula (Existing routine activity + Social Network + Game) to see what else we can come up with.
Yelp and Digg
Avid Yelpers and Diggers know that the whole site is already a game if you treat it like one. A good friend of mine just got her Yelp Elite status (which gets her into certain invite-only events, among other perks) and I’m pretty sure she was more excited about that than about graduating college. Same goes for Digg Power User status, which makes you pull more weight on the site when it comes to the news you post. Basically, getting Elite or Power User status requires you play a social game with your fellow food/news mavens; you need to balance your time between writing reviews that are useful, funny and interesting, writing enough of them to get you noticed, and hobnobbing with existing Elites (without seeming like you’re kissing ass) to make the cut. The existing activity is Eating / Reading News, which was made social via Yelp / Digg, and the Game part is all the shit you have to do to get nominated for special perks–which have real-world effects. (Ones which are relatively minor in the grand scheme of things–I doubt anyone has gotten laid from Digg Power User status. Actually, it probably has the opposite effect.)
So why not give the existing game some rules? Give each user an overall Yelp score that rewards different facets of being an active Yelper: consistent quality posting (which can be explicitly recognized by other users already–people can call your post “Funny”/”Useful” etc.) as well as first reviews/photos/lists contributed, socializing (friends, fans, compliments), and other individtual measures of Yelp activity. In order to avoid making the game too competitive (no one wants to feel like playing Yelp is work, after all, or feel like you have to be an asshole to win) you could build in group bonuses for people who start their own Yelp meetups (say, get 10 people together to eat at a certain restaurant which doesn’t have many reviews). Giving businesses a surge in Yelp traffic could induce them to give player-specific rewards (coupons, special offers, etc.). If you’re gonna grind, it might as well be delicious.
Of course, this is applicable for any social networking site that is driven by user content, not just Yelp. I don’t know if there are any social networking sites based on deal-hunting (I think DealNews has something like that in beta right now), but rewarding users for contributing deals (and maybe encouraging leaked Black Friday ads and such) could make for much better deals coverage and more exclusives. Same goes for Flickr and feeding the stock photo machine.
Foursquare already has a set of badges that you get for wandering around your city (tracked via your smartphone’s GPS) and already offers potential real-world benefits for “checking-in” often: regulars at certain spots can get Mayor status, which could potentially net them special discounts and such. The basic social game infrastructure, complete with rewards, is already there.
The trick with Foursquare would be to add more group-based incentives: if you and your Foursquare posse plan a pub crawl, for instance, checking-in at each spot along the way could net you with increasing score bonuses based on the size of your group and the number of places you check in from during a certain time. Track groups in a certain city with a certain itinerary for a day, and you could actually have them “compete” for a higher group score with each other and award the top groups extra points or badges or what have you.
You could also add Foursquare’s location tracking + social networking features to other parts of life–runners, for example, could link up their Nike+-enabled gadgets to Foursquare to measure their speed and distance covered in friendly competition with other runners (divided in to experience and ability-related brackets, of course) to mimic the boost that someone gets from working out with a partner.
LinkedIn would actually be a fascinating place to see a group-game-oriented social networking experience, because it’s pretty much a given that people sign up out of pure self-interest–you’re either looking for a job, want to be better at your job, or need to fill a job. Of course, business is, well, serious business, so making a game of it would probably ruffle some feathers, but there’s no denying that offering an external incentive to help other people find jobs, answer career questions, and make recommendations (all of which are already functions on LinkedIn) could be doing work that really helps people out–namely, finding them work.
Someone could build their LinkedIn score by posting job openings, referring people towards existing job openings (the referrers could do the work of adding, say, the Craigslist job posting to the LinkedIn job posting database in the process, which would make it more useful for everyone), providing recommendations for other users, and answering career-related questions.
The LinkedIn score could be used to make your profile more visible to employers and colleagues, enable certain profile upgrades, and if appropriately weighted, be used to indicate to potential employers your degree of connection, knowledge, and usefulness in your industry. It could also be used to boost the rank of your employers–a group dynamic on LinkedIn that could be used to make your company or organization more visible, too.