This post is part of the Game-Like Mechanics series.
Developers of social platforms hope to engage users through basic game mechanics like points, levels, and leaderboards. While these features can create initial draw, they don't often lead to sustainable engagement. This is because points, levels, and leaderboards treat users as a homogenous group of competitors who relate in a basic way. In contrast, successful social platforms support heterogenous user groups who relate in rich and complementary ways.
The most important group distinction is the one between high-level users ("masters") and low-level users ("newbies"). Master users are loyal, avid, and accomplished users -- the heart and soul of a community. Newbies represent growth. A thriving platform must successfully engage both. But how?
In my experience, one of the best ways to create sustainable engagement around a social platform is to empower master users to perform altruistic acts for newbies.
A virtuous cycle of engagement
In an ideal community, newbies and masters will need each other. They will form what economists call a two-sided market. Newbies aspire to become masters. They need guidance from experienced users to unlock the full potential of the platform. Masters, on the other hand, are already kings of the hill. But they need newbies just as badly. By helping newbies, they perform their mastery and experience gratification. Psychologists call it the "Helper's High," and recent neuroscience suggests that altruism releases dopamine (the pleasure hormone) and oxytocin (the bonding hormone). So you see, helping newbies can keep masters engaged with the platform in a very real way.
By designing a platform which empowers this kind of "master-newbie" altruism, developers can unlock a virtuous cycle of user engagement -- low-level users who feel looked after, and high-level users who feel fulfilled.
Let's look at some game and non-game examples of what it means to empower "master-newbie" altruism.
A game designed for master-newbie altruism
Shadow Cities is an iPhone game that's like World of Warcraft meets Foursquare. A player belongs to one of two teams, and must cooperate so that their team dominates a physical location, like downtown Manhattan. Through game mechanics like guides and followers, and emergency beacons, Shadow Cities creates a culture of master-newbie altruism, and arguably, that has become the most addictive aspect of the game.
As in WoW and other MMORPGs, master users in Shadow Cities perform two services for newbies: 1) mentor newbies about the game, and 2) protect and defend newbies when they get into trouble. A few months after the game premiered, its designers unveiled two game mechanics to explicitly empower this dynamic.
First is the system of guides and followers. Game designers added a quest to the new user playable tutorial whereby a newbie must pick a master user to be their designated guide. This has had two effects on the game's culture -- 1) master users on team chat are more helpful and outgoing, perhaps in hopes of attracting a bigger following, and 2) master users are more likely to build one-on-one relationships with newbies.
Second is the introduction of emergency beacons. Shadow Cities is a location-based game whereby players attempt to control territory, often by establishing a patrol. Newbies cry for help in team chat when their base is under siege, but if no one is available, they are discouraged and log off. With emergency beacons, players can now ask for help via push notifications. This empowers newbies, and is an organic way to re-engage master users.
A loyalty program with an altruistic twist
Starwood Hotels' Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) program is among the best designed loyalty programs out there. One reason why is their focus on the experiential aspects of achieving status. For example, their 2011 Platinum Thank You program cleverly enacts something like master-newbie altruism. SPG members with the highest status were mailed certificates that they can award to hotel staff members for being particularly helpful or kind.
Thank You's aren't worth any points to Platinum members, but that's precisely the point. It's about reinforcing one's status. Master users are granted the priceless -- the power to play Santa to working class hotel employees. It is what psychologist Albert Bandura calls a "mastery experience" -- by performing your altruistic special powers, you heighten your experience of status and achievement.
For their part, hotel employees earn SPG points and merit in their file for each Thank You received. While the master-newbie analogy is imperfect here, it's easy to see how this program engages both employees and high-status members and strengthens the community as a whole.
#FollowFriday on Twitter
When someone is "Big on Twitter," they can get stuff done that newbies can't. A user without many followers might tweet a call for help. Someone who is big on Twitter can, simply by retweeting, draw attention to the newbie's cause and amplify a message that would otherwise go unseen. Twitter celebrities know they have the power to make things go viral - a most rewarding and satisfying special power to have.
In fact the Twitter community wants to see master users engage in altruism. This is exemplified in #FollowFriday. It's a cultural tradition whereby a user promotes other users to their own followers. Users with established followings frequently use #FollowFriday to help lesser known users acquire new followers or to promote causes. Since everyone starts out with zero followers, it is only through master-newbie altruism in the form of #FollowFriday, retweets, and @mentions that any newbie can become a master in the first place.
Twitter though can clearly do more to empower master-newbie altruism. A frequent complaint by newbies disillusioned with Twitter is that they aren't engaged enough by the platform. Here the responsibility lies partially with the master users. Why aren't they doing more to help? Perhaps master users don't have stronger incentives to engage newbie users, or they perceive the existing ways to engage as being too costly (it might pollute their timeline).
The solution isn't trivial, but surely there is a game mechanic for that.
Photo courtesy of kalexanderson.