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In this week’s series on game tools, we’ll be exploring the mechanics used to create communities and a sense of belonging to your players. Belonging and being part of something is one of the strongest motivators that you can use to engage your players in your game or the gamified environment. Belonging and community have two aspects though, one inside the experience and one exist outside of the experience, and dependent on how strong each is, the other will be augmented and improved by it. In other words, if the group narrative in the experience is very strong, then the connection that people have beyond the experience (outside the game) is also strengthened.
The beauty and power of belonging to a community or group are that information and value are shared across the collective. Mentor and peer relationships will organically occur if the experience for the group is learning oriented, which in the case of gamified environments, they generally are. Relationships, therefore, act as transmitters and receivers of teaching, conveying and gathering knowledge. And as we’ve seen with the rise of systems that use recommendations and karma points, and so forth, we tend to accept and thus learn faster when we receive information from a know and familiar source that is of a similar level to our own. If you’ve ever struggled with creating an onboarding or tutorial system for your experience, then utilizing the mechanics of belonging is a good way to get your players through what would normally be a very difficult and taxing event.
What you must remember is that mechanics are tools, they facilitate or allow certain actions to occur that help fosters the feeling of community. At the end of the day whether the community grows and thrives is down to the quality of the experience you provide and the level of authenticity and transparency in why there is a community required. If it is to share knowledge and have enjoyable yet challenging experiences, then there is a good chance a community will thrive. If there are hidden agendas and inauthentic behavior, then trust and engage will erode and eventually disappear.
The last thing before we jump into the mechanics themselves is also the opposite side of belonging, and that is exclusivity. Both are powerful tools, a method in strengthening a want or need to belong is by making it exclusive. Club memberships and loyalty programs work on this basis, everyone wants to be part of and belong to that group, but certain obstacles and prerequisites are required for it. You’re probably already thinking of a club you want to be part, but can’t, just yet, right?
Well, let’s dive into the various tools at your disposal to grab and engage your players into wanting to be part of a community.
The first isn’t one mechanic as such but a few bundled together under what is best described as the peripherals. These include all the methods in which players can communicate with each other using text, audio/voice, and visuals. Though peripherals may denote that they are not that important, the contrary is more than true. Having these various features and tools within your experience helps facilitate communication and allows for communities to grow.
If your experience is fully digital and online, then having a chat feature available to your players is paramount. If you’re unable to implement one due to budgetary constraints or other reasons, then informing them of and allowing them to use alternatives (such as commercial messaging service) is a good workaround. Remember having a chat feature does not mean it is purely text-based, if your experience benefits from audio or visual communication, then obviously use that in place of or on top of the other tools at your disposal.
Having visual and graphic elements within your chat feature, such as emotes, and other such things help to promote individual expression and variation. For larger communities, using a forum or Reddit style feed is a useful way to engage many groups in a cohesive conversation.
All of these tools allow for the sharing of knowledge, which is the activity you will most want to encourage your players. As we said earlier, learning from each other is a good way of strengthening relationships.
Community support is another catch-all title that includes a few similar tools. One of which is a voting mechanic, we had mentioned Reddit before, but many other systems use voting or karma points to allow for communities to upvote and downvote information that they find valuable or less valuable respectively. It also helps with granting value and esteem to individuals who deliver value to the community, as they get to see their contributions being recognized. Naturally, the inverse is also possible as people who thought they contributed something valuable get downvoted. This is an unfortunate eventually, but as long as you are able to contextualize it within your experience for them and offer them to review, reflect and improve on their own abilities and knowledge then the outcome of seeing a down vote should not be crushing.
Another tool for community support is the creation of teams, or clans or guilds, to take naming conventions of popular commercial gaming. Implementing the ability for people to form smaller teams within a larger community and naming themselves accordingly, as with a clan or guild, gives a strong attachment to the small group they find themselves. Being part of a large community conveys epic meaning but being part of a small group or party creates attachment and emotional connection on a very personal level. The ideas and hope are that the various smaller groups work in their own teams and then cooperate with the larger collective to achieve goals that wouldn’t be possible on a solo level. The Agile work method used in Scrum is a great example of this where a myriad of smaller agile teams all works on their own objective to achieve an overall goal within the company.
Community competition technically falls under the previous heading, but as once discusses more cooperation, we felt that competition should, therefore, have its own heading for separating differing concepts. When we say competition, we are referring to friendly competition or competition with a collaborative end goal. As with the agile example, each team wants to be the best and first at what they do, but at the end of the day, they are still all working together in a company to achieve a single overall goal. This is a positive competition; negative competition occurs when it reaches a point where the win has become more important than the work being done.
When creating your game or the gamified environment, it is important to have some sense of competition, as it is a great motivator and offers a sense of agency and urgency to your players. To avoid negative competition, one should not create an external reward system. Have a look at the blog section to see some more articles on reward systems. Rewards will falsely motivate people and they will become obsessed by the reward rather than focus on the actual act of collaboration and the positive competition of creating the best outcome that they can achieve, not beating the others to get that “sweet” reward.
It is a difficult tool to use, but it is a very effective one, and you shouldn’t be afraid of it. Competition is very good despite what certain elements of society have been saying over the years.
The final tool is the exclusive community, the one where we wish we were part but aren’t, yet. It’s also known as the walled social community. The usefulness of this type of mechanic is that you have a community that people want to be part of, and those that feel special that they are, and they will tend to work harder at maintaining because of its exclusive specialness. Your players will engage in more activities because they worked hard to get into the community and therefore their overall investment in the experience is stronger, this the perceived value and loss avoidance that we spoke of in an earlier game tools piece.
The majority of exclusive communities have a pay-gate for the players, i.e. the players need to pay to be part of the community and often they need to show continued participation and add value to the community to maintain their standing in it. The strongest example of this is any educational institution; business schools and universities are based on this principle and they have managed it for decades or centuries, respectively. And now many LMS (learning management system) based courses and degrees utilize the same concept to offer value to their students, or “players”.
As always, the tools are not straight out of the box mechanics that you can grab and implement, but rather methods and concepts for you to consider, experiment, use and iterate upon to help improve the experience that you are delivering to your players. Hopefully, the short explanation with each mechanic gives you some insight into how they are used and how they can be used by you. We wish you the best of luck in creating a community, it is one of the most difficult things to do with a game or gamified environment but when you manage it and grows and thrives, it is the most satisfying feeling to have.
I hope that this piece has given you some food for thought and helped improve your own methods or at least offered a different viewpoint to consider.
Please do check out the other posts on æStranger.com, and please do leave a comment or contact us if you have some ideas of your own that you wish to discuss or if you would like to see other topics discussed.
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