Earlier this morning I saw the following tweet by Alex Payne, one of the developers who works on Twitter

Game mechanics aren't going to fix your product and they aren't making people's lives better. Great essay: http://j.mp/aN66i8 

Alex’s description piqued my interest so I checked out the article by Peter Michaud titled Achievement Porn and not only agreed that it is a great essay but walked away from it with a fairly different conclusion from Alex. Below are two key excerpts from the article

The game article, and the meta discussion surrounding it is actually part of an even larger discussion that affects more than just video gamers. Games are just a minor symptom of a systematic disease:

  1. Our society is set up to make us feel as though we must always achieve and grow. That’s true because individuals growing tend to bolster the power and creature comforts of the groups they belong to with inventions, innovations, and impressive grandstanding (Go Team!).
  2. Because of this pressure to grow, there’s another incentive to make growth easier. More perversely, to make growth seem easier.

Why work hard for achievements, when you could relax and achieve the same? That’s not pathological, that’s how exponential progress works.

But why achieve at all when you can plug into any number of “achievement games” and get the same personal satisfaction?

The good news is that these little “achievement games” are fairly easy to recognize once you realize what’s going on. The bad news is that more are cropping up at an alarming rate, sped largely by the intertubes.

Games fast becoming standard are the “followers” and “friends” games for example. Twitter, FaceBook, LinkedIn, et al, all have their own ostensible raison d’etre, but the psychological underpinning they all share is this treadmill of achievement. This accumulation of points that’s correlated with whatever the intended benefit of the service is.

I find this discussion interesting because it matches the theme of my most recent posts the difference between adding features that are good for users versus good for the product. The physiological underpinnings that make achievement games work have been covered quite well in the Slate article Seeking: How the brain hard-wires us to love Google, Twitter, and texting. And why that's dangerous. The article argues that our brains are wired to derive more pleasure from chasing after something than actually getting it. However although we are hard wired to constantly chase after achievement it is our individual choice which achievements spur us. Thus it is the same underlying biology that explains the addictions of Tiger Woods and those of the World of Warcraft junkie.

Our lives are full of lots of little “achievement treadmills” it’s just that video games are the most obvious. A few months ago I started playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. I play it for about 1-2 hours every day and according to the game have clocked in almost two weeks of playing time. The game has lots of mini-achievements and ways to keep you grinding from unlocking titles when you complete challenges like score 500 headshots with a particular weapon to encouraging you to de-power your character after you hit level 70 and start the grind all over again (I’m on my 3rd or 4th circuit). The interesting question is what have I lost by spending all this time playing MW2?

It turns out that the two activities that have suffered the most are my blogging and writing code for RSS Bandit. An insight from Peter Michaud’s post is that these were also achievement treadmills in their own way. On my blog all of my posts literally have a score which is the number of times other people have retweeted links to them, bookmarked them on delicious or shared them on Facebook. I also use FeedBurner and for a while used to obsess about my number of subscribers but eventually got over it since I don’t have the time or willingness to create the kind of content that generates a large following. As for RSS Bandit, the number of people who use it and the number of bugs I fixed have always been motivating factors. I can still remember the feeling I’d get when I’d see stats like 100,000 downloads a month or when I realized the application had been downloaded over a million times since it had started. Since I consider the glory days of Outlook-inspired desktop RSS readers to be in the past, I’m not as motivated as I once was to work on the project.

What it really boils down to is that I traded one set of “achievement treadmills” (i.e. blogging and contributing to an Open Source project) for another more explicit set (i.e. playing Modern Warfare 2). Now we can go back to Alex Payne’s tweet and find out where I disagree. From the perspective of Infinity Ward (creators of MW2) is it a bad thing for their business that they’ve created a game that has sucked me into almost 300 hours of play time? On the other hand, is it a good thing for me as a fully functioning member of society to have cut down my contributions to an Open Source project and the blogosphere to play a video game? Finally, is it better for me as a person to have traded achievement treadmills where I have little control over the achievements (i.e. number of blog subscribers, number of people who download a desktop RSS reader, etc) for one where I have complete control of the achievements as long as I dedicate the time?

I’ll leave the answers to those questions up to the reader. I will say game mechanics can more than “fix” a social software product, they can make it a massive success that it’s users are obsessed with. Just look at Farmville or FourSquare for explicit examples or sites like Twitter which have inspired hundreds of guides to increasing your number of Twitter followers for a more subtle example. Does it mean that these products aren’t making their users lives “better”? Well, it depends on how you define better.

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