Guest Post: Game Changers | Dan Fox

Last week at the Insight 2.0 conference, I had the pleasure of being in the audience as the Fantastic Mr. Fox played games with us from the stage. There’s something so inherently exciting and life-affirming about play, and yet it’s an area which is only just starting to attract our attention in the online world. Rather than write the article myself, I thought it best to go straight to the horse’s mouth. So this week, you’ll be hearing from Dan about Games.

It ain’t what you play, it’s the way that you play it

Globally, seven billion hours per week are spent gaming. The question is how can this dedication to playing be harnessed for influence. The answer is gamification: the application of game mechanics to non-game activities or environments.

One of the best breakdowns of what makes a game a game is given by Jane McGonigal, the American academic and game designer based out of California, in 2011’s Reality Is Broken.

She defines a game as needing a goal – a final aim and win condition for which players strive. There also have to be barriers – such as rules or time limits or other restrictions; feedback – points, scores or rewards; and that it’s voluntary – everyone agrees to and about the other three elements (and to take part in the first place).

In terms of the web, that’s all a pretty good description of what goes on when we’re online, especially on social media platforms. There are goals: to communicate, connect and promote There are rules and restrictions: etiquettes, how much time you have, competition with all the other data. The feedback is quite clear: the number of your friends or followers, retweets, likes, shares, badges, statuses, comments, and the basic traffic statistics. On some platforms, this is even more explicit. Apps like foursquare and SCVNGR are game mechanics in themselves.

Six principles of influence

Robert Cialdini’s six principles of influence can easily be applied within the ‘game’ of social media. Especially getting people to reciprocate, getting them to commit and remain consistent, and reinforcing social proof.

Using the web, promoting influence and understanding game mechanics all come together when considering wider models of behaviour.

B J Fogg’s Behavioural Model sees behaviour occurring at the convergence of motivation, ability and trigger. Daniel Pink places the crucial point at the convergence of our desires for autonomy, mastery and purpose.

In flow

Games provide the opportunity to experience of all these and to achieve what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was the first to term cognitive flow. At the point of balance between challenge and ability in a task we enter a flow between anxiety and boredom. In flow, we are extremely focussed, have a sense of active control, lose self-awareness, time distorts, and the task itself becomes the only justification for continuing it.

Jihad and game mechanics

The starkest example of gamification influencing people on the web is on extremist websites, at both the jihadi and white supremacist ends of the spectrum. Studies by Jarret Brachman and Alix Levine have identified game mechanics that keep people engaged in these spaces, such as: reputation points; differentiated avatars, and font colours and sizes; access to restricted parts of the site (a good example of Cialdini’s scarcity motivator at work); fundamentalism metres; promotions to Administrator or Moderator statuses; and platforms for collecting and trading photographs, videos and documents.

In essence, when we start seeing online engagement as a game, we can enhance our ability to influence within it. As psychologist Charles Schaefer, the ‘Father of Play Therapy’ says, “we are never more fully alive, more completely ourselves, or more deeply engrossed in anything than when we are playing”.

If you want to follow Dan or ping him any questions, you can reach him @Campaigner and on his website,


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Nathalie Nahai

Nathalie Nahai

Best-selling author of "Webs of Influence" (Pearson). International speaker, consultant, columnist at Marketing Week.