Social by design

Board games are social games by design. If you think about it, you are sitting around the table, playing a game together. If the game has collaborative elements in it, you need to work together to make them happen. If the game has competitive elements in it, you have the game banter of you having to pay out to your sibling who happens to always own a hotel on the most expensive street in Monopoly for example. It is hard not to have conversations when you play a board game. They may be strictly game related, but you are communicating.

In a digital game, having conversations with fellow players is not always part of the game. Multi-player online games have the team aspect and battling together at their core and they require communication. E-sports leagues can show you some of that for the team games. A lot of digital games you can play in the first person on your own against another player or against the computer. A lot of casual games such as Candy Crush, Angry Birds, Sudoku, Crosswords, etc are just you playing to move up or complete the challenge.

In gamification projects, we are often asked to make something social by design. If we think of this in the context of a learning-related gamification project, imagine a group of learners taking the same course together and having a place in the course platform to discuss the subject with peers, ask questions, complete team tasks together or even conduct peer reviews on training provided. The challenge is to have this work when people can start in their own time. I have been a trainer with a tumbleweed environment in online groups (as in nothing happens and you can what grass grow) and equally a student in groups that were very happening and interactive.

So what makes the social aspects work? First of all, starting together at the same date will stack the odds in your favour to have a happening alive community feel in your online groups. When you can’t have everyone start together, then the engagement into social is weighted up-front in the onboarding process. The first steps on the learning platform should include a social sharing step or an asking questions steps or even a 30-day or 5-day challenge. Trainer or expert access is typically relevant to sustain engagement. Peer only groups will otherwise lose momentum over time unless someone takes leadership and drives them forward.

Social game elements include group activities, team quests, sharing, asking and answering questions, peer feedback, voting, etc.

The key is to have a common goal and reason for people to do something together. The doing something together needs to have meaning and purpose. For example in on-boarding having a group of new hires discover how to find their way through the means of a team treasure hunt on your work campus with clues, gives a clear purpose and an inherent need to work together.

Creating a blend of technology and real life also works well, from group sessions in person, even online at a specific date and then having the back channel group to ask more questions in works well when you have some active people contributing. I am part of a number of online coaching and professional development groups. In one we have a monthly call, an occasional meetup in person which is purely social and then the main online membership hub. In another we have a daily web-call with a live chat function on the side, often the live chat is as much fun as the content discussed on the web-call and a slack channel with different topical threads. Both work, because the driving forces behind them are active in each channel. Feedback is sought and given. Accountability is there if you want it, but the people attracted to this type of media are social minded or topic curious with a need to discuss it with peers or experts.

When you have an offering where a multitude of courses is being pulled together from different angles, different authors, or corporate materials, creating a sense of community is harder. As soon as performance is attached, competitors take part or the job is attached to the social aspects, people’s barriers come up. I ran a course around work-life balance for lawyers at one point and nobody was engaged because this was not my usual way of working, I questioned the group and asked them why everyone had their poker face on. One brave woman answered and said, we are all competitors and being good lawyers we don’t want to show our weak sides, such as lack of work-life balance for example. It made everyone laugh and I agreed that we would treat what came out of our discussions confidentially and with respect and we managed to have very lively and engaged discussions after that. In a work environment, the fact that your boss and teammates are potentially lurking in the same groups and forums as you may make you refrain from asking that burning question out of fear of sounding stupid. This, in my view, is a facilitator issue as well as a cultural one. In a learning culture, even the CEO should be allowed and encouraged to ask stupid questions and maybe even take the lead role in this.

When you want to instil social by design in a digital setting, it will take more than game mechanics or the system to make it work. An effort by people, joint meaning and purpose and where possible a timed starting point helps to stack the odds in your favour. You may need to keep tweaking it a few times before you find a happy medium.