While it’s possible that I’ve already caused the more buzzword-averse among you to roll your eyes out of your sockets, the much vaunted “gamification” of all manner of things is one that is directly relevant to many forum communities. Give me a moment and perhaps I can persuade you of the benefits of using such systems. Perhaps more importantly, I might manage to persuade you of the pitfalls.
Gamification is precisely what it says on the tin: you are giving something (in this case your forum) some of the traits of a game. This might sound trendy, but it’s existed in some form or another in forum communities for years. Consider the ubiquitous “karma” systems that have been in vogue for some time. For those of you who are unfamiliar, these systems allow a user to award another user points (karma being a common name for them) for good posts. Sometimes these systems also allow users to take said karma away. This principle is still seen in the up/down vote system on sites like Youtube.
The theory behind these systems is simple. You’re giving your users an extrinsic reward for posting on your forums. Humans are wired to enjoy such systems, and in their absence I’ve even seen forumers use postcounts as a way of “keeping score” on the boards. It might sound silly, and in fact it probably is, but accumulating these points in whatever form clearly presses a button somewhere deep in our lizard brains. Anything that presses these buttons is going to increase the engagement of a good number of your users. You only have to look at how obsessed people can be with their number of “likes” on Facebook to see that.
So why not implement such a feature in your board right now? Well, as I mentioned there are pitfalls. By extrinsically rewarding behaviour, you put the emphasis on the reward rather than the behaviour itself. For example: if you give the user a thousand point bonus for posting 500 times on your board, some might see this as a simple bonus for contributing. Others will simply spam posts in an attempt to get their bonus. The goal has changed from participating to simply getting the shiny object. It’s been my experience that users who are extremely focused on “winning” are rarely great contributors, and these systems can feed into ugly parts of the human psyche.
How do you deal with this problem? By being very careful what behaviours are rewarded by your system. Fortunately, the Reactions system that’s built into Vanilla software is eminently customisable, so you should be able to find a mix of reactions that create the atmosphere you want; and badges make a great reward system for good contributors. Try and avoid any actions that can be “farmed”, or repeated over and over again to grind out points. For this reason, at Penny Arcade I’ve disabled common badge rewards like postcounts.
Since turning on and off reactions is trivial, think of what kind of actions you want your users to repeat and then build specific reactions to encourage them. For example, of the stock reactions available in our Vanilla install, the two I chose to leave active were the Awesome and Agree buttons. My reasoning (which I’ll admit was largely retroactive) was that it takes a decent amount of effort to craft a post that people will find awesome, and that having a simple way for users to show agreement with a post without posting in the thread would cut down on clutter. It largely worked out well, and the system has been sufficiently popular that we rarely hear complaints from our notoriously persnickety userbase. Once you’ve figured out what kind of stuff you want your users to post, adding a reaction for it is a great way to reward them for doing so.
A final word of caution: be wary of negative reactions in the hands of your users. Having simple, one click access to negativity appeals to some of the least pleasant forum dwellers around. You’ll quickly find grudges forming, or users simply downvoting anyone who disagrees with them or goes against the forum consensus. Next to the humble report button, I’ve found these kind of user feedback to be shaky at best, and I eventually won the fight to have the downvote button turned off the Penny Arcade. Simple access to positivity is great. Simple access to passive-aggressive meanness leads to the dark side. And by the dark side, I mean Youtube comments...
Guest post by Patrick Groome. Patrick is the Administrator of the Penny Arcade forums. Penny Arcade is one of the most popular and long running gaming webcomics and organizer of the PAX gaming conference.