Game Mechanics for Interaction Design: An Interview with Amy Jo Kim

Game design expert Amy Jo Kim shares her insights into applying game principles to the design of online communities.

Amy Jo Kim is a game/social/web designer known for bridging the divide between game and web design. She has designed software UIs, games, online communities, and wrote the seminal book Community Building for the Web way back in 2000. I have long admired her work, and I am grateful that she recently sat down for an interview on the basics of game mechanics and how they can be used in interaction design.

Amy Jo

You have a background in software interface design. How did you end up doing game design?

I have an eclectic background in neuroscience, computer science, and psychology. After earning my Ph.D. in Behavioral Neuroscience, I worked at Sun Microsystems as a software engineer and UI designer. I then joined Paramount/Viacom as a Producer/Designer, working with brands like Star Trek, Nickelodeon and MTV. That’s where I got my first game design gig — prototyping a multi-player online music game for MTV (an early precursor to Rock Band, which I later had the pleasure of working on).

In 1995, I left Viacom and launched a consulting business (Shufflebrain) focused on “social architecture for online environments.” I worked with Web communities, online gaming environments, virtual worlds, and MMOs – designing social systems, game mechanics, and UI. I found that game design and community design had a lot in common – so I wrote a book callled “Community Building on the Web” to share lessons learned working at the intersection of gaming and social media. Since then, I’ve continued to design social architecture and gaming systems for companies like eBay, EA, There.com, Digital Chocolate, and Harmonix/MTV, to name a few.

What are game mechanics, and what is the primary value of thinking about game mechanics in interaction design?

Game mechanics are a collection of tools and systems that an interactive designer can use to make an experience more fun and compelling. Used well, game mechanics make a Web design more engaging, sticky and viral by incentivizing certain behaviors. However, game mechanics are not a panacea: to be effective, the mechanics need to be integral to the experience.

What are the primary principles in gaming that might be useful to interaction designers?

These core mechanics are a good place to start (collecting, points, feedback, exchange, and customization). Here are two slideshows that are solid introductions to them:

Putting the Fun in Functional
View SlideShare presentation or Upload your own. (tags: gaming games)
Power to the Players
View SlideShare presentation or Upload your own. (tags: game games)

Keep in mind that these ideas are a starting point – not a complete recipe. There are MANY other principles from game design that can be useful to interactive designers. Here are some good resources on Game Design — all useful background reading for understanding game mechanics.

What sites are very good at promoting gaming principles and why?

I see a game mechanics working well on sites like YouTube, Yelp, Twitter, and Flickster. These sites have added game mechanics like points, leaderboards, level-ups, social exchanges, and customization to a strong core experience. In particular, YouTube has done a brilliant job of making the overall experience feel game-like, without turning the site into a traditional game.

Why is this happening in so many places? I think game design principles have become common knowledge for young Web designers. Many of the people who are designing and building these sites grew up playing games, and are familiar with game design principles – even if they’re not “officially” game designers themselves. It’s a testament to how pervasive and mainstream gaming has become.

Why haven’t the gaming and design communities overlapped much?

In MY experience those communities definately overlap, because I have a foot in both worlds :-) But it takes real effort to reach across the boundaries and learn sometime new. If you live in “Web Design world” you work with Web-centric folks, most of your contacts from previous jobs are Web folks, and you probably attend Web-oriented conferences. Same with “Game Design world.” Additionally, the mindset and incentive structure for these two worlds are very different – as articulated in Andrew Chen’s insightful blog post: Major Cultural Differences between Games People and Web People

HOWEVER I see this changing — more and more Web folks are attending game design conferences like GDC, and game designers like myself are branching out and doing more work in the Web world. I think we’ll see this trend accellerate, and we’ll see more conferences that bring these communities together.

What do designing video games and designing online reputation have in common? How do they differ?

Well, first off designing video games is a multi-faceted activity, involving creative/artistic expression, systems design, story development, etc. Different types of games require WILDLY different skills – someone who’s good at designing single-player puzzle games won’t necessarily have the chops to design a multi-player FPS or MMO.

Designing reputation systems is a specialized skill that requires an intimate understanding of the motivations of players, and awareness of the inherent strengths and limitations of the surrounding environment. Some game designers (particularly people who’ve worked with MMOs or other complex multiplayer games) have this skill, but most don’t.

Online reputation is basically a multi-player gaming system that involves Social Points (points awarded by other players, rather than by the system). Reputation systems are tricky: they must be balanced and tuned to meet the needs of both the players (who want to build their reputation, and know something useful about other players) and the products creators (who need a system that will create a “level playing field” and help the product thrive).

To get a feel for the choices and complexities of designing reputation systems, check out the reputation patterns section of the Yahoo! Developer Network – great stuff. (editor’s note: also check out my interview with Bryce Glass, who was instrumental in putting together the reputation pattern library at Yahoo)

Another great resource is Randy Farmer’s blog – just launched, and sure to be filled with great insights (he’s co-authoring a book on building reputation systems with Bryce Glass).

Isn’t relying too heavily on gaming principles and principles of social interaction kinda evil? What if people don’t understand how you are manipulating their behavior? While in gaming it’s all for fun, what about when it isn’t?

That’s a great question. Like any powerful tool, game mechanics aren’t inherently good or evil; they’re simply available for anyone to use. How the tool gets used is up to the creator. Game mechanics can make an educational experience more fun and compelling; they can motivate someone to stick to a weight loss program; AND they can keep people in dire circumstances glued to a slot machine, pumping in quarters in a glassy-eyed stupor.

So game mechanics can make almost any interactive experience more compelling – but it’s ultimately up to each player to choose to participate in that experience, or not.

A while back Digg had some problem with their Top Diggers List. (see http://bokardo.com/archives/diggs-design-dilemma/ and http://bokardo.com/archives/diggs-design-dilemma-redux/) In talking about this situation, Digg creative director Daniel Burka has said that they would do the same thing again…that the Top Diggers List was a good thing for early growth but then became a liability. Do you see this is as an aberration, or do you think that most game mechanics need to be viewed in this way, as best for specific times during a community’s lifecycle?

Absolutely – I agree with Daniel, social game mechanics need to evolve to fit the scale of the community. Something that works well for 5000 players (like leaderboards) will often break down at 50,000. I’ve seen this principle in action repeatedly, and written about it in my book Community Building on the Web

Also, I know you’re working on new “brain software” at Shufflebrain. What is it?

Earlier this year, ShuffleBrain took seed funding from Lightspeed Venture Partners to develop “smart games for social networks.” We see braingames merging with social media to become SmartGames – fun, personalized, brain-stimulating mini-games that become an integral part of your digital lifestyle.

We’ve just launched the Beta version of Photograb, our first SmartGame, which combines photo-sharing and puzzle-solving – you “play” your friends’ photos, and turn your own photos into mini-braingames. It’s a great way to have more fun with your photos, and do something good for your brain too. Find our more about Photograb and our company, at Shufflebrain.com.

Thanks Amy Jo!

Published: January 15th, 2009

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