Gamification cuts both ways in stackoverflow
I saw a link in hacker news about stack overflow while ago. There people are answering why stackoverflow has become a negative place where intelligent questions get downvoted while boring simple issues get good reception. I think it's explainable if you think about the website as a game.
If you don't happen to know what it is, Stack overflow is a questions/answers website that rewards people with increased moderator rights when their answers or questions get upvoted. I was quite excited when it launched in 2008, along Joel Spolsky's introduction. After half year I left the stack overflow and other questions/answers sites that had popped up until then. I saw many people, who kept answering boring questions, with more moderator rights than me, despite landing to the website much later than me. I left the site entirely in anger after removing some of my posts. Seeing that I would be always inferior in the eyes of this site compared to some twat who knows how to game the system.
The answerers in meta.stackoverflow have been doing some observations:
- There are 4 camps that divide to two groups that hate each other.
- The users with high reputation eventually stop posting answers.
- The number of posts whose fist vote "up" has started steadily declining.
All these observations are slightly badly represented. The number of posts guy gave a graph that shows a dramatic drop while it's actually just 20% in percentages. The second guy used very small sample data to demonstrate his point. The camping seems to be just a personal observation. I believe they are not baseless accusations though.
A theory based on game design theory
The stack overflow is a gamified website. The users increase their rank when they interact with the website. The rules are designed to maximize interaction and it is hoped that there's quality in that interaction.
In practise any kind of interaction is enough to gain rank. There are some people who just really want to help, but they're mixed with people who just play a game to rank up. The quality in your posts is not required to rank up so it causes the players to post lot of worthless posts to gain rank. These people bring out high traffic but they are otherwise harming to the website's function.
Eventually people have figured out how the game works, they become bored and leave. Not only the players leave. The site becomes too crowded to the helping people to find any good questions to answer encouraging them to leave as well.
Gamification in this case has resulted in a website where the larger portion of traffic is playing a game, and only miniscule fraction of that traffic is what the site was meant for. Unfortunately nearly all the moderators are those gamers because the smartest of them leave sooner as they get bored and offended faster. You end up having interesting questions and users getting downvoted and deleted/evicted by people who only want stupid questions so they can answer them and score.
The stackoverflow was supposed to replace forum posts and paywalled help-desk websites. Those websites seem to have switched to the stackoverflow model, but they do not suffer the same effects as stackoverflow as they are less popular. The first game which introduces the new game mechanic and succeeds at marketing gets most of the audience.
Although it looks grim on stackoverflow, I don't believe this is the fate of every gamification powered website. If you can identify the things that actually increase value of your website you can benefit from the effects. But the acceptance of the other users there should not matter because otherwise they only team up to win "the game". You need to figure a different game. It can't be maintained by moderators because you will eventually run out of them as checking the rules being followed takes more work than usual, as the moderators need to check up every message and not just the ones pointed to them. If you extend the moderator group from the users you will need some mechanism to make sure you won't get lots of really bad moderators.
Anyway, the gamification seems to cut both ways if you do it. I can't be entirely sure but it looks a lot like that. If designing such site, you have to take a stance of a game designer. Yet, it's not enough that your gamified website becomes a good game. It also needs to carry out the tasks that was meant. When gamifying, the nature of the problem you're trying to solve shifts the place, not necessarily into something where you're strong. To what I've seen game design is a very difficult topic for even the designers.
Game Design Theory
This week I've been studying game design after I found it hard. I found two particularly good resources, assuming you take them with some grains of salt. There's a book called A Theory of Fun. You can also find Game Design Theory at Atari Archives. When read together they give quite plausible theories about:
- Why people play games
- What makes them stop
- How designers/people change when playing games
- Why some games are good or bad.
While writing this blog post, I also happened to stumble upon Jeff Atwood's ramble about gamification term, which referenced Basic Games and More Basic Games that appear to be interesting.
I hope it's all valuable to you.