The Game Mechanics of Social Media

[Editor’s Note: We continue our on-going series on gaming and research this month with the following post by Jon Puleston; originally published and syndicated with permission by The GreenBook Blog.]

By Jon Puleston

I have been studying game theory deeply over the last few weeks in my quest to work out how to effectively gamify surveys and I have started to see game play mechanics embedded into all sort of activities.

Just for a bit of fun, well as an invented game in-fact if you look at it this way,  I tried to identify and compare the game play mechanics embedded into Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn to work out which was the best game.

These are some of the basic mechanics of successful games:

  1. Strict rules
  2. A reward mechanism that delivers both pleasure and emotional satisfaction
  3. A well balanced success/failure ratio – An accomplishable challenge
  4. A broad learning curve
  5. A wider competitive element
  6. A balance of luck v skill
  7. Levels
  8. Addiction factor – is it an absorbing activity in itself
  9. Team play

How they score…


Here is how I have evaluated it…

1. The rules: Great games have strict and often quite absurd rules that turns a task into fun. Take golf for example. Its main rule: move a ball along a 10km course using sticks alone. The rule is restrictive but makes the task amusing.  Golf without this rule would be “carry a 15kg bag of sticks for 10km!” which would be purely a task.

Twitters main rule: Say something in less than 128 characters

Facebook’s main rule: You have to be my friend

LinkedIn’s main friend: I can invite you to be my business friend

Well in terms of game play mechanics Twitter wins hands down, like all great games, its main rule is foolish and restricting but makes the task of communicating something fun. Often you want to say more than 128 characters; the fun part is to work out how to condense it.

Facebook and Linked in rules are not so limiting. Yet it is Facebooks’ strict rule that you can only talk to friends that is probably the root of this products success.  So, although there is a rule in place that controls who you can talk to however it is nowhere near as conceptually fun. So in game rules terms both Facebook and LinkedIn score lower marks.

2. The reward mechanics: All games work on delivering some sort of reward, be that emotional – you feel good because you did something right – or tangible: you win points or prizes.  What are the rewards that social networks deliver?

Twitter: Get re-tweeted, mentions, attain hits to your links, earn followers & get listed

Facebook: Get likes and comments, gain friends (and influence people)

LinkedIn: Build network of contacts and grow your level of influence. Stimulate debate, get people to look at your page


Here, Facebook scores well with the “like” reward mechanic which means that everything you post has an opportunity to collect reward points.

Twitter does deliver a broader range of rewards but with less consistency and they can be a bit nebulous.

LinkedIn with the community aspect of the product is coming up on the rails. The rewards are delivered less often it can be quite hard to start a discussion, however they are a lot more emotionally satisfying,  i.e. it may not be often that what you say will stimulate comments from a post but the reward for this is greater than through Facebook; someone on Facebook” liking” your comment is not quite as valuable a reward as a 3rd party member of LinkedIn discussing your post.

3. A well balanced success failure rate: Respondents don’t like planning games that they think are too easy but they do get disheartened and give up if they are too hard.  Game theorists have worked out that the most successful games have an achievement success rate of around 25%.  So how do the different social networks score on this metric?

Twitter:  Re-tweet rates approximately 1 in 4 (per 100 followers)

Facebook:  1+ like rates = 70%  5+ like rates = 10% (per 100 friends)

LinkedIn:  Post discussion generation –not sure but clearly is dependent on status


The basic Facebook reward success / failure rate for accumulating “likes” is actually a little too high in proper gaming terms.  Game designers reckon the best games are when you win about 1 in 4 attempts.

It should be slightly harder to get “likes” for them to be perceived as a valuable reward. However as you can accumulate lots of “likes” and set your own personal benchmarks as to how many “likes” is a good score, I would say this works pretty well.

Twitter re-tweet rates are tougher to achieve than likes. I roughly estimate  it to be around 1 in 4 per 100 followers. With 100 followers this is pretty much on the mark. My criticism of it as a reward mechanics is that it is heavily dependent on the number of followers you have and so this reward process only comes into play once you have established a good following – which for many users is difficult to achieve. So on this basis I would mark twitter down.

LinkedIn’s reward mechanics are a mixed bag. Surrounding the community posting process rewards are very poor.  Rates of being able to stimulate a discussion fall well below the 1 in 4 rate and it is very status driven.

But you can comment on someone else’s post and then receive what might be described a virtual reward seeing other peoples comments coming in via email. Also voting in polls is an open process that gives you feedback which is a type of reward.  So my conclusion is that the reward process of LinkedIn is not perfect but it has a lot of potential.

4. The learning curves: Good games that are easy to get started with but also have a nice long learning curve.

Angry Birds, the most successful app in the world, is so successful because it is incredibly easy to get going with it and also has a nice long gradual learning curve. Golf, as an example, has a very steep early learning curve that puts off a lot of people which restricts its popularity. But once over the initial hill it has a  nice long growth curve to those that play which can get very addictive.

Twitter: A steep early learning, establishment curve

Facebook: Simple quick to get up with long learning curve which is easy to progress along.

Linkedin:  Easy to set up and then lots to do and get involved in such as community discussion, polls and addins

Looking  at the 3 social networks, Linkedin scored extremely well on this level. Once you join there is are a huge amount of activities you can get drawn into and master particularly within the communities.  Facebook also has a nice easy entry and extended learning curve, with lots of things being added in to master and explore.

Twitter on the other hand can be very difficult to get going with, especially if you want to develop followers and there is little to master other than working out how to write an actionable comment.  There is nothing else to do beyond writing a comment so it does not actually take you anywhere.  In terms of game value, this is Twitters big failing – look at the number of people who have set up twitter accounts but don’t use them activity. This is because they have not got over the initial learning curve.  To play the Twitter game you need to have a good collection of followers to re-tweet and respond to your comments and so many user cannot muster up enough followers to make it fun.

5. The competitive element: Many of the most popular games have a strong competitive element; take football as an example.

Twitter: compete with others for the number of followers, re-tweets and mentions you can achieve

Facebook: compete to see how many friends you can accumulate and how many “likes” you can receive from your posts v other friends

Linkedin:  compete to see how many connections you have and see how influential you are in communities

Twitter is probably the most competitive game, especially amongst the power users. There is a lot of benchmarking discussed based on the number of followers individuals have and you have a direct competitive comparison with other people to see how “popular” they are compared to you.

In Facebook and LinkedIn the competitive elements are very much underplayed.  Though you can see how many “likes” your friends are getting and how many friends they have the accumulation of them is not necessarily driven by competition. Many may only want to be connected to people they really like and don’t want too many unnecessary contacts.

6. The skills required to play: You could argue though, that the competitive element of many games are a game mechanics failing if the win rate is low or unevenly distributed and the game is too hard to play well.

If you are playing a game such as football there is a 50/50 chance to win and even a good team can be beaten by a bad team as a measure of luck is involved as well as skill. A lot of games though, that are very skill orientated tend to get dominated by a small group of “experts”. Take chess for example. This is a very difficult game to master and almost impossible to beat a player better than you, and so this really restricts its popularity.  Golf has this same problem and so as a hack added a handicap system to counter it. The lottery is all luck so the only way you can be persuaded to play is by offering a huge prize but as a result it has a very broad uptake.

Twitter: Performances based and uneven distribution of skill

Facebook: skill and not skill based but more even distribution

Linkedin: skill and non skill based uneven distribution

Twitter requires the highest level of skill and effort and as a result you end with a number of very dominant players. As a result of this,Twitter is very like chess  – a popular game amongst a niche group of skilled players.

Facebook and Linkedin are less skill based; there is a broader level of activities to do that are not dependent on skill and so these games attract a wider pool of participants.

7.    Levels & rooms: nearly all successful computer games use levels to allow you to progress and develop.

Twitter:  single level game

Facebook: Single level with mutli rooms game

LinkedIn: multi-level mutli-room game

Twitter offers not much more than tweeting to keep you occupied so effectively this is a single level game but both Facebook and Linkedin are much richer experiences.  Facebook levels are achieved through exploration and there are no skill barriers; you can add in games and do a variety of different things that you discover with time.  LinkedIn, on the other hand, offers both exploratory levels as well as locked levels that you can upgrade to (though not, unfortunately, through performance but with money which is a short coming in gaming terms).

8.    Level of addiction: The best games like Tetris get under your skin and can become highly addictive. So how do these score for addiction?

Twitter:  High

Facebook: High/dangerously high(as far as my daughter is concerned!)

Linkedin: High

All 3 of these could be classified as addictive once you get into them and Facebook could be described as dangerously addictive in terms of the number of hours people spend using it and considering the impact this may have on their health.

9.    Team mechanic: A team play mechanic can really take a game to the next level. Think about how successful games like World of Warcraft and Tour of Duty are by fusing players into teams.

Twitter: Low

Facebook: Low

Linkedin: medium

There are no real team play processes integrated within Facebook and only indirectly with Twitter with #groups but there is a level of team play emerging in LinkedIn in the form of community. These communities do not directly compete with each other but there are certainly tribes that you can align yourself to and promote.


Twitter: great single level game but difficult to master. The “Chess” of the social networks. Those that are good at it, it becomes a highly addictive game. Those that are not drop out and this is the majority.  Score = 7/10

Facebook: great game with simple rules, easy to master but with a lot to offer.  You can think about it as a game theme park.  Score 9/10

Linked in: Great multi-level game with lots of depth nuances. Score 8/10


Twitter: Suggest developing the feedback mechanic to make it even more reward driven, add options to “like” tweets or indentify them as being, say, funny/interesting/good business tip.  This would help users compete more effectively.

Add a random distribution of tweets protocol to allow novice users to enter the game and get started; a novice user with 0 contacts is tweeting to a vacuum.

Add a more effective way of making friends, possibly by including a profiling process to define more effectively who you are so for example if you like cinema they can connect to other cinema lovers and the system automatically matches you up.

Facebook: Again more clarity in the feedback than just “like” – why not add a suit of feedback choices including laugh/interesting/boo  etc. This will help end users learn how to communicate more effectively and make the game more fun.  Otherwise I think Facebook is doing a pretty good job to gamify itself.

Linked in: Make more discussion post anonymous so they are not so reputation based; then more players can play. Encourage more game style apps such as those that are availablet in Facebook. Understand that business can be fun too!


About Jon Puleston
Jon Puleston, is Vice President of GMI Interactive, part of the GMI group based in London. GMI (Global Market Insite, Inc.) is a leading provider to the global online research industry headquartered in Seattle, USA. His team specialises in the design of interactive surveys and developing specialist technology for conducting interactive online research. He was formerly the founding director of Media Intelligence, a research technology business that developed the industry’s first ever flash survey authoring software and pioneered techniques such as virtual shopping, clicktesting, online dial testing and virtual publication surveys. His company was purchased by GMI in 2006. Over the last 3 year he has been conducting extensive research investigating techniques to improve panel engagement using interactive research techniques with the aim of increasing the quality of data and completion rates from online surveys. He has published 2 papers on this topic in association with Engage research and recently presented a paper at the ARF conference in New York with Sony Music UK demonstrating how some of these techniques have been successfully been put into practice.


Speak Your Mind