The chicks are alright (or why Farmville matters)

There's loads of information about how social media is changing the world. Twitter and Facebook campaigns are rarely out of the news. But I'm yet to see any mention of how the public sector or third sector might learn from Farmville.

So here goes (and it's not just for Defra).

Farmville has 80m users; it's the most successful 'social game' in the world.

It's frankly very dull. You get a plot of land, you can cultivate it, grow stuff, get animals, and gradually add more and more things to your farm as you earn 'money' after harvesting. 

But somehow it has 80m 'active' users.

How do they do it? And is possible to get that kind of engagement in what you might call 'games for good'?

The first thing they do when you are signing up is show you which of your friends play. This builds trust: you feel it's okay to get involved in a childish game on Facebook, because several of your respected peers with high-powered jobs are already playing.

Then, once you're in, the 'friend' thing is constant. There are endless updates as to what your friends are doing and it's almost impossible to log in without sending free gifts to friends, who are then encouraged to send free stuff back to you. From within the game you can message your friends and they can remind you to do things. Even when you ignore the game, your friends can tend your farm for you (chasing birds off your seed patch, etc), which enables you to come back to it more easily and creates an idea of team-work.

Each 'play' is quite short – you can only spend 10-15mins or so before you've planted up everything and need to come back later when things have grown, so it appeals to hyper-short concentration spans of the net-generation.

Futhermore, Farmville constantly encourages you to share news of what you've 'achieved' (if you like, the 'choice architecture' is engineered to make it very easy to share your Farmville news with all your facebook friends, regardless of whether they play: it's always more effort not to do so). And this reinforcement helps you share the message. 

In effect, it's designed to be socially contagious.

The game itself goes on and on – you move up a level or stage once you've earned enough, and then you're rewarded slightly different crop seeds, or a different colour tractor, but presumably the game never ends – there is no win, because then you'd stop playing.

So the lessons for any kind of application you want people to engage with regularly are:
  1. initially reassure by referring to other friends who participate
  2. provide constant opportunities for reporting between friends
  3. design for 'short, but often' use
  4. allow friends to help each other and to reward each other
  5. create endless small-step stages, with constant (if very small) rewards
And these kind of lessons are beginning to be applied to try to effect behaviour change, e.g. http://getupandmove.me/ by Contagion Health (great name) – it's making socially contagious games for health. 

The current problem is that for real world application you can't be at a computer all the time (in fact, that's the opposite of what they're trying to achieve), but once app-enabled mobiles are the norm…
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