Incentives are for Games & Interests for Social Media

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Incentives are a commonplace to game designers and developers. They are a means of designing activity to support goals and to motivate users. They are not events, which are those things that happen during game play and to which which users must react. We tend to think of incentives as those design elements that draw out, or appeal to a user’s interests, reasons, and motives. Design aspects that the user can anticipate, expect, and organize his or her activities around. We think of incentives as designed into a game, site, or service. But they are really, actually, in the user. They work because they incent (incentivize) the user’s incentives.

This is important, lest we think that incentives exist purely and simply in design. Incentives work by providing a reason that relates or connects to an existing interest and which is motivating to the user.

There are many incentives used in games to make multi-player game play more interesting. In social games, incentives will include both straight-up game play (leveling, collecting, tasking, etc) and social play (using player partnerships, allies and allegiances, teams, roles, for collaboration, competition, involving trust, betrayal, loyalty, etc).

Are incentives used in social media the same as those used in conventional media? Do the same rules and design approaches work in social media as in game design? The answer is probably not.


An incentive used in a game provides a reason to act: it is a fictional reason or cause of action and behavior that makes sense and is adequate in the frame of game play. It doesn’t work in “reality,” or outside game play. A game-based incentive is a fiction adequate to ground behavior within the game context. Games are a framing of experience outside the stream of real and everyday activity.

In the game-play situation, the player agrees to accept the fiction of the game and the rules that make that acting within that fiction possible. Games are framed “outside of” everyday reality, and often involve persons not belonging to one’s everyday world. Accepting the fiction — its rules, players, activities, events, powers, and time periods — is part of what makes games “fun.”

Rules & relationships

Another reason that games are entertaining is their transformation of relationships. Game rules do this. Rules change not only the nature of the relationship, but the roles or positions held by people involved. Participants or players may now speak and act differently, exercising authority provided them by the rules. And rules not only create and make new kinds of authority possible: they change power dynamics among participants. They give behaviors new reasons (because this is how the game is played): participants can now do new things with (or against) one another.

In social games, the transformative effect of rules on authorized behaviors can lead to compelling interactions, as well as unintended consequences that can be engaging precisely because they confuse game fiction and real-world relationships.

If the effectiveness of game-based incentives in social play is reflected in the power of rules to transform relationships, thus enabling new actions and behaviors, it would seem that game-based or game-like incentives should work well in social media. At the design level, common features and elements would make this transfer quite easy. User interface elements common to games and social media include:

  • some kind of direct messaging and some kind of public messaging
  • social objects to own, trade, share, pass along, compete for
  • gestures for self-expression and communication
  • social units built around groups, friends, teams
  • personal or player profiles or representation
  • technology-specific features, functions, and actions
  • and more

Games and social media also share in some experiential aspects: mediated communication, action, competition, status, and social presence, for example, which belong to the social architecture and interaction design of each.


But in spite of some of these similarities, essential differences exist. Differences not specific to design or architecture, but to the framing of the (user) experience.

The incentives that work in games, work because they are supported by game rules. Those rules structure a fictional reality or transform an everyday reality. Incentives designed for games, in other words, use this fiction as their reason. Things a person might not do in the everyday world can have a reason within a game.

Games frame a stretch of time during which participants interact with each other in ways that create possibilities unavailable in the everyday world. But social media serve purposes of real communication and interaction. Behaviors that might be common in the gaming world such as wagering, collecting, promotion, competition, rank, and winning aren’t exclusive to the domain of games. But the incentives that work in the everyday world do not have to be constructed on game rules. In fact, they rarely refer to any rules whatsoever.


It belongs to the everyday world that its “constructedness” is not a theme; we go along with reality as it is. Any rules, codes, or forms of behavior that one might call organized have at best a tacit or implicit basis. This means that in the case of social media, it doesn’t work to articulate how users are to do things, how they should behave, interact, communicate, compete, and so on.

Social practices emerge as an outcome of participation: they are a sign that certain kinds of trust, commitment, interest, presence, and so on, exist. These things cannot be forced because it is up to each of us, as participants, to reach a level of comfort and routine with mediated interaction and communication. Since experience on social media is neither framed like a game (with a beginning and an end), and since it is purely voluntary, incentives don’t necessarily incentivize on the basis of rules.


Better than “incentive” is perhaps the term “interest.” Each of us has interests, takes an interest in things or people, and becomes interested. Each of us has self-interest, an interest in others, and interest in social experiences. We satisfy, protect, and share our interests. What’s more, interests, unlike incentives, are used and negotiated by people during normal course of interaction; whereas incentives structure activity towards achieving a goal, and have but one object or value.

Some social media elements depend on the effectiveness of shared interests to organize content and navigation: think simply about tags and the long tail. Common interests are indeed the basis of a great deal of social interaction and content. (If anything, it is more difficult to articulate differences than it is to represent commonalities online.)

Interests are a better concept than incentives when it comes to action, too. We tend to do things online that we want to do. And we assume that this goes for others, also. Being interested, having interests, acting with interest, taking or showing an interest normally suggests personality, character, and taste.

Interest explains individual and social actions and behaviors. It does not explain game behaviors: rules and roles do that.

Because we can often relate to the interests of others others, if not by sharing then by at least recognizing and validating them, interests form the basis of social competencies. Competencies in being interested, having interests, showing or taking an interest — all of these are more likely to serve as a basis for social interaction and engagement than incentives modeled on games or fictions. (The exception of course involves people interested in games!)

And there is another reason that interests, not incentives, play a central role in the social organization of social media. Incentives are reasons that come from the outside. They are not in or of everyday reality, but are supplied by game rules or what have you for the sake of providing other reasons (to act, choose, behave…). Incentives undermine reality: people can do things differently, alongside or even against their personal interests and beliefs, if adequately incentivized.

In social media, encounters with other people include some degree of interest in getting to know the other. This may be ever so small, may be one-sided, or may be mutual. Our behaviors are taken at face value, as signs of who we are, what we are like, what we do, and what makes us potentially interesting (to somebody). In other words, it’s through interests that we relate to one another, and this interest is a common, everyday, and natural incentive that comes from within the social world, and not from outside of it.

Note: This post was inspired and provoked in part by Amy Jo Kim at GoogleTechTalks.

Adrian Chan

Adrian Chan is a social media expert and social interaction theorist at Gravity7. You can follow him on twitter at /gravity7

8 comments on this article

  1. Pingback: Incentives are for Games & Interests for Social Media | Adobe Tutorials

  2. I like “interest” in this context because it connotes both “intellectual interest” and “want”; and because in the sense of “want” an interest can be played as zero-sum or win-win. In the real world things get done by shepherding enough people’s internal motivations in a common direction.

  3. Adina,

    Good observation. I really just took interest from the literature — it’s been used for several hundred years, from “speculative interest” to “self-interest” and it captures the one important thing here: social media users must have an interest in social interaction (of some kind). This is not banking software. It’s completely voluntary and so must engage the interests of users (which will vary)….

    On a finer point, interest is better than response. We sometimes fall to simple behavioralist descriptions built around a correlation between stimulus and response. Clearly that’s not going to work for social media, where the social dimension is richly nuanced and the communications provide a lot of ambiguity and many different ways of engaging and responding. So interest can still relate to intent, motive, and self-reflection; it can combine with subconscious interest or, at the other end, strategic interest. By saying interest we emphasize the user, not the design, and ascribe causality in action to where it belongs: in people.

  4. A few more nuances. The post sets up an opposition between the game-world, game-designer-created, victory-directed rules and incentives and the individually and socially-generated, open-ended interests in the world of social media.

    But there are spaces between these two poles. There are a variety of real-world, directed processes that employ the techniques and tools of social media, such as online political organizing where people create, swarm around, and act upon ideas; and organizational uses of social software, where the tools are used in the service of various shared goals extrinsic to the tools.

    These activities have goals and rules that are in part extrinsic to the system. But when social software works well in these contexts, it works in part because in draws upon the self- and other-motivated interests that make social media go in less directed contexts.

  5. Pingback: Johnny Holland – It’s all about interaction » Blog Archive » Incentives are for Games & Interests for Social Media

  6. Pingback: BookBlog » Blog Archive » Agile social incentives - Adina Levin’s weblog. For conversation about books I’ve been reading, social software, and other stuff too.

  7. Hi all…
    I am playing games on pc and i like to more about gaming…
    I like this article because it’s about gaming…

  8. Pingback: BookBlog » Blog Archive » Learnings about web ratings systems - Adina Levin's weblog. For conversation about books I've been reading, social software, and other stuff too.