Tuesday, January 13, 2009

On Memes and "Mob Wars"

Lately I've been playing a game that turned out to be a meme.

The game in question is "Mob Wars," a Facebook hit that reportedly has more than two million active users and brings in a cool $1 million each month.

The game is a bit like the "Grand Theft Auto" video game franchise. You play as a mobster working your way up through the mob. You start out committing small crimes -- mugging, say, or burglary -- in exchange for cash and "favor" points from the Godfather. Higher crimes require more and more equipment (guns, vehicles, etc.), and you need money to buy the equipment, so you keep committing crimes in order to finance your operations. I found the game to be diverting in the way that most role-playing games are: they put you on a track of repeatedly performing small tasks in order to collect rewards that you need to advance to new tasks, and so on indefinitely until you reach the end or lose interest (whichever comes first).

Then I reached Level 15, which unlocks the "bank robbery" job, which is when I realized the evil genius behind "Mob Wars": I needed to recruit a bunch of new gang members to pull off the bank job.

A little more background info: there are two types of gang members in "Mob Wars," hired guns (fictional characters you can hire in exchange for favor points) and friends you've invited into the game. At level 15 I had already "hired" four goons, and with favor points pretty hard to come by, I wouldn't be able to hire any others for a long time. The bank job, though, requires fifteen gang members -- eight more than were currently in my gang. That meant that I needed to bring a lot of friends into the game, or I could forget about completing that bank job -- and I really wanted to pull off the bank job!

This is where the game became a meme. "Memes" are one of my favorite ideas. They are, in a nutshell, ideas that reproduce themselves. Christianity is a meme: it's a set of ideas that tells you that it's really important to convince other people of the truth of Christianity. The idea uses you as an agent to reproduce itself, much in the same way as a virus uses a cell's machinery to reproduce. Memes tend to get a bad rap because of the virus analogy, but they need not necessarily be good or bad. And to me, there's something particularly cool about the idea of an idea which, though inert in itself, is constructed in such a way as to spread itself more broadly.

"Mob Wars," though, has clearly been deliberately constructed as a meme. It's a game that sends me out to get more people to play the game. And it does that by dangling something that I want in front of me and saying, "You can have this shiny bauble, but first you have to invite some friends..." Many Facebook games do this ("Now you've completed the intelligence test, but to see the results you first must invite five friends...") but it's easily the smoothest and least annoying example I've seen so far.

This is a powerful, if a bit underhanded, way to build a community. The role-playing game formula is a proven winner: give people a series of small tasks to complete, each with a limited payoff, and encourage users to grind away at your game. RPG's rarely ask for a huge time commitment up front; each task is relatively small, but when you add up all the little tasks you perform it turns out you've spent a lot of time at it. In the process you become quite addicted to the payoff, especially once you start realizing how much time you're spending and feel like you need to make that time worthwhile. The genius of "Mob Wars" is that it introduces the meme-like activity not at the beginning, before you're really engaged and it's easy to say "no," but well into the game when you're already committed to the development of your character.

This suggests a community business plan: build a site around a meme.
  1. The Game: Hook your users on a series of small tasks (with gradually increasing payoffs), then present them with bigger tasks that require larger and larger teams.
  2. Community Standing: Grant special powers on your site to users who have a certain number of registered users in their Friends List. (Note: those powers should provide a tangible benefit to those who have them, otherwise no one will care.)
  3. The Big Idea: Your site serves a community built around an idea or cause so compelling that members will want to bring their friends and family into the fold.
  4. The Bargain: Visitors to your site get special prices on certain merchandise, but only if they place an order with others as a group. Prices go up or down depending on how many first-time buyers are included in the group (so as to encourage a steady flow of new blood).
Certain types of community build themselves. Just get them started and they'll take care of the rest.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Happiness Is Catching

Came across an article this morning, on how a recent study indicates that happiness is like a disease:
Joy to the World
Researchers have found that happy people tend to "cluster," which is to say that in a given population you are more likely to find happy people in groups than singly or in association with unhappy people. The researchers interpret this as indicating that happiness spreads socially: your happy friends make you more happy, their happy friends make them more happy, and so on.

Of course, there's another possible interpretation here: that happy people are happy because they are in groups -- they have a strong set of social connections -- so that happiness is an effect rather than a cause. It's also possible that there is correlation without causation: happy people are more sociable because they're happy, and therefore are more likely to form social connections than their depressed, unhappy fellows. But let's not go there. For now let's simply go with the researchers in believing that happiness spreads via social bonds, and that online communities are therefore virtual happiness engines.

Yay us! We make the world happy!