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Intranets For People. Posted on 05/21/2002.

At last week's Emerging Technology Conference, the session most germane to the work that I do was J.C. Herz's talk on "Networked Experience Design." In it, J.C. argued that people designing any system that exploits a network would do well to study the "social ecology" of online gaming, where the interactions between players are supported by the elements of the game environments, and spurring various cultural developments. (I put J.C.'s "social ecology" in quotes, because a Google search suggests its standard use is quite different than hers. I believe "information ecology" is the more apt term.)

Lexicon aside, J.C.'s models of the gaming ecology offered insights that could be carried into other milieus. She began by breaking down the four types of gamers:

1. Achievers - they want to win, kick everyone's ass, be seen as the best

2. Explorers - they're modeling the system, they tinker with it's boundaries, winning is secondary to being the most knowledgeable

3. Socializers - they're earning administrative privileges, they run the system, they help newbies get up to speed, etc.

4. Spoilers - they're the class clowns. They're here to, as we used to say in my college co-op, fuck shit up.

J.C.'s point here is simple. An online game has to provide multiple ways to win, or, perhaps a more accurate term is "succeed", because success means different things to these different roles. Not everyone has the
same goal, motivations, etc. People want to take different roles.

She also stressed the importance of the "learning curve" of online gaming, perhaps most obvious in role-playing games, where people start at a beginner level, and, through experience, attain higher levels, and with those higher levels, more power, more access, and more status. But it's not enough to simply gain experience... You must be able to show others your position. It's important to remember that "networked experience design" is fundamentally social, and communication is essential. Emblems of status must be clear.

J.C.'s point reminded me of They have a delightful status marker, their "cubes". Immediately upon clicking to an article, you know the level of devotion of the community member.

J.C. discussed how such emblems allow participants to build their identities over time. Too often, networked environments exist only "in the moment"--there's no sense of history. I've often felt that P2P filesharing systems are like the quote from Herodotus: "No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man." You can enact the same search a minute apart and get wildly different results.

But it's important that these stories be allowed to build gradually. J.C. noted that in online gaming, people work very hard to build identities. It's important that networked environments support that, that they reward people for their efforts.

J.C. then discussed the importance of simply support sociability. She argued that much of what gets sold on eBay is crap, but that's beside the point; people enjoy the interaction of trading. You just use the crap as a means to that end. She felt Napster was a step back, because it stripped the face-to-face aspects of sharing music (embodied in the ritual of the mix tape), reducing it to hunting for tracks. (Though, and I don't think she pointed this out, Napster was perhaps the first program that allowed you to peek into others' hard drives, an *extremely* social act that added a lot of context to the file-sharing, and is, for my money, the single most popular aspect of that system.)

J.C. ended with a discussion of the importance of groups in our social lives. We all watch FRIENDS at the same time, not simply because that's when it's on, but because that's when everyone else is watching it... There's a notion of shared experience that creates value beyond just the content. There is a social metadata -- we share this knowledge -- and the act of sharing can often be more important *than* the knowledge. During the beta tests of Quake, clan structures emerged, to the surprise of the designers. And clans are now a standard part of any online gaming environment--people simple can't not form groups. The challenge is, How do you create wonderful membranes for groups?

J.C.'s main point is a simple one: Technology always changes, yet human nature persists.

Now, I've learned to grow wary (and weary) of attempts to convince me that the secret to interaction/experience/whatever design lies in the world of games. The "task" of playing a game is so different from the tasks the users of the systems I design, my immediate response is to discount it. However, J.C.'s talk is both simpler and richer than that. "Online games" aren't interesting in and of themselves. However, the way that they so clearly expose social behavior makes certain aspects of human nature exceedingly obvious (I mean, emblems of status, sharing, and group dynamics are all elements of "real world" sociability, too--it's just that the online realm magnifies them).

The most obvious beneficiary of J.C.'s modeling would be corporate intranets. Those four user types, the use of experience/knowledge as status, the forming of meaningful groups--all of these are important within companies, and an intranet design that explicitly represented these elements could prove to be exceedingly powerful. Employees getting rewarded for sharing the most information (thus earning the most "cubes"). Employees maintaining group identities, not just with their department, but with other meaningful groups (basketball players, people carpooling from a certain location, etc.) Even a system that allowed the jokester a place for carrying on. Intranets need to respond to its users not just as employees, cogs in a company's system, but as people, social creatures interacting.

For more on JC Herz, check out:
An article on networked media design.
An article on Learning from The Sims.
Her piece in the current issue of Wired, 50,000,000 Star Warriors Can't Be Wrong, one the upcoming online world Star Wars Galaxies.

4 comments so far. Add a comment.

Previous entry: "Who knew that Google lied?"
Next entry: "Dunsmuir, CA."


JC's model of gaming ecology reminds me of another online community: mailing lists. Especially those created as support for another online activity (in my head I'm picturing my mailing list for online comic artists).

Within this particular framework, there are corresponding characters such as,

Achievers: the ones continually developing the activity being shared
Explorers: the ones pushing the boundaries of the activity, sometimes giving fodder to the acheivers, usually the first to answer questions posed by the group.
Socializers: those that are the first to help out the "newbies", setting up FAQ's, sending occasional random posts etc.
and of course,
Spoilers: the all too familiar "trolls".

Just some of my own thoughts on how her model could be extended.
Posted by miyon @ 05/22/2002 11:44 AM PST [link to this comment]

Miyon, I like your sense of these categories. They more realistically reflect my networking experience.
Posted by Jeff @ 05/23/2002 07:32 AM PST [link to this comment]

The quote you mention is a fragment of Heraclitus, not from Herodotus.
Posted by smoky @ 05/23/2002 07:54 PM PST [link to this comment]

On behalf of, I thank you. :)

Just wanted to clarify that the cubes indicate how many articles a member has written for the Web site. Other members contribute in different ways, some by actively participating in our 2800+ strong discussion list ( ), some by helping with the development of features for the site, and still others by editing and approving articles and answering emails sent to us.
Posted by MadMan @ 05/29/2002 08:53 AM PST [link to this comment]

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