Amy Jo Kim‘s work building social systems and online experiences for The Sims, Rock Band, Ultima Online, and the New York Times, to name a few, makes her an industry go-to when businesses and clients have questions about creating engaging experiences for gamers, shoppers, and more.
Amy Jo is the author of Community Building on the Web (2000) and Game Thinking (2018). While some think of her as a community professional because of her writing and others know her more for her work in games, Amy Jo sees her work as continuous and intertwined.
She was tackling questions around user incentives and gamification decades ago and even then she thought, “is it too late for me to write a book?” Let’s all take that as a lesson that it’s never too late to share what we’ve learned and then, as she says: “Keep going, keep getting better, keep developing new frameworks that give people value.”
Patrick and Amy Jo also discuss:
- Amy Jo’s experience getting a community book published in 2000
- Why simply just implementing “PBL” (points, badges, and leaderboards) likely won’t take your community very far
- Focusing on the “middle” of your community experience
- How inclusivity and diversity factor into game thinking
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Writing a community book in the late 1990s (3:40): “The thing that motivated me to write [Community Building on the Web] was … that, although this was a new medium, and we were dealing with tech-enabled communities, people are people and the dynamics that have always made communities rise or fall are pretty much the same, whether you’re digital or not. … [In the late ’90s], there was a lot of, as there is now, breathless hoopla about, ‘Oh, it’s completely new. We’ve never seen anything like this.’ Yet I felt that there was all this older wisdom about communities that was readily available to us if we wanted to learn from it.” –@amyjokim
Sharing your industry experience (6:00): “If you’ve got something valuable to say, if you can say it in a compelling way people understand; [being] late/early doesn’t matter so much. … Get the thing that you have to state out into the world so people can react to it. That’s an incredibly powerful thing.” –@amyjokim
Be thoughtful about your gamification practices (20:42): “If you want to capture the magic of games in your product, it really has a lot more to do with building the right systems than sprinkling [points, badges, and leaderboards] on top.” –@amyjokim
Give your superusers the opportunity to make an impact (35:46): “Find some way for your most dedicated customers to play a role in the community that gives them impact. People like swag, they like being paid, they like being praised. They like all of that, but there’s nothing that can beat having an impact on a community you care about.” –@amyjokim
Making diversity part of your design process (41:04): “If you’re building something new, and you want it to be inclusive, find people from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds, different skin tones, different religions, whatever it is that you want to be inclusive about. Actively recruit early adopters from those groups and make sure that their voice is heard at the beginning and then throughout.” –@amyjokim
Onboarding is important, but… (47:36): “There are so many apps, communities, marketplaces, and services that fail because they [just] have great onboarding. They took to heart that onboarding is so important. … What about day five? What about day ten? There’s nothing there. It’s so common. The reason it’s common is it’s much easier to design pretty onboarding than to figure out your core loop. It’s actually the hardest part. It’s the part that’s going to drive retention.” –@amyjokim
About Amy Jo Kim
Named by Fortune as one of the top 10 influential women in games, Amy Jo Kim is a game designer, community architect, and innovation coach. Her design credits include Rock Band, The Sims, eBay, Netflix, nytimes.com, Ultima Online, Covet Fashion, and Happify. Amy Jo has helped thousands of entrepreneurs and innovators bring their ideas to life through her coaching programs at gamethinking.io. She pioneered the practice of applying game design to digital services and is well known for her books, Community Building on the Web, from 2000, and Game Thinking, from 2018.
In addition to her coaching practice, Amy Jo teaches game thinking at Stanford University and the USC School of Cinematic Arts, where she co-founded the game design program. She holds a PhD in Behavioral Neuroscience from the University of Washington and a BA in Experimental Psychology from UCSD.
- Sponsor: Vanilla, a one-stop-shop for online community
- Sponsor: Localist, plan, promote, and measure events for your community
- Amy Jo Kim on Twitter
- Amy Jo’s books: Community Building on the Web (2000) and Game Thinking (2018)
- Patrick’s book, Managing Online Forums
- We reference a few of Amy Jo’s past clients and workplaces, including Shiseido, Ultima Online, League of Legends, and Rock Band
- Howard Rheingold’s The Virtual Community
- Howard Rheingold on Community Signal
- John Hagel’s Net Gain
- Patrick on community texts being as relevant today as when they were first published
- Derek Powazek‘s Design for Community
- When Leaderboards Backfire
- The Tribunal policy for League of Legends
- Building Inclusive Communities, Workplaces, and an Inclusive Profession
[00:00:04] Announcer: You’re listening to Community Signal, the podcast for online community professionals. Sponsored by Vanilla, a one-stop-shop for online community and Localist, plan, promote, and measure events for your community. Tweet with @communitysignal as you listen. Here’s your host, Patrick O’Keefe.
[00:00:25] Patrick O’Keefe: Hello, and thank you for joining me. On this episode, we’re talking with Amy Jo Kim, a real pioneer of this work, who authored the book Community Building on the Web, which was released in April of 2000. Over the years, Amy Jo has become even more known for her mastery of game thinking. She’s been at the top of my list of hopeful guests for the show for years. I’m glad that we get to chat with her today.
Our supporters on Patreon provide a constant boost to those of us working on the show. Thank you to all of our backers, including Jules Standen, Heather Champ, and Marjorie Anderson. If you’d like to join them, please visit communitysignal.com/innercircle for more info.
Named by Fortune as one of the top 10 influential women in games, Amy Jo Kim is a game designer, community architect, and innovation coach. Her design credits include Rock Band, The Sims, eBay, Netflix, newyorktimes.com, Ultima Online, Covet Fashion, and Happify. Amy Jo has helped thousands of entrepreneurs and innovators bring their ideas to life through her coaching programs at gamethinking.io. She pioneered the practice of applying game design to digital services and is well known for her books, Community Building on the Web, from 2000, and Game Thinking, from 2018.
In addition to her coaching practice, Amy Jo teaches game thinking at Stanford University and the USC School of Cinematic Arts, where she co-founded the game design program. She holds a PhD in Behavioral Neuroscience from the University of Washington and a BA in Experimental Psychology from UCSD. Amy Jo, welcome to the show.
[00:01:47] Amy Jo Kim: I’m delighted to be here.
[00:01:36] Patrick O’Keefe: Such a pleasure to have you on. I’m going to repeat what I said just before I hit record, I should have probably saved it, but a big fan of your work respect a lot of the writing that you’ve done around community, certainly, your book, Community Building on the Web. When I set out to write Managing Online Forums in 2003, I was looking around at what was out there, and your book was one of the few that existed at the time. I don’t know if I thought about it like this at the time, but looking back, it’s one of the books that I think, mine, and others that have come after it, stood on the shoulders of. I’m grateful for that. Thank you for your contributions to the space.
[00:02:20] Amy Jo Kim: Oh, I’m so glad that it was inspiring for you.
[00:02:23] Patrick O’Keefe: I want to start there. Community Building on the Web comes out in April 2000. That probably means you were writing it ’99, maybe earlier. Looking back, what was it like to write a book focused so heavily? It’s an online community book. It uses the lingo, it talks the talk. What was it like to write a book, focused at that work at that point in time?
[00:02:43] Amy Jo Kim: It was tremendously exciting. It took me three years. I was writing it for three years before that. I was working very actively in the internet and in online gaming, with a foot in each world. I was helping lots of people build their own online communities. ’95 was when the world wide web really was coming onto the scene. We’re talking about the years right after that. People were building their own online communities. I’d even did some work on AOL and their community stuff. Then I was doing work in online gaming as well, particularly with Ultima Online, but also with some other multiplayer online gaming properties. One was called Built by Sierra Online. It was a really exciting time. There were a lot of experiments being done. There was a lot of feeling of being part of a new frontier. The thing that motivated me to write the book was, as I was working online with digital products and marketplaces, I was also working with eBay during that time, on these online games, it really hit me that, although this was a new medium, and we were dealing with tech-enabled communities, people are people, and that the dynamics that have always made communities rise or fall are pretty much the same, whether you’re digital or not.
That was the big insight that really let me do a lot of my best work for one thing. It really led me to wanting to write the book because there was a lot of, as there is now, breathless hoopla about, “Oh, it’s completely new. We’ve never seen anything like this.” Yet I felt that there was all this older wisdom about communities that was readily available to us if we wanted to learn from it. I tried to encapsulate that into my book. A lot of it was stuff I had learned on my own by building things because my specialty at the time was online social environments, online communities. That’s who would come to me, to get help with what they were doing. There was all this, “Oh my God, it’s so new, it’s so different.” Yet there was, “Why did that work?” or, “Why didn’t that work?” It was because we built what people needed, or we had the whole issue of anonymity and pseudonymity. Real names was a very big issue. How can we build an environment where people trust each other, even though they’re meeting each other online? A lot of the issues that solve that problem are human issues, not tech issues. You have to implement them in tech.
It was tremendously exciting. I was happy to be able to put something useful into the world. I was inspired by Howard Rheingold who had written books before I did, The Virtual Community was one of them. I was inspired by John Hagel who wrote a book called Net Gain.
I had my inspirations and I thought, “Is it too late for me to write a book? I’ll do it anyway.” At the time I remember thinking, “Maybe it’s too late.” Of course, now it looks like it was incredibly early. I think there’s a lesson there for all your listeners, which is if you’ve got something valuable to say, if you can say it in a compelling way people understand, late, early, doesn’t matter so much. It’s really, get the thing that you have to state out into the world, so people can react to it. That’s an incredibly powerful thing. I’m very glad that I went ahead and got that book into the world because it almost didn’t happen.
[00:06:26] Patrick O’Keefe: You mentioned Howard Rheingold. For listeners, we had Howard Rheingold on the show previously. We’ll link to that in the show notes. I was curious, how did publishers respond to your idea?
[00:06:35] Amy Jo Kim: I was only talking to technical publishers, not to mainstream publishers. I wasn’t talking to Penguin or Wiley. They liked it, and they were wondering who will buy it. I ended up going with Penguin Press, which was pretty good. I really liked my editor. I had an agent, and so the agent shopped it to the publishers. I wasn’t having as direct an interaction. My agent was having the interactions with publishers. I think they reacted to it as something that would be sort of a technical book, that would be interesting to people that way. I don’t think any of them had an idea it would still be being read by people 20 years later. They didn’t see it as that kind of book at all. When I turned in the final manuscript, I definitely got feedback from my editor and publisher of, “This goes way beyond technical books.” It was a bit of an odd bird. I got a deal. I wrote a book. I was happy with the deal. It wasn’t like there were publishers clamoring all over, mainstream publishers clamoring for somebody to write a book about this topic. It wasn’t like that.
[00:07:44] Patrick O’Keefe: It just takes one. Tying back to what you said about if you have something to say in a compelling way, to say it, these days, obviously, you can get your message out there any number of ways. You don’t need the gatekeepers, so to speak. When I was pitching my book, which eventually was in every Barnes and Noble, and landed very well, it was me by myself, the first year or so, pitching publishers I liked. I signed a small deal with a tech publisher in the UK. They dropped me, I got an agent, he pitched it. Out of 80 publishers, maybe one said yes. They had to come back after six months. It went into the file, and then they came back six months later, and said, “Okay we want to do this.” Then we signed the deal, and all’s well that ends well. It literally just takes one.
[00:08:24] Amy Jo Kim: That’s really interesting.
[00:08:40] Patrick O’Keefe: Let’s take a moment here to talk about our generous sponsor Localist.
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I’m thinking a lot lately for whatever reason, and maybe it’s in preparation for this conversation and conversations with some other folks that have been doing this work for a while, about, I don’t even know how to phrase it, cyclical knowledge. I did this Twitter thread, I’ll link to it in the show notes, about your book and Derek Powazek‘s book, Design for Community. I was just flipping through them, and I was like, “Gosh. If you swap out some screenshots, you cut some references to AOL and Yahoo, and you put it out now, this is probably 70%, 80% relevant still, all this stuff in here.” There’s some stuff you’d probably want to change or update, but overall, there’s good wisdom here.
There are books coming out now that are good books that have good knowledge, but a lot of it is very similar. I don’t know what I think about that. I haven’t made my assumption. I feel like it’s good and bad. I feel like on the good side, it’s good work. We share good knowledge, and now people are discovering that knowledge. It just shows that it stands the test of time, that these good ideas are still done today. They’re the way to build good communities or one of the ways. Then the other side of it is that I really am a big believer in understanding the history of your work, what came before you, who presented these ideas. How they came about, and how they were popularized. I see it as both sides. I was just curious, as someone who did take the leap to put their ideas out there 20 years ago, what do you think about that subject?
[00:10:18] Amy Jo Kim: I don’t think about it too much because I think it’s human nature. I work with a lot of different clients and students. There are people that have to discover things for themselves. No matter what, if you try and impart other wisdom from older times, they just won’t absorb it. They have to figure it out for themselves. I think that’s human nature. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it because I don’t think there’s anything you can do about it. My thing is I’m always moving forward. My later work beyond Community Building on the Web has been a lot about early product design, and how you actually build and ship deeply engaging products, of which a community can be a certain kind.
That book, Game Thinking, really summarizes the knowledge that I’ve gained from all these years of working with people and shipping major hits, as well as lots of things that weren’t major hits. That’s where I’m focused. I’m not focused on the work I was doing 20 years ago. You are correct in that, the wisdom in there is timeless. I wrote it with that intention. That’s why my editor said, “This is way beyond the tech book.” I could update it, but why? I agree. I think there’s other people that are writing. I see things sometimes where people discover something, and they’re so excited about it. I’m like, “That was chapter two in my book.”
I’m sure you have the same experience. At the same time, the way I feel about it is I don’t have any begrudging feelings at all. I’m happy for them. Sometimes I get a shout out, “Oh, I remember your book,” but I won’t go on Twitter and say, “That was in my book.”
[00:12:04] Patrick O’Keefe: There’s nothing to gain there.
[00:12:06] Amy Jo Kim: It’s a waste of my time. It’s also, I’d much rather talk about my later work. I’d much rather talk about what I’m doing now. That’s always been my MO, is to be very collaborative. I share a lot, as I’m sure you notice, on Twitter, and on YouTube, and all and to put out solid work. Whatever happens to that work, I’m moving on. I’m moving on to the next thing. I’m happy people like it. There’s a lot of knowledge there. I had a situation a few years ago where somebody who I am now actually close friends with, we had started to work together on a potential company, and it fell apart. I had done a bunch of work. I had done a workshop and put together a workshop that we co-ran, that he thought was amazing. He said, “You should just publish this, what’s in here.” I said, “I don’t think it’s ready. I don’t want to publish it. I feel like I have more work to do, et cetera.” He took it, and he published it under his own name. A lot of people in the industry recognized it and called him out publicly. I got an apology letter from the publisher, all this stuff, but it’s like this happened. People were like, “What are you going to do? Are you going to sue him? Are you going to make a big stink?” I said, “I’m doing new work. I’m focused on doing great new work. That was in the past. I don’t want to go around defending that work, reminding people it’s mine. I’d rather do new work. Keep going, keep getting better, keep developing new frameworks that give people value.”
That served me really well. Other people take a different attitude. I do think there’s great wisdom in older books. I remember when I was in grad school, I read all kinds of older books that blew my mind and just taught me so much.
I also feel pretty fluid about my own work. I feel like we’re all connected in a way. I put out work, but my work, that I put out, there was a lot of knowledge there I got from other people, too. All of us, that’s going to be true for all of us. I don’t feel very precious about my work. Where I’m invested is using the frameworks I’ve developed to coach people, to coach teams, to help them ship amazing products. That’s where I’m invested much more so than who said what. I do think you’re right. I think a lot of people are reinventing. I just don’t know what the solution is.
[00:14:30] Patrick O’Keefe: I like the way you put it, “I don’t feel very precious about my work.” I like that phrasing. You talked about the shift you’ve made, and this focus of your current work. I wanted to talk about that and to talk about your career. You were, as you mentioned, back then your focus was building community social platforms and so on. You’ve always had this background that was tied to gaming. You made, what seems from the outside, I’m sure, it’s not the same from the inside, it could be like a hard pivot to game thinking.
When I was recently talking to a friend of mine in the industry who you know, and we were talking about various pros from the ’90s and 2000s, who were doing community work at a high level then, and then decided to pivot strongly in a new direction. I think a lot of that is natural. I think in all professions we see that, but what was the story in your case? What did you see, or what pushed you to shift into your current focus?
[00:15:21] Amy Jo Kim: It was never a hard pivot. That’s the thing. If you read my book, Community Building on the Web, half of it’s about gaming communities. From my point of view, it was never a hard pivot. I was always working in gaming. Sometimes I was a UX designer on a large game platform, or sometimes I was designing social systems. I did a ton of social systems design including for eBay and Ultima Online, and Covet Fashion, and all these different things.
There was never a pivot for me. I think people thought of me as “that community chick” because of the book. They were like, “Oh, she wrote a book, Community Building on the Web. It’s got these principles I can follow. She’s a community person.” Absolutely, I know a lot about community. I have built, tuned, and launched many communities, but that was never my sole focus. It was always online social experiences. Always, always, always. When I published Community Building on the Web, I got more known as a community person, but the work in Game Thinking and the framework that’s in Game Thinking is a straight through-line. I don’t look at it as a pivot at all. A lot of the principles in Community Building on the Web are written for somebody who is creating and or running a community. It’s really more for the person creating it than running it. It’s not a book on community management. There’s a lot of great stuff about how to set up stuff, but it’s not literally on just hardcore community management. There are other wonderful books on that. It’s about building it, building is really still the through-line. When I worked more in gaming, and again, when I wrote Community Building on the Web, I already had Ultima Online on my resume as one of the core contributors.
I’ve been in gaming for a long time. When I shifted to Game Thinking — Game thinking is a term that came up after multiple other failed terms. It’s very hard. Terminology is very hard. I called it applied game design. I think I called it something else, trying to explain. In many ways, it was a reaction to what had happened with gamification.
Gamification started to become popular about 2009, 2010, and I was part of that as I mentioned before, that I had done a business endeavor that went south, and somebody published my own work as theirs. That was gamification stuff. That was when gamification was rising. There was this idea of, “Oh, you can apply things from games to non-games, and then they’ll be more engaging,” this big realization. I was very early in talking about how to build that bridge because of my work. I’d worked in both forever. I remember I gave a talk probably in 2005 or ’06 on looking at MySpace through the lens of game mechanics, and what the game mechanics in my space were. I did this analysis, pretty straight forward. People loved it, and it made the rounds.
When gamification became more popular, I was really excited. I was like, “Oh, this is going to get good. We’re really going to transfer this knowledge.” What happened with gamification is that the surface visible layer of games which is the mechanics, PBL, points badges, and leaderboards, that surface layer, the stuff that you can see, became something that people that weren’t game designers and hadn’t come from any background like that, looked at, and said, “Wow, we can take this, and we can put it on top of other stuff,” and it moves their stats. It moves their needle,” and they’ll get more uptake or whatever. “We can charge so much money for this, and it’s amazing.” Gamification, I want to say, for anyone that’s listening to this that does gamification in a thoughtful, and deep, and psychologically meaningful way, good for you. You’re fundamentally probably doing game thinking.
[00:19:34] Patrick O’Keefe: One second. I’ll just say one thing, one of the funniest examples, probably the opposite of that, that I’ve seen in using communities. It’s something that always sticks in my mind when I see the term gamification is, I remember I joined a community once, and I immediately, right after the welcome email, got sent another email that said, “You just earned a badge; Joined.” I hadn’t done anything. I literally just submitted my email, and, “Oh, here’s a badge.” I was like, “This is worthless.” Sorry.
[00:19:59] Amy Jo Kim: There’s some of that still now, but there was this huge wave of it. You’d go to someone’s blog who is a gamification expert, and all of a sudden you’re earning badges for just browsing through their blog, and et cetera. We don’t have time to go into all the things wrong with that. That’s a much longer conversation. What happened was, there was this huge wave of consulting companies, and agencies, and individuals labeling themselves gamification. A lot of them came out of loyalty marketing. People do what they know how to do. Then there was a big backlash as inevitably these solutions failed to deliver. The reason I wrote the book Game Thinking was to offer an alternative.
If you want to capture the magic of games in your product, this is what you do. It really has a lot more to do with building the right systems than sprinkling stuff on top. What looks like a pivot was really a long journey partly through helping co-create the whole gamification movement, just by talking about my own work, then being horrified by that because promises that aren’t fulfilled isn’t good for anybody. It just tarnishes. Think about, if there was all these people building communities saying, “This is going to help your brand,” and it doesn’t. Then people are like, “Communities aren’t worthwhile.” That all happened, and in some sense, it’s still going on. There are still people that get very excited about simple gamification, but largely, the industry has gotten more sophisticated. People learn. People like you went, “This is stupid. This doesn’t make any sense.” I continue to work exactly as I always had, both in products and in games, but as I became a more sophisticated designer, I had different roles on games. I used to get jobs like UX designer for this platform, or system designer, social system designer. Like on Rock Band, that’s what I did, on Ultima Online that’s what I did. I was doing other things too. I helped Ultima Online with their community issues a lot, but their community issues weren’t the kind we’re used to on regular communities. There was all kinds of griefing going on. There was just so much going on in that game that was complicated and hard to parse, and hard to balance. We had a lot of different systems in the game, and a lot of those games are about balance. You don’t want any person playing a certain role to be out of balance with the others. There was just a lot of plugging holes, and testing, and tuning, and trying to get people to do the right things in the game.
Here’s one example, and this is very much a community issue to me, but it’s a community issue that involves design, which is why, to me, these things aren’t separate at all. In Ultima Online, we had a lot of griefing and a lot of bad behavior. We were trying to put in systems that would handle that. It wasn’t just all hands on. We had this bounty system we introduced where if somebody had griefed and behaved badly, and blah, blah, blah, you could put a bounty on their head. Then if another player either captured them or killed them in the game, then they get a reward. It’s like a bounty for a criminal essentially. It made sense in the world of the game. What happened was it completely backfired because the people that were into griefing, more than one person could put a bounty, and then your bounty would get higher. Then the game devs made the mistake of putting a leaderboard of who was the most wanted. It’s like a Most Wanted poster, but they did a leaderboard of the most wanted. The griefers were like, “There’s a new game to play. I’m going to be the most awful, most wanted person in this game.” It actually created a metagame that made everything worse because now they wanted to beat each other on this leaderboard, so they went around doing horribly destructive behavior to just get more bounties. That’s a community issue, that’s a social system design issue. Those are the kinds of things that really fascinate me. I worked on that and worked on many, many games. Also, a lot of products as well, to make them be more game-like and more engaging.
Then I also started to see that, starting around maybe 2016, 2017, I saw more and more people coming to me saying, “I’m a gamification consultant. I trained, I learned, I have this agency, and I need something better.” There was this big wave of people that were disillusioned with gamification but understood that there was still some power there, that wanted better tools.
Some of them ran agencies, they wanted tools for clients. Some of them run user interface groups, so they’re a director of innovation inside a large organization. Did a bunch of work with Shiseido, the makeup giant. People were like, “No, we understand. We don’t want gamification. We understand that that’s not the solution, but what is the solution, and can you help us get there?” That’s where the concepts like a core learning loop and a mastery path, which are the core concepts in game thinking, really started to come to the forefront because when you take away someone’s gamification toys and say, “You can’t just rely on sprinkling badges on this to get engagement,” then what? What do they rely on? That’s where game thinking came out of, is the then what. How do you do this?
If sprinkling mechanics isn’t the right way to do it, what is the right way to do it if you want to build a compelling product that has some of that pull that games have but is actually going to sustain long-term engagement?
[00:25:46] Patrick O’Keefe: I’d like to pause here to talk about our great sponsor, Vanilla.
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I wasn’t familiar with that term PBL until you used it.
[00:26:20] Amy Jo Kim: PBL?
[00:26:21] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes, points, badges, and leaderboards. It’s funny because you wrote a short piece recently tied to one of your courses about how leaderboards can backfire, and leaderboards being a list where members can see themselves and their contributions organized by some sort of visible, attainable metric like likes, or followers, or votes, or numbers of posts. It got me thinking, and you’ll have to forgive me because this is a community show so I tend to relate everything to community, but it got me thinking about something really basic, really simple that’s baked into most community platforms by default, if not all, and that’s just the ability to see members by number of contributions. Members have been trying to boost post count, which you could say are points, PBL but trying to boost post counts, seemingly, since the dawn of post count.
No one seems to approach that feature as being something that maybe needs to be rethought. We all see it in a way that is, not to say it’s without a complete value, but it’s also toxic in many cases as far as people joining at the start or participating at the start, or feeling like, “Look at this person. They have so much. Where does my story fit into this?” Do you think that’s where default availability of member sorting in that way should be rethought by the platforms?
[00:27:31] Amy Jo Kim: It can be. Should is a funny word. This really gets into one of the key things I see, especially in the community space, but I see it also with product development, which is the difference between showing raw data and showing a delta, or some interesting mix of data. Lots of people that aren’t game designers struggle with this. In fact, some game designers struggle with this. That’s a good example of, “Look, we have this raw data. Let’s show the raw data in the interface because we think that’s useful.” There’s a couple of issues that we need to unpack around if community platforms should rethink this.
One is, just always asking yourself, “Why am I showing this raw data? Is there some other more interesting rating system that we could develop that would be more meaningful than this raw data?” Because every game that has an amazing leveling up system, and awesome dashboard, and blah, blah, blah, at the bottom, there’s raw data with deltas on top of the raw data. Smart game designers, they don’t just show you the raw data because a lot of times the raw data isn’t necessarily motivating. I think that a good rule of thumb is, don’t just show the raw data you have, think about, “What is the journey I’m trying to take someone on? What is the purpose of showing that data? What am I giving them feedback on?”
Let me give you an example. You might say, “I want to give them a sense of who’s really deeply involved in the community versus who’s a newcomer, or a lurker.” That would be a reason someone might say for showing that data. Then you can say, “There’s different ways to show the data. You can create buckets.” You show which bucket they’re in, so it’s not quite so, “Oh, you have more than me because you have this number, and I have that number.” A really common thing is you can create buckets, and put people in there.
Then you can give the buckets names that are evocative. That’s very common. You can also not show it as a leaderboard. Let’s say that in someone’s profile, it shows how many contributions, but do you have to have a leaderboard there that shows the contributions in order? The leaderboard immediately would, “Why would you do that? Why would you show that leaderboard? What’s the purpose of doing it?” You could say, “Because the people who have contributed a lot, we want them to reap the benefits of that.” There’s a lot of other ways for them to reap the benefits. What you want to do is not so much get rid of leaderboards. That’s not the point. The point is to really think about the customer experience you want to deliver, and what motivation and emotions you’re trying to elicit in your customer, which, by the way, is a lot of what game design is about, so that’s the connection. You think about what that is, and then you say, “What data do we have available to us?” That’s the raw data. “Now that we’ve got that set, what system could we design that will take that raw data, and use it in a compelling way in the customer’s experience?”
Some of that’s going to be stuff that’s visible. Some of it’s going to be stuff that opens up new opportunities or premium this or that because of something that you did. If you start by really thinking about and modeling now, the experience you wanted to deliver, which is relevant for a community, for a product, for a marketplace, and for a game, if you think about that, you’ll design something that’s much better. That approach gets rid of a lot of the problems you see with people just surfacing raw data because it’s there.
[00:31:21] Patrick O’Keefe: I like to think about things like that and community software features that are important and get plenty of use, but don’t usually guide purchase decisions. Therefore, they aren’t necessarily attractive to the platform developers because it’s those types of features that are often neglected, even though making them better could actually have a meaningful impact. I think you could say that just from my experience about most community management side, like dashboards, and admin areas, and things like that, and how those things are neglected oftentimes.
When I was reading through your stuff about system design, and even you mentioning it here on the show, being a systems designer, one of the things that I thought I would throw in the air is abuse reporting. If a few widely used community platforms got together and said, “We want to make abuse reporting better because it’s an area that’s so many different platforms struggle with.” Scale creates an issue. Even small communities deal with it sometimes. Where does your mind go? What do you think about abuse reporting? Is there anything that you think would be worth experimenting with there?
[00:32:19] Amy Jo Kim: I think it really depends on the specific situation. I don’t know that there’s anything that’s global. I think there’s different systems that make sense in different environments, just like in the physical world. That’s why, to me, community building, it’s so helpful to use analogies for the physical world. Think about abuse reporting at a private country club versus a public park in an urban neighborhood, or something like that. There are so many different factors that go into the expectations, and how that’s done that it’s hard for me to say anything global.
What I can tell you though, is that there are so many advanced things that have come out of online gaming that are a great inspiration for all of us who work in tech. I’ll give you an example. There’s a system in League of Legends, which is a very popular and somewhat controversial multiplayer game. League of Legends created a system called The Tribunal. It’s really interesting. This relates to abuse reporting and how abuses are handled.
League of Legends has a lot of abusive behavior that happens in there, and their customer service gets rather overwhelmed and et cetera, et cetera. What they did was they conscripted a layer of their players into this thing called The Tribunal. They’re essentially first responders for customer support for abuse. Not like the terrible abuse, like “Oh my God, he’s threatening to rape me,” they’re going to send you a professional. There’s a lot of abuse reports that aren’t necessarily so horrible, but they need to be dealt with. They looked at their data and pulled the players who had a good record, who hadn’t had abuse reports against them, or if they had, they’d been dismissed, who were active players, and data-wise, they pooled a group of those players together. They sent them an invitation, and they said, “Would you like to help us make League of Legends a safe and welcoming place, and help us answer customer support calls basically?” I think they gave them some swag and some stuff in response. They didn’t pay them, but they gave them some vanity items that would be good for feeling like they were important, and on the insider track, and all that. They trained these people and put them in there. They also did something really smart, they rotated them out after three months. You couldn’t just get your power, and then wield it, and go mad with it. These were players. These players are now reporting, responding to issues. Some of them were tech issues, some of them were abuse. A couple of interesting things about this story. One, players can respond quite differently when it’s another player versus an employee of the company, who’s seen as, “You’re one of them.” They got some really goodwill about a player who’s been officially conscripted, talking to another player about this thing that happened. I’ve set up systems like this for a lot of my clients. It doesn’t always work. It’s a little tricky. That’s why I said it has to be the right situation.
There are situations where this would totally not work. One of the things that’s really smart for any community manager, and I write about this in Community Building on the Web, is to find some way for your most dedicated customers to play a role in the community that gives them impact. People like swag, they like being paid. They like being praised. They like all of that, but there’s nothing that can beat having an impact on a community you care about. This story I just told you from League of Legends is how you let players who have been loyal players and behaved well, have more of an impact on the community that they care about.
League of Legends implemented another system that was interesting, that it doesn’t so much have to do with abuse reporting, but it’s like the flip side of abuse reporting. What we usually see with abuse reporting is that when people misbehave and break the rules, they’re reported. There’s a button or something where you can report them. What about when people don’t? What about when people are just being a good citizen? There’s no official feedback system necessarily. What League of Legends did as part of their large coordinated effort to make a less toxic environment, they instituted something post-match.
League of Legends has multiplayer matches with teams. After a match, you’re asked, “Did any of these teammates show great sportsmanship?” If so, then you can give them a thumbs up, but it’s a great sportsmanship for thumbs up. They started actively seeking feedback on who was playing the way they should, instead of just reporting abuse. That’s a really interesting move. You can think of it as two buttons next to each other if you just want to make it concrete, which is report abuse or give this some elevation. I think now that we have thumbs up, we have more of that elevation. Some community platforms have more variations, like, really great, et cetera.
One of my big takeaways from all that work is incentive systems are really, really tricky. The Ultima Online story I told you about, the incentive system that backfired with the bounty hunting, that’s an incentive system gone wrong. An incentive system isn’t anything complex that you have to understand system design. An incentive system is just something in place, where, whether it’s visible or not, people are incentivized emotionally, or psychologically, or financially. Being aware of the incentives that, as a community platform, or a community manager, you’re putting into place, is one of the most powerful things you can do that everybody can do. It doesn’t matter how many resources you have, doesn’t matter how complex your community is. If you become more aware of the incentives that you’re giving and putting into place, you can shape your community in a big way.
[00:38:47] Patrick O’Keefe: Game Thinking arrived yesterday, your book, and I read probably about half of it in the evening. One of the things that I was curious to ask you about was, how do you think, if at all, inclusiveness and diversity factor into game thinking, or perhaps how game thinking can aid those efforts?
[00:39:06] Amy Jo Kim: Aid which efforts?
[00:39:07] Patrick O’Keefe: To build more inclusive and more diverse communities, or products, or customer bases of products?
[00:39:13] Amy Jo Kim: That’s a great question. Game thinking is a mix of strategy, research, and design. Every one of those levers has relevance for building inclusivity and a community that is more inclusive and is more diverse. The first one is the concept of superfans. There’s 12 chapters and five sections. Section two is all about empathizing with your customers. I introduced this concept I call superfan, some people call it superuser. It’s your hardcore user. It’s your most passionate user. It’s your first 20 to 50 users. It’s the people that need this yesterday. That’s your hardcore. One of the things that you can do specifically, either when you’re re-launching something, you’re trying to grow it in a different direction, say, do a hard pivot, or when you’re building something brand new, is you can define who you want to bring in, and actively seek super fans from those cohorts. Make sure that you understand from the very beginning, what they need, what their unmet needs are, what their existing habits are, all of which I teach you how to do in Game Thinking so that you can build something great for them. This helps you both with product development and community development. It also helps you with marketing and outreach.
What a lot of people don’t do, is they don’t realize how profoundly their first users shape the culture of everything else they’re going to do. As a community builder, you know this, who you seed your community with has a huge leverage on culture. It’s hard to overcome that in the future. If you’re building something new, and you want it to be inclusive, what you can do is find people from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds, different skin tones, different religions, whatever it is that you want to be inclusive about. Actively recruit early adopters from those groups in some way, and make sure that their voice is heard at the beginning, and then throughout, in terms of what the user needs are.
I’m dealing with this right now with one of my clients actually. It’s a fintech company, very successful right now. They’re growing like crazy, really struggling with that. They have an avatar that everybody in marketing uses and refers to. It’s a white Millennial woman. When they first got started, and they were first bringing their company to life, that avatar helped them with user-centered design.
They have this avatar, and she’s in their marketing, and they refer to her in marketing meetings. In product development meetings, we talk about, “How would she feel about this?”
I did a project with this company, and we did a bunch of user testing. Probably 25% of the people we talked to were Black, and then there were Asians, there was a Latina girl. It was all over the place, racially. The team and I said, “We’ve got this one white persona that everybody is running for, everybody is using. It has a bunch of assumptions that come with it that are not helping us because we’re very diverse.”
What we did is we have a new project now, and we are creating a set of seven personas that represent the variety. Each of them is actually based on a real person that we talked to in our user testing. Rather than this one persona, let’s call her Jane, that’s not actually her name, but I don’t want to give away who this is about, let’s call her Jane. Instead of just Jane, it’s like Jane and her friends. Let’s meet Jane and her friends. There’s Consuela, and there’s whatever else. What was interesting about this was that that persona had taken the company to where they needed to go at a first pass, but they needed to do something different now to get where they need to go, their next level of growth.
For the Game Thinking book, section two tells you how to find and leverage your superfans, these early hardcore customers. Section one tells you how to do your strategic planning so you’re designing the right experiment. Right upfront when you’re saying, “What are we going to do here?” You can say, “We’re going to want maybe five cohorts or three cohorts to represent the diversity. Let’s make sure that we aren’t just pulling a bunch of people that we think could be great for us, and then it turns out, oops, they’re all the same. Let’s really think about that diversity issue upfront, and let’s use it when we’re recruiting people to test the earliest versions, or even updated versions, of our products.”
That links to section 4 of Game Thinking, which is all about playtesting. That has some really advanced techniques like concept storyboards, which are sketches that show you how somebody experiences your community over time, which is an incredibly powerful technique. Cannot recommend it enough for every community manager, it’s not just for product design. That section, that playtesting, again, diversity. Who’s in your playtest? That’s where, if you’ve done your recruiting right, as I just mentioned earlier, where you define it, and then you pull these people in, and you calibrate them to make sure they’re right for the playtest, one, during that early recruiting you’re going to learn a lot just from talking to them if you ask them the right questions.
Then when you get to playtesting, you’re playtesting a diverse group because that’s how you recruited. Even if you didn’t do that early recruiting, if you’re sitting here right now, thinking, “How can I put this to work?” This is how you do it. If you have an existing product, and you want to run people through it and really find out what they think, if you’re thinking about some big new features and you want to find out what people think, if you have a new marketing campaign, and you want to pull in a more diverse group, recruit yourself a panel, essentially, of people that they have to really need what you’re offering, or it doesn’t make sense.
They have to fit that high-need profile, but just consciously make sure to recruit people with that high need profile that represent this diversity, and then use them throughout your testing, and you’re gold.
It solves so many problems. It’s great for marketing too. I’m just going to say, during testing, and during interviews, and all the things I talk about in Game Thinking, you got to record those because the stuff that comes out of these people’s mouths, it’s going to go right to your marketing team, and it’s going to be gold for them. They’re going to tell you how to talk about your product better than you could.
[00:46:06] Patrick O’Keefe: I think you’ve honed in on such a great, I’ll call it a hack, but there’s different ways to phrase it, where, last episode, we talked about creating online spaces that are safe for Black people. One of the things that came out of it was the misunderstood power of seeding. If you just start from a group that mirrors what you want to end up, you pretty much just said it, it’s going to make your life so much easier because the way a community starts is usually the way it continues. If you do have that group of superfans it seems like it’s not easy. Nothing is easy, but it’s such a good starting point that makes the rest of the process so much easier. Thanks for that. There was one other thing, as we wrap up, I wanted to ask you about, regarding your methodology. It caught my eye, which is, in the playtesting phase, in playtesting your core learning loop, specifically, you say to build and test the middle of the experience. Don’t worry about the start, don’t worry about the onboarding right now, playtest, and build the middle. Why is that?
[00:47:01] Amy Jo Kim: It has to do with tackling the hardest thing first. I’ll clarify. You absolutely should focus on the middle. When you do a concept storyboard walkthrough, you’re going to actually realize it end to end. You’re going to show them a little bit about what is discovery like, what is onboarding like, et cetera, but it’s that middle. Think of the middle as a session, a typical session. Think of it as habit building versus onboarding. Think of it as the thing the person who’s using your product or community, does the most of the time. That’s what that loop is.
There are so many apps that fail, so many communities, marketplaces, all of that stuff, services that fail because they have great onboarding. They took to heart that onboarding is so important, and you really have to explain it. They might have great discovery too, great advertising, or social media presence. Then there’s no reason to come back or the reason to come back sucks. What about day five? What about day ten? There’s nothing there. It’s so common. The reason it’s common is it’s much easier to design pretty onboarding than to figure out your core loop. It’s actually the hardest part. It’s the part that’s going to drive retention. Onboarding isn’t going to drive retention. Onboarding will get you into day one, but that loop is the thing that’s going to drive retention for you. If retention is important to you, starting with that, it, first of all, gives you the longest period of time to refine it. Here’s the thing, if that piece doesn’t work, and everything else is resting on it and depends on it, you’re screwed. The other reason to start there is because you need to get that right, or it’s not even worth funding the whole thing.
I learned this on Rock Band. I had a really amazing experience working on Rock Band. It was a dream project. I’d known the team for 10 years before we worked together. I was hired again as a social system designer. We spent seven months on one song in a little room with paper over the windows, in the middle of the studio, working on this one song, getting it right with the four parts; the drums, bass, guitar, and vocals. It was so hard, and it was so frustrating. I said to my boss, “Why can’t I work on onboarding? Why can’t I work on avatar design? Why can’t I work on level design? Why can’t I work on all the fun stuff that we know is important? Why do we have to just keep tuning the feedback on this one freaking song?”
What he said to me stuck with me forever. He said, “Look, if we can’t make four people feel like they’re playing music with one song, we’re not going to greenlight the rest of this game. It’s not going to get made. It doesn’t matter what the avatars look like, and it doesn’t matter what the levels look like if the game never gets made. You need to get your butt focused on tuning this loop.” He was very nice about it, but he really taught me. This thing is the core of everything, everything rests on it. We are a disciplined studio. We’re not going to spend millions of dollars to build something when that core experience isn’t solid.
That’s really the biggest reason, is that core experience needs to be solid, and your hypothesis about what that should be, needs to be right, or you’re screwed. What if you didn’t test your core loop, and you just said, “Oh, I know what we’re doing, and blah, blah, blah. Let’s get that onboarding going,” and then it turned out the activity that you were going to deliver in your core loop, people didn’t care about? You better find that out sooner rather than later. That’s why.
[00:50:55] Patrick O’Keefe: [laughs] I love it. You have a lot of great stories. Thank you so much for spending time with us today. Amy Jo, it’s been a pleasure to have you on the show.
[00:51:03] Amy Jo Kim: It’s been a delight. I can’t wait to see what wondrous things you cook up in the future.
[00:51:08] Patrick O’Keefe: We’ve been talking with Amy Jo Kim, author of Game Thinking and Community Building on the Web. To connect with Amy and learn more about Game Thinking, visit gamethinking.io.
For the transcript from this episode, plus highlights and links that we mentioned, please visit communitysignal.com. Community Signal is produced by Karn Broad, and Carol Benovic-Bradley is our editorial lead. Thanks for listening.
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