YouTube: The Addictive, Must-Play Game

I’m great at plagiarizing myself. Well, I took framework and analysis from an old column and applied it to the recent exploding YouTube in my latest MediaPost column. Check out the MediaPost reader comment section here.

Hey, Web 2.0 Fans: Social Networks Weren’t Born Yesterday!

by Max Kalehoff, December 1, 2006

YouTube is a terribly addictive game. Well, not exactly. Technically, it’s a video-syndication platform, comment-enabled content database, a raging video-sharing portal and, most important, a very satisfying way to channel-surf and find niche programming you really want to watch.

But after revisiting a column I wrote back in June at the Supernova confab on disruptive technologies, I realized that YouTube’s popularity is thriving, at least in part, through its ability to nail the sweet spot of so-called “game mechanics.”

Ami Jo Kim, creative director at ShuffleBrain and holder of a Ph.D. in behavioral neuroscience, noted at Supernova how successful games shape our behavior by engaging us in “flow,” which is achieved through an optimum balance of challenge and skill. As humans, we need appropriate levels of challenge as our skills increase. The ability to match these two components is what makes good teachers good and great games work.

Kim suggests “game mechanics” as a framework to create services that are more fun, compelling and addictive. Boy, it seems incredibly obvious now: As YouTube’s popularity has skyrocketed, so has its alignment with these five key elements of game mechanics:

1. Collecting. The most successful games involve the collection of items like artifacts or tools. The human drive to show off collections is what drives addiction and convincing experiences. Over at YouTube, collecting occurs in numerous ways, such as uploading videos, and creating favorites and playlists.

2. Points. Points are the second critical component, because people will continue a certain behavior to gain more points. Points could include, for example, page views and eBay ratings. Points can demonstrate a game’s value, create a social experience, define achievement levels and punctuate the experience. Points make it hard to stop playing. And if you’re a video uploader on YouTube, a high number of views, comments and e-mail-forwards are gold!

3. Feedback. The next key aspect is feedback on how you’re doing, whether auditory, visual, or other. Feedback draws attention, accelerates mastery, increases enjoyment and induces flow. In terms of feedback on YouTube, viewing and sharing metrics are key, but so is the passionate, colorful commentary that follows. Even seeing your own video on the micro screen, knowing it’s discoverable by millions, is an important form of visual and auditory feedback.

4. Exchanges. Next are explicit or implicit exchanges, or interactions, such as trading or gifting. Successful interactions feel like a conversation and also induce flow and foster a compelling experience. Again, YouTube is a human-empowered recommendation machine, and to give a recommendation, in any way, is a gift among video viewers and creators.

5. Customization. Finally, customization increases investment and creates barriers to leaving. The greater the investment, the harder it is to exit. If you’re a video creator, your ultimate investment is your videos that YouTube hosts, followed by the audience and all the personalized functionality and data in YouTube’s personalized accounts. These include subscriptions and subscriber stats, groups, messaging, friends and contacts, channel settings and general preferences settings.

So, is YouTube an addictive game? Regardless, millions of people, including me, are hooked on its flow. It makes you wonder: will game mechanics eventually become more embedded in all video? Without a doubt, there are similar characteristics converging with TiVo, another service that its users, ahem, fans, swear by. Same for the video iPod.

What do you think?

Published by Max Kalehoff

Father, sailor and marketing executive.

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