Why People Are Gaming Your System

While at an unusual sort of gathering a few weeks ago, I finally got to rub shoulders a bit with Jane McGonigal, my new favorite performance and gaming theorist at the University of California – Berkeley. She’s also the Lead Game Developer for 4orty2two, the team that did ilovebees, so those that know me understand why I’d find her work particularly interesting. If you’re really nice when you contact her she might even give you a pre-release peek at her forthcoming journal article in Modern Drama about “Supergaming.” You’d have to be a pretty clever marketer, though, to realize why the concepts of “ubiquitous play” and “massively-scaled community” should interest you: because your marketing channels (particularly massively-scaled ones, like affiliate programs or SEM/PPC) are already the subject of other people’s gameplay.

Gameplay, conceptually, is based upon a set of mutually agreed upon rules: woe to you if you didn’t define the rules well, though, because part of gameplay is getting away with as much as you can within the rules: there are no rules about bluffing in poker, for example. The more people involved, the more likely every rule is to be tested to it’s limit, and the more people’s behavior starts to look like gameplay, or is even openly courted as gameplay. Affiliates test the limits of the rules, exploit loopholes, brazenly ignore the rules and hope to get away with it, and protect people looking at their hands just as much as poker players in a casino. Ditto for search engine arbitrage, and the dance of Google AdWords. Don’t even get me started on the on-going game (that frequently looks more like an arms race) between virus and spyware makers and their cooresponding anti opposition.

Let me give you three quotes to show you where all this starts to come together as a common human trait. The first is historical, but is featured on Jane’s site AvantGame, someone who’s focused on gaming as organic supercomputing and play as problem solving:


“Anything will give up its secrets if you love it enough” – George Washington Carver


The second is from Derek Vaughan, writing about Google AdWords strategies that he compares to “cheating” because they are so good:


“If so, you may be able to save a bundle by cheating Google! Okay, so it’s not exactly cheating per se, but if you’re not using all the tools and tricks that AdWords provides, then you’re definitely leaving money on the table. And, when your competitors see your results, they’ll think you’ve somehow cheated the AdWords system.”


The third is from PaperGhost writing about the newest discoveries in how a certain piece of spyware is spreading:


“A wonderful game of connect the dots is being played out…and it looks like we have a winner. When a raft of circumstantial evidence is available, putting the pieces together usually solves the puzzle. And what a puzzle it has been! A globe-spanning paperhunt, multiple translations and a whole bunch of testing has driven me to one conclusion…”


I know I said before we were bred to gossip, but it is equally true that we were bred to play games and that the ways in which communities function (online and off) has something to do with both. It’s also very likely that part of what networked technology does is enhance those kinds of natural tendencies in communities while increasing the number of emergent possibilities that come from them becoming massively scaled. Which is another way of saying, for example, that affiliate marketing gave birth to spyware and the Internet gave birth to virii as a natural product of gaming the system. If you read the Wikipedia entry on why you shouldn’t game the Wikipedia system, does it remind you of any conversations you’ve had about anything else? What about this, this, this or maybe this?

About Brian Clark

Brian Clark of GMDStudios (http://www.gmdstudios.com/)

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3 Responses to Why People Are Gaming Your System

  1. dan leeds says:

    Brian, is there any difference in this philosophy between gaming in the sense of playing games and gaming as the more subversive act described above, where you’re in fact looking to gain an advantage by exploiting loopholes in the system?

    All we wired to play games or to game the system? I could almost see this both ways, but I also get this sense of a certain population segment more predisposed. All large scale systems have to allow for gaming (like the rewards business, for sure), but if everyone tried to game them, the economics would change really fast.

    This feels like old times 🙂

  2. Brian Clark says:

    Hey, Dan,

    First off, “gaming the system” isn’t necessarily a bad thing from my point of view … it’s a testing of the edges of a system with any number of motivations.

    I think the individual motivations of game players are as varied as there are people, as is the individual recognition of what systems are gameable or not. That’s part of that emergent magic when alot of people are playing all at once.

    I’m sure there are many people who just publish webpages without thinking about search engine positioning. There is a large population gaming that system (enough for whole companies and book titles and websites to flourish in that niche) and an even smaller population working “aggressive gaming” tactice like keyword spamming or arbitrage. The challenge for Google is that their system has to survive such a diverse population of “gamers,” which means someone is going to try anything you imagine — some of which will surprise us in a positive way, and some of which will surprise us in a negative way.

    So my subversive gut tells me that everyone is wired to be able to game any system and even if not everyone is acting on that potential, when the “collective” starts to form they become a part of that gaming. By this point, though, I’m using gaming in the big “game theory” sense of it (where most of the rules are not overtly expressed, and where social pressures encourage people to deny any game-like instincts.)

  3. Game9th Gold says:

    Economy 2.0 | The New World You Will Never Step Foot In!

    There is a new burgeoning economy that I call it Economy 2.0. This new economy is a growing, it is global, and, according to a recent story in the New York Times, sweat shops in China have already been setup to start profiting from it. The interesting thing about “Economy 2.0” is that you have probably never heard about it, never stepped foot in it, and it is 100% virtual.

    Although some of the transactions in Economy 2.0 happen on eBay, I am not talking about the people buying and selling real goods and services, these transactions don’t actually take place in the World you live in. Massive multi-player online games (MMOs or MMOGs), like Everquest, World of War Craft, Ultima Online and Second Life each have their own virtual worlds, and these virtual worlds are creating virtual economies. By some estimates, the traffic in virtual goods is worth as much as $880 million in real cash every year.

    Stick with me here, this gets really interesting.

    Each of these virtual worlds have their own currency and these currencies can be bought and sold with real dollars, yen, euros or pounds. In fact, some sites are being setup now to actually track the valuations of these currencies. Want to know the value of 1 Million WOW Gold pieces, or linden dollars compared to US dollars? GameUSD.com will tell you!

    Not only can you take out your credit card and buy currency for the games, you can also buy anything from high level characters and game items like clothing, swords, and shields. Some games like Second Life, are totally setup to be a virtual economy allowing you to buy virtual land, develop it, and resell it. Anshe Chung, dubbed “The Virtual Rockefeller”, currently makes over $150,000 US buying virtual acres, developing these plots, and reselling them.

    Most of the transactions are between players and happen in exchanges like eBay. Other sites have been setup to specifically for this function, ige.com, Game9th.com, etc…. In a typical transaction, one player sells and item to another and they arrange to meet up somewhere specific in the game and make the agreed upon trade. Sony has setup Station Exchange, it’s own trading site for their Games, and saw $180,000 in transactions in the first 30 days.

    Are your kids playing these games? Join them! You might just find a new virtual business between ogre battles!

    It’s a brave new world. Crank up those avatars and welcome to the next global economy, Economy 2.0!