The Facebook Game

When you think of a "Facebook game," you typically think of FarmVille or Words With Friends or whichever game Zynga launched yesterday. But Facebook, itself, is a game. What is a game? A game is an activity in which participants receive predictable or semi-predictable rewards and feedback in return for completing tasks. We love games because we are predisposed to crave rewards. We love sports, trading stocks, and flipping TV channels because we love completing tasks that bring us touchdowns (dopamine), stock upticks (dopamine) and surprise Glee marathons (dopamine).

This evolutionary trait we have developed is largely a positive thing; there are a number of productive uses for games. Modeled simply, work is a game: "if you produce X output, you will receive Y dollar-points (and you might get Z bonus)." Some people turn weight loss into a game for themselves: "if I earn enough fitness-points by working out P times, I will treat myself to Q reward." Our brains are wired for these types of incentive structures. Good habits are strategies that help us win the games we face. Bad habits are strategies developed for games that we no longer face or don't want to play anymore. Scientists call habits fixed ratio reinforcement structures—if you remember that in 10 minutes, you can reward yourself with a pat on the back.

So, how do you play Facebook?

‘Facebook’ is a game in which a player logs in, works on their character's profile, interacts with other players (giving or denying them points), and attempts to garner points from other players, among other activities. For the most part the points a player earns are fleeting. By design, a lot of a players’ progress cannot be saved when he leaves the game; much of it is pushed off the board by the moves that other players are making. Therefore, although a player can be "winning" Facebook, the game never ends.

I should clarify: you can only be winning Facebook in the way that you define "winning," because you're likely playing a different game than other players are. Here are a few Facebook games I enjoy:

  • Whose status can get the most Likes?
  • Who can make the funniest inside jokes?
  • Who can start the most interesting conversations?

I'm guessing you play some of these games, but maybe not. Perhaps your Facebook experience is very different from mine. Maybe you only go on Facebook to friend request the cute girls you met last night, or perhaps you only log in to chat with a few key people in your cyber-life. Or perhaps you run a brand, and you are more interested in the explicit score in the "Likes" game than most players. Thankfully, Facebook provides you brand people with a scoreboard:

 But no matter how you do it, you are playing some sort of game when you use Facebook. If you weren't receiving rewards for completing Facebook tasks, you wouldn't come back. And let’s be honest with ourselves: you’re probably logged into Facebook right now. In fact, you’ve probably checked the upper left side for a red number on a blue background already today. And thanks to the mobile Internet, the chances that you’ve used Facebook on a toilet seat are reasonably high. (Or maybe that’s just me.)

Why can't we get enough of The Holy Book? Because Facebook is a simplified, partial model of the game that we like to play best: Real Life Social Interaction (RLSI).

Facebook strategies remind us of strategies we’ve learned playing RLSI. In real social interaction, if you are nice to people, they are generally nice back. On Facebook, if you write nice comments on people's statuses, they will generally write nice comments back. In both games it can be awkward to poke people.

But something weird has happened. Over time, Facebook and other online social games (Twitter, Reddit, Email) have become a larger and larger part of RLSI. Social points in real life have always mattered on Facebook, but points on Facebook are starting to matter in real life. In college, not using Facebook means hearing about fewer real life parties, missing out on important updates from your friends, and being absent for the conversations your peers are having. It shouldn’t be surprising that nearly 100% of us use Facebook, or that no one ever seems to stop using it. Just like the sudden ubiquity of Email a decade ago, forgoing social media has suddenly become socially unacceptable.

And this trend will only continue. New communications technologies will replace old ones. More and more advanced social media will begin to approximate RSLI with stunning accuracy (and extend it beyond physical constraints). We already play these digital games in our cars. We'll soon be playing them from our contact lens. The lines separating text conversations, Skype conversations, email conversations and Facebook posts are already starting to fade. Eventually the line separating these digital communications from ones in the "real" world will fade as well. Using the Internet will feel as natural as opening your eyes.

Before you turn sixty, you will experience a moment in which you continue a digital conversation in the physical space—or continue a face-to-face conversation in the digital space—and you won’t notice a difference. The games will have merged. There will cease to be a line between the web and the world.

If I’m wrong, send me a letter.

I hope Mark Zuckerberg thinks about these things. Recently, however, I imagine his mind is on the shorter term: his company plans to offer stock to the public this May. The Facebook IPO is expected to value the website between $70 billion and $100 billion. No doubt many investors and speculators will play the ‘Market Game’ with Facebook stock. And fortunately for Mr. Zuckerberg—depending on the scores you measure—that game is one he looks poised to win.