Wikipedia in Theory (psychology of fun and games edition)

In my last Wikipedia in Theory post, in which I looked at game theory and experimental economics, David Gerard commented:

People edit Wikipedia because it’s fun. What is the economic motivation to buy music or play WoW? The theory’s out there.

But what, exactly, is that theory?  What makes Wikipedia fun?  Is that the same thing that makes World of Warcraft fun?  The same thing that makes gambling fun?  The same thing that makes all three addictive, sometimes pathologically so?

As far as I can tell, there isn’t a single well-established theory of fun and games.  There are some interesting ideas floating around, though.

The best known comes from positive psychology: the concept of flow, which is often considered the essence of what makes games and other activities fun.  Flow is that state of sustained concentration (and associated elation) when all of your efforts are directly toward a difficult and significant task that is nevertheless within your capabilities.  Different kinds of Wikipedia work are available that can test the skills of adolescent and professor alike and Wikipedians are free to choose tasks they think are significant, so it’s easy to make sense of why Wikipedia can be fun in terms of flow.

Another widely quoted formulation of fun comes from A Theory of Fun for Game Design, by Raph Koster:

Fun is just another word for learning.

James Paul Gee expands on this concept in his book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy.  In a short journal article, he summarizes some of the relevant points:

  • Good games give information “on demand” and “just in time,” not out of the contexts of actual use or apart from people’s purposes and goals…
  • Good games operate at the outer and growing edge of a player’s competence, remaining challenging, but do-able…
  • Games allow players to be producers and not just consumers. Along with the designer, the player’s actions co-create the game world.
  • In computer and video games, players engage in “action at a distance,” much like remotely manipulating a robot, but in a far more fine-grained fashion. Cognitive research suggests that such fine-grained action at a distance actually causes humans to feel as if their bodies and minds have stretched into a new space…a highly motivating state.

All of these aspects of games have parallels in Wikipedia editing.  In the last case, Wikipedia offers not just the illusion of affecting the world at a distance, but a way to actually do so; writing on Wikipedia has the potential to affect readers across the world.

Neuropsychology puts flow and fun and learning (and addiction) into chemical terms: it’s all about the dopamine.  All that talk about flow and motivation and fun gets boiled down to the release of neurotransmitters, especially dopamine, which is associated with pleasure, motivation, concentration, reinforcement, learning, and addiction.  Sustained released of dopamine (or in the case of some addictive chemicals, dopamine re-uptake inhibition) both creates a sense of pleasure and elation and creates an association between the activity at hand and the dopamine jolt, motivating you to do that activity again (and again).

That’s the core of activist game designer Jonathan Blow‘s critique of mainstream video game design.  To quote from my post on video game addiction:

the best practices of commercial game design, particularly MMOs, are “predicated on…player exploitation” by “plugging into their pleasure centers and giving them scheduled rewards”. He suggests that the gaming industry may be engaged in “the intellectual and emotional equivalent of [Joe Camel]”.

That same principle is at work on Wikipedia, with people compulsively checking their watchlists to see if their work has been built upon or the comments replied to.  But with careful attention to the principles of video game design, Wikipedia could probably be made much more compelling/fun/educational/addicting to a larger number of people.

154 thoughts on “Wikipedia in Theory (psychology of fun and games edition)”

  1. I like your application of the concept of flow; I’ve heard of that before but never thought to apply it to Wikipedia. I’ll have to reflect on that more, sometime when it’s not nearly 2 a.m. locally. 🙂

    What worries me about the idea of adding game-like features to Wikipedia, of making Wikipedia (more?) addicting, is the ethics of it. Even if it’s feasible, is it *right* to make Wikipedia addictive? At what point does such a plan stop being a reasonable initiative to promote participation and become, well, an evil mind control project? :/

    1. Regarding the ethics of it, it’s certainly worth thinking about. But I think maybe using the term “addiction” can be distracting, since in the neurochemical sense lots of good things (like learning, or writing!) can be addicting. We train ourselves with dopamine in all kinds of ways, an in and of itself than neither good nor bad; it depends on what we’re training ourselves to do.

      In the traditional medical sense, the line between doing something a lot (and feeling good when you do it, seeking to do it more) and addiction is all about consequences: do you wish you could quit? do you feel guilty? etc. So I think the answer to your last question is, it switches from a good initiative to a mind control project when the goal becomes merely entertaining people and keeping them on the site rather than building the encyclopedia. As long as game-like features are still closely connected to the overall goals of the projects, it’s not going to be a waste of people’s time. Instead, it’s a way to make something they already think is a good thing to do into something more enjoyable and easy to learn.

  2. You might check these out for theories of fun and communal activity;

    Jane McGonigal
    The Play Ethic (UK)
    Mmmmm, recent Nobel prize winner on theory of commons
    The wikinomics guy.

    Great topic for a blog. Hope you do more more work on it.

    1. Thanks, those are excellent suggestions. Maybe in the next “Wikipedia in Theory” I’ll take a look at the Nobel stuff.

    1. paolo, thanks! I see you’ve been reviewing some of the important Wikipedia research papers on your blog lately. You should add you blog to! I’m sure more Wikipedians would appreciate seeing your posts.

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