A few weeks ago, I read a thread on Twitter by a game designer at Riot Games. The thread is about the concept of “celebration” in the world of game design. It refers to the techniques used to reinforce “good” behavior in video games (good not in any objective sense, but simply whatever is desired by the game designer). It was an interesting thread, but I moved on shortly after reading it and didn’t give it much more thought. Until last week when I was reading an article about how social media is designed to be addictive. With the thread still floating around in the back of my mind, what I realized while thinking about the design of social media platforms was that Twitter uses the exact same techniques as video games.
I’ll use Twitter as an example, because I’m very familiar with it. At a high level, what does Twitter want you to do? It wants you to keep using Twitter. Why? So it can show you more ads. But, the platform needs some way of figuring out what ads to show you, because being able to target types of ads at people who are more likely to be interested lets Twitter charge higher prices to advertisers. Twitter doesn’t just want you to be spending time on the platform, it wants you to interact and be engaged.
The most common interaction people have when just browsing Twitter is clicking the Like button. Clicking the Like button also serves as a useful signal to Twitter’s ad targeting algorithms that you probably have some interest in the topics of whichever tweet you liked.
So, Twitter has an action it wants you to perform. But it doesn’t want to tell you to do it, just for you to get into the habit of taking the action in the regular course of using the platform. The same problem game designers are faced with. And Twitter uses the same techniques.
As part of the design of a video game, you need to get the player to do certain things that will lead them to progress through the game. But, you don’t want to just throw a wall of text in their face to explain everything in great detail, you want to be more subtle about it. So, you design the game so that eventually the player will try the thing you want them to do. Then, when the player does the Good Thing, you signal your affirmation and say, “Yes, good job!” But you have to be subtle about it. You want the game to really feel fun for the player, not to give the impression that it’s coddling them. Instead, you use little celebratory cues that the player will perceive without even thinking about. These could be little animations, particle effects, screen shakes, or even auditory cues. There are lots of possibilities, but the key component is that celebrations don’t have to be thought about by the user.
When you click the Like button on a tweet, a few things happen: the heart button itself turns solid red, a small particle effect plays and the number of likes rolls up. The same techniques game designers use. The animation is eye-catching without being distracting and the like count increasing lets you subconsciously connect the action you just took to the effect it had.
I can’t know if Twitter does it with the deliberate intent of making users form habits, but I can’t help but feel like that is a consequence, even if a small one.