The Game Layer Is More Limited Than It First Appears

The “Game Layer” can make any business run better, improve failing schools, and even solve global warming. At least, that’s what I’ve been told by its chief evangelist Seth Priebatsch and the technology press that covers him. What I haven’t been told, however, is exactly what the Game Layer is, and if there’s any reason to believe the claims about its powers.This article addresses both issues, and explains why the Game Layer is much more limited than it first appears.

The Game Layer: A Definition
In the media, the Game Layer is usually defined by example, along the lines of, “if you make something more like a game, more people will do it.” Priebatsch explains the Game Layer by saying that it consists of “game dynamics” (called “game mechanics” by others), which are ways in which games are constructed to make them fun (and addictive). For example, the appointment dynamic is an artificial limitation that seeks to make someone do something somewhere at some specific time; Seth gives a bar’s happy hour and crop-watering times in FarmVille as examples. Influence and status (Priebatsch’s examples: AMEX black card, high school valedictorian) are verified by a central authority (e.g. a business, a school) through a symbol (e.g. a physical card, a title). levelling up (Priebatsch’s example: LinkedIN profile status) is climbing a ladder that some central authority has put in place. Finally, communal discovery is the fun part of playing games with others; Priebatsch gives the DARPA balloon challenge as an example.

Based upon all of the examples I have read, here’s my definition: the Game Layer is a set of artificial limitations on and targeted feedback to peoples’ actions in a semi-public space designed to influence behaviour. There are three key components that create the game: artificial limitations, targeted feedback, and semi-public space; and one core goal of the layer: influencing behaviour.

The Game Layer: A History
While the term “Game layer” may be less than a year old, the concepts that underlie the Game Layer have been around for decades. If we want to understand where the Game Layer is going, our first stop should be to look backward to see how the Game Layer fits into social psychology. Social psychologists have been studying how to influence behaviour for over one hundred years . Ultimately, the Game Layer is applied social psychology.


Kurt Lewin, a founder of social psychology, famously defined behaviour as “a function of a person and an environment”. In other words, according to Lewin, what someone does is completely determined by who that person is and the situation in which that person finds him or herself. Thus, to influence someone’s behaviour, it is easiest to alter that person’s environment because altering the person is much more difficult and time-consuming (and potentially impossible). The field of social psychology is essentially the investigation of what people do differently in different environments, which then inevitably leads to research into “how do I get someone to do what I want them to do?”

Artificial Limitations

Artificial limitations are well-known in social psychology: people value things in short supply more. More generically, the concept of “choice architecture,” coined by social scientists Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler in their book Nudge, is that by setting up particular restrictions, we can retain each person’s sense of free will while still directing them toward the choices we wish them to make (etch a fly as a target into a urinal and reduce spillage by 80%).

Perhaps “nudge” is also the best word to describe the goal of artificial limitations in the Game Layer: happy hour is at 5pm to nudge more people into the bar during a slow time and FarmVille crops need watering on a regular basis to nudge more people back into the game at constant intervals. Ultimately, what social psychology has shown is that people like to be nudged: we are happier with some level of restriction in our lives.

Targeted Feedback

The vast majority of successful games provide constant and detailed feedback to players: points, levels, and money all make regular appearances in games to provide incentive to the player to continue. The related area of research in social psychology here is “rewards”. Many experiments in social psychology show that simplistic extrinsic rewards (like money and grades) produce inferior work to intrinsic rewards or no rewards at all. Priebatsch addresses many of these same concerns in his speeches when he describes school as a “game that sucks.” Seth believes that a strategy of “levelling up” in school, building from Level 1 Newt to a Level 20 Paladin, would be much more successful at motivating students to care about doing schoolwork than the current grading system.

Successful games do not use simplistic, predictable rewards or punishments. One example that Priebatsch holds up concerning targeted feedback, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, has a reward system called “Perks” that give players different, unexpected talents (e.g., the “Sleight of Hand” perk lets players reload faster). Successful game feedback can also be negative, such as the Nintendo 64 Goldeneye 007 superlative of “Mostly Harmless”, given after a multi-player game to the least deadly combatant.

Regardless of whether the reward or punishment is in an academic experiment or in a video game, the same general principles apply in designing feedback to motivate behaviour: the more the reward feels intrinsic, the more powerful it can be. The critical move that the Game Layer is making here, though, is from a game for fun to a game to drive specific behaviour.

Semi-Public Space

Computer games have become significantly more addictive over the past 10 years as they have grown to include interactive play with friends and strangers. World of Warcraft has been called “more addictive than crack cocaine,” and it is no surprise that a “FarmVille”-type game needed the enormous user base of Facebook to become one of the most popular games of all time—FarmVille integrated into Facebook’s social features in order to spread like a virus. I use the term “semi-public space” to define the places where these games exist. They are rarely wholly public spaces, usually requiring the ownership of a computer or smart phone and access to fast internet, and also the leisure time to engage in playing. However, those requirements are not so exclusive as to prohibit those who are highly motivated to take part. Hence the term “semi-public space”.

Human interactions put the “social” in “social psychology”, and add significantly to one’s toolkit in creating environments to change behaviour. The AMEX black card is only an effective status symbol if you can pull it out for others to see, and the DARPA balloon challenge wouldn’t have been solved without lots and lots of people interacting.


Priebatsch has said, “with 7 game dynamics, you can get anyone to do anything“. Unfortunately, that’s not true. Although the tools of the Game Layer are powerful, they are not omnipotent. At the end of the day, the Game Layer’s artificial limitations and targeted feedback in a semi-public space is a passive existence (that is, you must choose to play of your own free will), waiting for people to play and be influenced.

One could argue that if Facebook has added over 600 million users also leading a passive existence, why not the Game Layer? (Especially if the Game Layer is built on top of Facebook?) And I think it is reasonable to assume that all of the users of Facebook will have access to the Game Layer. However, the essential characteristic of the Game Layer that drastically limits its effectiveness is the desire Seth has for the Game Layer to influence behaviour.

Social psychology has investigated the limits of our ability to influence behaviour through things like artificial limitations and targeted feedback in a semi-public place, and has some fairly clear answers that the nascent industry around game dynamics and the Game Layer has not yet discovered. The main finding that social psychology has to offer here can be summed up by an old joke: How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: One, but it has to want to change.

Recall Kurt Lewin’s formula: behaviour is a function of a person and an environment. Ultimately, the Game Layer can only directly influence the environment. The biases that the person brings to the game cannot be controlled by the Game Layer, and so the Game Layer can never completely control behaviour. Whatever good can be done through the Game Layer is ultimately limited by who plays the games.

The Game Layer: The Future
Seth Priebatsch is building his Game Layer by studying games, not social psychology. On one hand, this method is a bit like re-inventing the wheel, since social psychology can give much guidance. On the other hand, by studying games (and reading hundreds of pages on the effects of games each month), Priebatsch remains at the forefront of innovation; a place where social psychologists rarely go. By studying which games are effective and why, Seth is trying to make boring or rote experiences (like getting discounts) more fun and engaging. I look forward to several years down the line, when more and more of my interactions with corporations can take place through the Game Layer.

However, the problem with the Game Layer is that it fundamentally relies upon volunteers. Priebatsch tells us that his LinkedIN profile is at 85% (not 100%), and he is only at level 4 (out of 70) in Modern Warfare 2. My LinkedIN profile is at 75%, and I have never played Modern Warfare 2. And therein lies the critical limitation of the Game Layer: you have to have the time, ability, and inclination to play.

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