Twitter, the Game

Related articles

Remember the 1983 movie, War Games, in which a teen played by Matthew Broderick hacked into a military computer system? He was asked, “Shall we play a game?” and he responded, “Sure, how about thermonuclear war.” Well, Twitter has gamified conversation and turned discourse into a different kind of “thermonuclear” war, without the missiles.

Writer’s confession: First, this was written before the “Muskification” of Twitter, but I doubt he will change the concerns I and others are raising. Second, I wish these were my original thoughts, but they are not. They come from a work by C. Thi Nguyen, The Gamification of Twitter. What follows is my understanding of his much longer, nuanced discussion. I encourage those interested in taking a deeper dive into his original work. 



Games are an important part of our lives, especially the formative years. They teach us to follow the rules, to be goal-oriented, and frankly, they are fun. Part of that fun comes from leaving our day-to-day rituals and becoming someone else. Game designers, by creating roles, rules, and goals, “sculpt” an environment where we can submerge, change, and then re-emerge with some new experiences obtained at little physical cost. (Those involved with games of chance might experience some financial costs – Vegas did not build itself.)

“In ordinary life, values are often inchoate, subtle, and difficult to apply. But in games, values are easy. Games offer us a momentary experience of value clarity.”

Games differ from real life in that games have measurable goals; discourse between adults is not so clear or quantifiable. Are we talking to convince someone else of our view, disabuse theirs, or merely raise a ruckus? Games also differ from real life because what happens in games stays in the game. I bear no ill-will that you won, rarely does that trash-talk of a game move off the court.

Our social media overlords

The value of gamification is not lost on the designers of social media and apps. Turning an activity like dieting or bike riding into a contest, making it a competition, increases the motivation to participate and engage. And engagement is the coin of the realm in an attention economy. Gamification involves a trade,

“…it increases our motivation in an activity by narrowing and simplifying the target of that activity — which, in turn, changes the nature of the activity.”

The gamification of Twitter through likes, retweets, and followers narrows and alters our motivation. Our personal reasons for Tweeting, to inform, convince, befriend, or repudiate are replaced, for many, but not all, by the tally of our followers, likes, and retweets. In a phrase, “Twitter scores our conversation,” and in the process, redefines the goals of our communication. There is an uncanny resemblance of watching those likes climb and climb to the bells, lights, and sounds of coins dropping we experience in a casino – and that is not coincidental. (By the way, are any of you becoming at least mildly concerned about the rise of gambling apps on our phones?)

“…we have evidence aplenty that what makes something go viral is not its truth, or the degree to which it promotes understanding.”

Indeed, virality is more from the creation of outrage than truth.

You either like a Tweet or not, a simple binary choice. There is no room for a real consideration, and how much can you say stringing together 280 characters or roughly 56 words at a time. Perhaps that is why the average Tweet is 28 characters long – 5.6 words. Likes quantify but do not foster or report quality. More importantly, likes are easy and intuitive, avoiding any need for analytic thought. But going with your emotional response,

“…effectively biased against slow-burn content — against those ideas that lingered in the memory and revealed their depths slowly.”

And this gamification of our discourse is not a bug; it is the feature.

Which gamer are you?

Some users may recognize the gamification and treat Twitter simply as a game. As with a real game, once they walk off the court, the emotion and goals attained are left behind as we resume our actual day-to-day.

Other users may use their likes, retweets, and followers as metrics of influence and reach. Those numbers are data, not goals.

There is still a third group; they are the largest and of most significant concern. They internalize those Twitter scores, subtly changing goals and motivation. Twitter has captured and modified our values. Value capture extends beyond Twitter. Consider my riding a Peloton. I began because I needed some exercise, and outdoor time is restricted in the Northeast. Over time, I started trying to move up the leaderboard, finding great satisfaction in “smoking” past a 40 or 50-year-old (while ignoring the fact that I was still, only on a good day, in the middle of the pack). And while I never reached the point where riding the bike was to accrue points, there were moments when I claimed those bragging rights.

The difficulty is in the tradeoff. I have simplified my goals to time on the bike, pounds lost, and my discourse on Twitter to likes and followers; in the exchange, my discourse loses its nuance, and dare I suggest emotional balance?

“Rich, nuanced qualitative information is difficult to manage from any sort of informational center. We need to strip out the context-sensitive details and nuance in order to transmit it easily between contexts.”

That is why Facebook cannot police its content. In a highly automated process required for 5700 Tweets and 55,000 Facebook posts per second, everything must be simplified to the point that there can be no nuance – words or perhaps a phrase are enough to lead to bans.

Seeing Tweeter as a game also helps explain the trolls. They are not there for discourse at all, they want to accrue reactions, and their commentary is at best disingenuous and pollutes and game.

I will end on this note.

“The activity of earnest discourse also seems to have a natural aim, which is the collective pursuit of truth. We aim to express what we think of as true, and to question and challenge each other’s expressions, as part of our quest to understand the world. But gamification tempts us to change our goals — to aim at expressions which maximize our score, rather than those which aid our collective understanding. And it promises to reward us for that change with pleasure.”


For our collective well-being, we need to reconsider the terms by which we have embraced social media. A “free” platform has brought significant costs for us individually and in society.