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I hope this question isn't perceived the wrong way. I am sincerely interested in hearing some of your thoughts about the title of this post.

Sometimes, answering a question on Stack Overflow is an exercise in speed as well as accuracy.

If you see a question that isn't answered yet, or doesn't have the correct answer yet, and you attempt to answer it, you have to move very quickly, because there is lots of competition out there and answers get posted fast!

The consequences are obvious; if you get beat to the punch, you don't get points/credit, which is the "incentive" for answering (as Joel knows all too well).

I'm not a very active user yet, but I have already gotten frustrated. However, I see this "game" as good and bad. In the past, I viewed accuracy part as being important. I enjoy the challenge obtaining accuracy and I often have the patience to do so. But obviously speed is also important, and it absolutely adds to the challenge. I can already see playing the Stack Overflow "game" as helping to sharpen my speed skills.

Nevertheless, after all that, it's also alarming that questions you answer can be closed to new answers while you are entering your last few key strokes, or even deleted entirely!!

What do you think?

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migrated from stackoverflow.com Apr 28 '10 at 18:29

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For a minute I thought you were Jon B meta.stackoverflow.com/users/27414/jon-b –  rlb.usa Jul 1 '10 at 16:23
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Who wants to join my guild? –  xiaohouzi79 Aug 10 '10 at 4:59
    
Who is Joel? Please clarify who is the person you are referring to. –  Guido Anselmi Aug 22 '13 at 18:52
    
@GuidoAnselmi - Joel in this case is Joel Spolsky, the co-founder and CEO of StackExchange. –  ChrisForrence Aug 22 '13 at 19:16
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Congrats! I just changed your score from 24 to 25. Now you have the Good Question badge. :) –  Cole Johnson Aug 23 '13 at 8:08
    
Well if Stack Overflow is a game, then what is Arqade? A Meta-game? –  Joachim Sauer Aug 23 '13 at 8:51
    
@JoachimSauer - no, that'd be meta.Arqade. –  JoshDM Aug 23 '13 at 12:17
    
Is a good type of game where the Humanity can learn. :D –  sinkmanu Jan 2 at 19:09
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11 Answers 11

up vote 14 down vote accepted

There are many sources of motivation, and while the "points" of Stack Overflow are a major factor in what makes it addictive, they are not the only one. Other possible reasons for answering include e.g. the joy of helping others, and the usual one on the internet.

Since you cannot really "compete" with others for points and can only care about your own, let me point out that you can always get points by giving good answers to questions that don't have easy answers — and doing things that not everyone could easily do is more valuable, anyway.

The specific problem you describe (being fast matters too much) has already been much discussed from the very earliest days of Stack Overflow (search for "fastest gun in the west"). There are other problems with Stack Overflow, for example that simpler questions get more views (and hence more votes for answers therein) than harder questions, that popular (and populist) answers get more points (this is most annoying when a question about mathematics or theory has an incorrect (but "correct-looking") answer with hundreds of upvotes), and so on, but there is no easy way of fixing these, and the good things about Stack Overflow outweigh these problems, so we still use it.

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Chacha102 and Jeff A gave awesome answers too, but I'm giving this one to you ShreevatsaR because you addressed more of my points, especially with the "Fastest Gun in the West" link. I like this cartoon too: cartoonstock.com/newscartoons/cartoonists/jlv/lowres/… –  JohnB May 5 '10 at 17:23
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+1 for the usual one. :D –  Nathan Taylor Jul 1 '10 at 15:31
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Yes, StackOverflow is a type of game.

And the person paying you to work is always the loser.

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So true, so true.. –  Gnoupi Apr 28 '10 at 18:33
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Seems short-sighted. I've saved myself (and my employer) a TON of time finding quick answers on the Trilogy sites. –  Kara Marfia Jul 1 '10 at 18:14
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@Kara It was more of a joke.... –  Tyler Carter Jul 3 '10 at 1:11
    
Aha! I have an overactive literal gland sometimes. –  Kara Marfia Jul 9 '10 at 15:05
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Programmers can make good jokes by taking things literally that other people would not. Programmers miss good jokes by taking things literally that other people would not. –  Peter Ajtai Aug 10 '10 at 5:07
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The World's Largest MMORPG: You're Playing it Right Now

Not every activity can be turned into a game. And perhaps not every activity should be a game.

But when it comes to community websites -- sites that get better for everyone the more users actively participate -- these are already so close to being de-facto games that it'd be downright negligent to ignore this aspect of the design. You should shape and define your community by explicitly acknowledging and embracing the game-like aspects you want to encourage, rather than pretending they don't exist.

After all, the first step in breaking our addiction to the world's largest MMORPG is to admit that we have a problem.

also see:

http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_pink_on_motivation.html

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First, define "game".

Before answering your question, I think its helpful to have a definition of "game". Wolfgang Kramer, designer of many Spiel des Jahre games, writes1:

Games are objects which consist of components and rules and have certain criteria: rules, a goal, always changing course; chance; competition; common experience; equality; freedom; activity; diving into the world of the game; and no impact on reality.

The whole article is well worth reading and as you do, I expect you'll be drawing your own connections between Stack Exchange and a good game. As I see it, the rules include the various behaviors enforced by the system (you can't vote on your own posts, for instance) and the social conventions discussed here on Meta (don't add taglines to posts). Our primary components are questions and their answers, but we also play with lesser components such as comments and chatrooms.

When people criticize Stack Overflow, they regularly find fault with the game aspect of the site. Either the game fails some of Kramer's criteria or gets in the way of the important work of answering questions. My own critique fell under the later tent. A recent review of Stack Overflow notes:

The way [Stack Overflow] is structured rewards people who put as little work as possible across as many simple questions as possible within only the most popular segments. Spending thought (and thus time) on answers interferes with points- and badge-mongering. Answering questions outside of the top ten languages similarly interferes.

In other words, the game fails Kramer's "equality" criteria2 and, thus, isn't a very good game.

"...and no impact on reality."

When people defend Stack Overflow, they invariably point to quality of answers to long-tail questions. If John Carmack is to believed, this "game" has had impact on the outside world to the tune of billions of dollars. If you let Google be your filter and if you don't look too closely at how the sausage is made, Stack Exchange is serious business.

So the remarkable thing about Stack Exchange isn't that it's an addictive and enjoyable game (though under the right circumstances, it can be), but that it's a game that creates a valuable by-product. It would be as if the game Torres was used to plan city development. Therefore, if a rule change increases the value of answers on the site, it will be strongly considered even if it potentially damages the enjoyment of the game for some people3.

Fundamentally, the purpose of the system is not the game itself:

We build libraries of high-quality questions and answers, focused on each community's area of expertise.

The game-like elements of the system are geared to make that process more fun for people who would likely be interested in building that library already.


1. Kramer's article is translated from German, which uses the word Spiel to describe both what in English would be called a game and also less-structured "play". The article makes clear that he's defining "games with rules".

2. Also, likely, "common experience" and "freedom". If you want to "win the game", you probably ought not answer many questions.

3. In particular, the game is probably least fun for those who ask poor questions. We get many emails a day from people who have hit the quality ban, whose questions are closed, or who have been prevented from asking in the first place. That said, I think there are plenty of things we can still do to make the game aspect more enjoyable for more people without harming the end product. Our recent changes to question closing were intended, in part, to make the enforcement of rules a little less painful for new players, for instance. It works a little bit like a tutorial level.

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Stack Overflow isn't a game!
It is a so called gamified application.
Gamification means by Definiton of Deterding et al. "the use of game design elements in non game contexts."

Usually the game elements or atoms are Points, Badges and Leaderboards. Thus critics speak of Badgification, Pointsification or Boardification instead of Gamification.

The crucial point about understanding human activities (work or play, right or wrong, etc.) is you have to regard them in their certain contexts. During one login, a person could use SO in defferent modes of activity. The boundaries between human informational behaviour and play are blurry.

If you are interested in games in general, I recommend "A Theory of Fun for Game Design" by Raph Koster. The following is taken out of this book:

Every game has a chore mechanic:
"Get to the other side"-games: Donkey Kong, Frogger, a.s.o.
"Visit every location"-games: Pac Man, a.s.o.

For Koster, in good games every challenge in the game must contribute to this core mechanic. Obstacles, time constraints and so on will challenge you on your path and keep the game fun.

Let's have a look at Stack Overflow:

Where could you find a corresponding game atoms in Stack Overflow or related pages?
To get the Informed-Badge you have to "Read the entire about page." Remember Pac-Man?

But what would you say is the core mechanic of Stack overflow?
I think the core mechanic in Stack Overflow is:
Create (our) content!

All the bagdes, points and boards point towards this goal.

By the way: For Koster a game is a certain pattern, which allows permutation, lacks distracting details, trains our brain and is doomed to become boring after you "gamed" it.

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"I am excited to hear your answers. :-D" - I see what you did there. –  JoshDM Aug 22 '13 at 16:08
    
There are very different approaches in defining what a game is and waht not. Most scientific approaches quote Huizinga, who sitautes games inside a magic circle. He says: Play is free, is in fact freedom. Play is not “ordinary” or “real” life. Play is distinct from “ordinary” life both as to locality and duration. Play creates order, is order. Play demands order absolute and supreme. Play is connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained from it. –  Don Dio Aug 22 '13 at 18:09
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I had it once where a question closed and the "Post Your Answer" button grayed out as I was moving to click it. As to your main point though, it definitely is, and a few people have blogged about strategies to maximize gathering rep on SO. A lot of the more problematic moves, like strategic downvoting, have been mitigated somewhat since the launch, so they're not as big of a problem anymore. The main one that still drives me crazy is editing within the 5 minute window. More often than I'd like, I'll post a correct answer, see that somebody else snuck in a patently wrong answer 20 seconds faster, and then watch them edit their wrong answer to say the same thing mine does -- I'm not particularly attached to rep, but that drives me out of my mind. On the other hand, it annoys me when I go to a question that already has answers and see an obviously inferior answer voted up/accepted because it was first. Overall it seems like speed plays too much of a factor in "winning the game", but I'm not sure how best to mitigate it

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Not only is the "editing your own answer to make it more correct by copying a correct answer that came after yours" unethical, but it also defeats the purpose of this forum in a way. That is, to have a robust set of information about a topic, yet to have the correct/more correct answers (not necessarily the oldest though!) towards the top so that the information is easier to shift through. –  JohnB May 5 '10 at 17:11
    
@JohnB It's definitely unethical, and pointless (clearly the only point is to gain rep, you're not helping the site by duplicating an existing answer), but it doesn't really harm the site, other than making the same right answer appear multiple times. That's why, annoyed as I am, I generally don't downvote when people do that -- their answer is correct, after all –  Michael Mrozek May 7 '10 at 15:20
    
I support your non-downvoting in that situation; but I think you should flag for a mod if you see that sort of thing. –  Pops Jul 1 '10 at 15:36
    
@MichaelMrozek -- I don't see a problem with editing an answer (based on another answer) to make it more correct, if another answer is acknowledged. The higher goal, surely, is to create good answers. Let 3rd parties decide which are best. Who came first [did he?] shouldn't matter. –  martin f Jan 3 at 21:25
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Stack Overflow is more like the evolution from all the bad Q&A places (EvilExpertExch***g, Yahoo! Answers, and nearly dead forums like P2PWrox), having thought through everything, and done something different, revolutionary, and wonderful.

While the points do make it look like a game, it's an excellent source of motivation, and an indicator of answer trust-worthiness.

I'm sorry to hear that you are feeling flustered as a new user. The grievances you expressed are actually a common pain, even to veteran users. As the Fastest Gun in the West, have a look at this, and see if it helps you.

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EvilExpertsExch**ge? I think you mean ExpertSexChange... –  Cole Johnson Aug 23 '13 at 8:11
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I can see how it would be frustrating to have a well-thought out, constructive answer foiled by someone who says "Just do A" but doesn't take the effort to explain it. I just asked a question and got 3 of the tiny answers and one well-written one. Maybe that's why the 6-minute rule?

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Of course it's a game! I'm hoping to get some up-votes on this answer so I can some valuable rep points so I can start raising helpful flags on meta!

(It should be clarified that I'm not asking for upvotes here! But I believe the fact that I desire up-votes from an answer supports the "I see Stack Overflow as somewhat of a game" mentality)

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Just saying "Of course it's a game" without anything to support this isn't likely to open a floodgate of upvotes. Asking for upvotes is also generally frowned upon... –  StephenTG Aug 22 '13 at 16:04
    
Well. Good thing I only had one rep point. Also, I wasn't asking for upvotes. And I believe that the comment proves the point of how SO is a "game". (i.e. because I'm hoping for points not asking!!, it proves that I see it as a game.) Make sense? –  matrixugly Aug 22 '13 at 16:13
    
Kinda. Although when I see "I'm hoping to get some up-votes" my first though is that you're asking for them. That edit makes this answer a bit better –  StephenTG Aug 22 '13 at 16:16
    
Alright. Fair enough :) –  matrixugly Aug 22 '13 at 16:19
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Nevertheless, after all that, it's also alarming that questions you answer can be closed to new answers while you are entering your last few key strokes, or even deleted entirely!!

As long as you started typing an answer you will be able to post it even if the question is closed. There is currently no limit for this; you can even take a week to finish writing it.

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You will have to answer to answer a captcha and prove you're a human if you take too long (more than an hour?), though. I've had to do this a few times, when I spent too much time answering questions on algorithms etc. :-) –  ShreevatsaR Apr 28 '10 at 18:52
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This is incorrect (at least, as of now). The 'Post as Answer' button will grey out if the question gets closed in the meanwhile. –  Amal Murali Aug 14 '13 at 22:27
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It is a game and it promotes unhelpfulness. I have seen many times answers to questions be critiques and criticisms of questions, comments and answers. I have seen legit questions I was seeking an answer for be marked as irrelevant and off topic or ostracized for not asking the question just right. I have seen edits to questions happen to remove things and then seen the question get criticized because the asker failed to point out those things that were removed. The points system PROMOTES gamesmanship and that is not helpful to those asking simple questions. The only positive aspect to the point system is that it does help get answers BUT other boards have that too in a much simpler less egotistical form. Thus Stackoverflow is filled with a huge overhead useless ego critique comments that have nothing to do with the subject matter. It is simple, ask a question and get an answer. That is NOT the case in Stackoverflow because you have to play the GAME.

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Do you have some examples of the problems you mention? –  Stijn Mar 13 at 13:09
    
You are of course free to not use Stack Overflow at any point, and make use of those other "boards" if they are more to your liking. –  Bart Mar 13 at 13:27
    
The first half of your answer is not related to the question. The second half, about the site promoting gamesmanship may be correct but diverges off into a rant about what you don't like about the site rather than being focused on answering the question. –  JonW Mar 13 at 13:36
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