(Below is a manuscript snippet of my book, Actionable Gamification: Beyond Points, Badges, and Leaderboards. Please subscribe to the mailing list on the right to order the book when it launches. This post may be moved into a Premium Area after a certain period of time).
The Mysterious Nature of Core Drive 4: Ownership & Possession
A fascinating example on the feeling of Ownership is seen on Yap, an island in the Caroline Islands of the Western Pacific Ocean. Besides sounding cheerful and carefree, the “Yapese” are known for using a currency called Rai.
Rai function like most currencies, except they are large, circular stone disks carved out of limestone from aragonite and calcite crystals. The issue with Rai being very large is that often it is almost impossible to carry around, let along pass it on to others. In fact, some rai are so large that it is generally impractical to move home, and are sometimes left in the wild. As a result, when the Yapese buys something with rai, they simply leave an oral history that the ownership of the rai now is transferred to another person.
In the most extreme cause, there was a famous rai stone that fell off a ship during transportation and sunk to the bottom of the ocean. Even though no one has seen it for many years, the Yapese still assume it is still there, so the rightful owner of the rai stone in the ocean could still exchange that ownership for other goods. That’s pretty wild, with some pun intended.
If I came to you and told you that a large piece of stone somewhere in the world is in my possession, and I will trade it to you if you give me a million dollars; however, you won’t be able to move it and will have to leave it there, just like the owner before me, what would you think about me?
You may think I’m stoned and activate your preferred method of interacting with crazy people (popular options include: laugh at me, yell at me, look at me strangely, pretend to take me seriously just to entertainment yourself, pretend to take me seriously just to be polite – all reactions I’ve gotten when I talked about gamification between 2003-2008).
However, that’s what we see in America all the time too. If a businessman came to you and told you that he owns a famous building or monument in Chicago, and he will pass the ownership rights to you if you paid him $1 Million, suddenly its not as crazy, beyond the fact that you may not have the money handy. You may not have ever seen the property (it’s not strictly required for the purchase, especially if it is something already famous that everyone knows about), you still won’t be able to move it anywhere, and it may not serve any functional cause to your wellbeing, but now it is a legitimate business transaction that anyone would take seriously. Oh yes, and to make sure you can prove the transfer of ownership, you prefer to have this agreement on paper instead of oral.
Such is the strange nature of ownership. Ownership is often a feeling, an agreement, or even an idea. I own Octalysis, and many people who want to borrow or license it ask me for permission because they recognize and respect this ownership. This ownership of Octalysis will stay intact until I agree that the ownership should be transferred to someone else.
This odd dynamic of conceptual ownership and trading is very similar to the odd phenomenon of virtual currencies and Cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin.
The Pet Rock – the Ultimate Pet
Another interesting example towards the concept of Ownership and Possession is the Pet Rock.
The Pet Rock was a product and a strange phenomenon executed by Californian advertising executive Gary Dahl in 1975. Upon hearing his friends complain about their pets, he thought up the perfect pet that would not need to be fed, bathed, groomed, toilet-trained, walked, and would not become disobedient, sick, or die. The perfect pet was the rock.
For a short period, the Pet Rock became a crazed sensation. It came with a box with holes in it in case the Pet Rock needed to breathe, and some nice straws for its comfort. There was also an owner’s manual that taught the owner how to give commands such as “sit,” “stay,” and also the right hand gestures to get the Pet Rock to “roll over,” “jump,” and “attack.”
Finally, there was something that people could love, hold, and cherish, without dealing with all the physical hassles, mental occupancy, and emotional difficulties of a biological pet.
In order to do demonstrations at my workshops and for my book, I purchased an original 1975 Pet Rock. I’ve gone through the training process and it now sits well on my working desk, behind my second monitor.
Though the craze was short-lived, between 1975 and 1976, over 1.5 million Pet Rocks were sold. As of today, many of them are still playing “sit,” “stay” or just taking a break in the world on a daily basis, though I imagine most are strays nowadays. The love didn’t last.
Of course, Gary Dahl was less concerned about whether the Pet Rocks were loved, because he walked away with millions of dollars and his only regret may be that there wasn’t the Internet back in the 70s to let it become even more viral.
When people feel like they have ownership over something, they naturally want to care for and protect it. Unfortunately, the Pet Rock provided no Empowerment of Creativity & Feedback (Core Drive 3), and as a result, people moved on to easier conceptual pets that actually could provide some feedback mechanics.
The First Virtual Pet Game
When I was in 5th grade, I was in my third year returning to Taiwan after living in South Africa for six years. Those years were very difficult for me, both in an academic and social sense. My level of Chinese was significantly behind all my peers, and my grades were very poor.
Back in the day, there would be Chinese quizzes where every time you wrote down a character incorrectly, you needed to write a full line of the same character as punishment and practice. Most of my classmates only had to write two or three lines of punishment practice after each quiz, but I often times had to write three to four pages of them. I remember when I was in third grade, I would be writing these penalty characters until 3AM in the morning with my mother next to me, with constant tears on my face. To my knowledge, that was not typical for most third graders.
Furthermore, being from a different culture, I was always the odd one out. I didn’t really fit in, and other children made fun of me a lot. It was during this period that I started to pay close attention on what different types of people in different settings thought and felt, as well as how I could get them to accept me. Though painful, it may have helped me develop some resilience and the intellectual curiosity into human motivation that later became the 8 Core Drives.
While I was working so hard to be “cool” among my classmates, I realized that almost all of them became crazed with this new thing called “Dian Zi Ji,” or eChicken, where kids would carry this tiny egg-like device with a monitor display. Inside the display, you started off with an egg. Once you set the time and name up, the egg quickly turns into a small chick that you have to raise and take care of. There are a few simple button options to feed the chick, play with it, discipline it, clean up its boo-boos, and give it medicine when it is ill.
Under weeks of tender care, the little chick grows into a chicken that responds to all your loving activities. In some versions, the chicken lays an egg before it passes away, so you can start to play the game all over again without feeling that you failed.
Back then as I was trying to fit in and be accepted, I really wanted one of these “eChickens.” Luckily, a classmate and I discovered an abandoned little pet in the boy’s restroom. We had great sympathy over the poor little thing, so we decided to raise it like our own.
For a few months, we took turns taking care of the little creature, deciding what should we feed the baby on a regular basis when it cries out, and took it for walks in its electronic world. Eventually, the baby grew into a brachiosaurus. It was actually not an eChicken but an eDinosaur!
Interestingly, for this particular device, what type of dinosaur it becomes is determined by what food you choose to feed it. If you feed it more vegetables, it will become a brachiosaurus; if you feed it more meat, it will become a Tyrannosaurus Rex. I was sad that I discovered this too late, as I would have really wanted a T-Rex. (Can you identify what Core Drive does this game mechanic appeal to?)
Many years later, I learned that this craze is something known as Tamagotchi in Japan and in the western world. Launching in 1996 in Japan, it was an early effect to create a toy/game targeted girls who didn’t care about the fighting games of the time.
It swept the world and was also banned in many schools because kids had to take their Tamagotchi to school to feed, as 12 hours of not caring for your pet would result in its death (appealing to the Scarcity and Avoidance Core Drives). Australia banned it too because with some slot machine mini-games, the government decided that it incorrectly teaches children to become gamblers (this is the Unpredictability Core Drive). The Black Hat Gamification was doing its work.
Over the years, there were 76 million Tamagotchi’s sold worldwide, and it became one of the earliest ancestors of popular social games where the main objective is to take care of an animal, a property, or a business.
It looks like this ingrained sense of Ownership & Possession, along with some added benefits of novelty (Core Drive 7: Unpredictability & Curiosity), made products like Tamagotchi such a big success worldwide.