It's Saturday afternoon. I'm staring at my dice and a stack of sourcebooks. All I can think of is that in two hours my friends will be coming over to play our weekly game of Dungeons & Dragons and I haven't figured out what they're going to do. I'm toast.
I mean seriously toast!
For the last month, Eric has been complaining that I haven't given the group enough room to shine or self-organize. They say that they're tired of me surprising them with impossible challenges and monsters of epic proportions and watching them squirm. Then, when all the chips are down, I make a character appear to save the day.
Why aren't my friends happy?
Do they not know that they're just the audience to a tightly scripted fantasy adventure story, where I'm the lead writer? Why aren't they engaged and engrossed by my story? I thought I was being original, but they keep asking to be part of the story. How could they possibly not see themselves reflected in my creative brilliance, or even understand my narrative genius?
What if the problem isn't them? What if the problem is me?
Thinking about it, this problem sounds familiar. It feels like I've seen this level of disengagement before; AT WORK. Especially since the rise of new collaborative technologies. The systemic assumption is that everyone will use them. But they aren't.
Engagement, for better and worse
Like most people working with Web 2.0 environments, I just fell into it without any formal training or background. Contrary to popular belief there are no true experts, masters, gurus or yogis of Web 2.0. Everyone is an amateur, of varying degree. We all face the same challenges when trying to run Web 2.0 related projects: how to get participants excited enough to work through the duration of the project? How to sustain engagement?
It's funny. Many people tend to think that engagement works like a binary code. Participants are seen as ones and zeros. You're either engaged or you're not. But if you think about it, people will play games and complete tasks with differing levels of enthusiasm. Here are some factors that one needs to take into account to maximize motivation: time, interest, complexity of task, stimulation and reward.
For the past three years I've been juggling with these concepts, never quite finding the right balance to keep participants fully engaged. I realized that the answers might be found within my other passion: role playing games.
Through that revelation, I opened the door to challenge my premises on what makes an engaging collaborative project. Some of the most valuable lessons were not about trying to create the perfect experience, but to come up with situations where all participants act as a team, accomplish a challenge and feel rewarded.
Knowing how to approach the beast
In my experience, most digital engagement projects fail because of the assumption that participants will do all the work without being prompted or stimulated. The same thing goes for adventurers when faced with the gates of a nightmarish castle. If you don't define the goal in advance (writing policy/developing advice/acquiring a lost amulet) why would anyone bother? It's easier to go visit the elves in the forest, since they offer better stories for free.
Once you have identified the goal, you'll be faced with your biggest dragon: silence (or lack of participation). When tackling a complex problem it is important that participants (or adventurers) know how to approach the beast. They need to know their roles and responsibilities. That's where the Game Master comes in. He (or she) acts as a feedback mechanism to stimulate interactions and support the adventurers as they learn how to work together. Without this active facilitation, there is no dialogue.
Despite the fact that these technologies are original and can save the day when the chips are down, people want to be part of the story. In essence, it boils down to this: in order for a group to succeed at any task, it needs to be properly contextualized, stimulated and supported with a clear understanding of the goals, benchmarks and rewards.
Blaise Hébert is a passionate Web 2.0 advisor with Policy Horizons Canada. He spends most of his time researching and understanding the complexities of digital engagement.