FarmVille Creator on “Hitting the Next Level”

Zao Yang, co-creator of the wildly popular Facebook game FarmVille, knows a thing or two about how to engage people in a digital space. At a seminar at UCLA yesterday, Yang discussed the creation of the game and how considering the psychological actions of users influences the evolution of online startups.

Yang commented on “appointment gaming”, what he described as the core concept of Farmville. By issuing virtual currency—in FarmVille’s case: seeds that grow plants—users are encouraged to appoint themselves into the game and remain concerned with what happens over time.

“If you invest in something, over a long enough time, you get this reward,” Yang said. “This maps directly to the mechanics in your brain. Humans have a tendency to complete tasks; watch the progression of the progress bar, hitting the next level.”

Our natural inclinations to advance ourselves and keep reaching the “next level” is what motivates us in our own education. Teachers and education startups are constantly looking for ways to engage students in new and innovative ways, leading to the creation of digital learning environments. And investors like those at the EdTech Investor Panel are acutely aware that the next level of learning will largely live and grow in virtual realms. 

Yang’s words apply in the context of many edutech startups, particularly one like Smarterer (discussed in an earlier post). Users continue to take tests and raise their skills and “level up” their score. They appoint themselves into the platform with their own knowledge and training acting as the “virtual currency.” Lumosity brain training is arguably built around the same concept as well. Measuring and quantifying the success and progress of the user encourages them to want to continue.

Yang spoke of the genesis of FarmVille during the discussion. “The first step is figuring out what the aspirational item of the community you’re targeting is. For YouTube, it’s fame. For Facebook, it’s popularity. For Quora, it’s respect. And then you have to design your platform around what that community wants.”

Many edutech startups are built for teachers who want to help students “level up” as well, but in a far more tangible and socially significant way than watching a row of acorn squash flourish on a Facebook page. For example, Education Elements’ Hybrid Learning Management System, discussed in an earlier post, is designed to gently ease students into the next level of learning, and does not let them advance until they’ve proven mastery of the first level. If built properly, edutech companies can motivate students to reach the next level with a comprehensive understanding of the material.