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The psychology behind open source and gaming

It's no accident that people engage with games and software in a way to makes them feel like part of the group. Complex psychology is behind the development of communities.

One of the things that drive success in online games such as World of Warcraft is the community and ecosystem that surround the game itself. This is much akin to open source where projects grow and become successful as individuals become part of the whole.

How we define our individual identities and the forms of social participation that we pursue to shape these identities drive our engagement. Whether it's software or gaming, we shape the world around us.

This existential viewpoint also explains a bit why Spore is such an interesting game (despite its archaic DRM)--we get to define our universe and then engage with it.

The Game Anthropologist gets to the root of the issue:

The long and short of it? The game makes the player. When we play games, we are at the outset making an agreement that we are going to do whatever the game tells us to. We can change our minds. We can find out beforehand what is in the game.

This is nearly the exact same sentiment as we see with open source. Users make the software and while we may initially agree with what the software tells us to do, we can change our minds and modify it accordingly.

Contrast that approach with packaged applications that force you into their way of doing things, or SaaS applications that require you to change business processes to meet their model.

Back in 2005, I wrote about the open source angle for a Release 1.0 report (PDF available for free download):

Within the open-source space there is an underlying thread of reciprocity and support of the group as a whole over individual concerns. Certainly, not everything done in the open-source realm is noble or even beneficial, but by and large the community does support a greater good--the furthering of open source and open standards across all technology platforms and devices.

Not much has changed in the last three years, though the trend of benefit for the greater has been manipulated beyond selflessness and into other means that help users. While a completely for-profit company, Dell's Ideastorm is one example where the community helps to define how Dell should modify its products. Most participants seem to accept that they will use Dell products and as such want them to be better.

Despite the guiding hand of writers and game engines, it's the players that shape the game. Just like open-source projects, without a relationship (and obsession) between developers and users most games will flounder.