The Strangely Compelling Game Mechanic Powering Google+


It's hard to know why this game works so well, but the genius of Zuma or Tetris or Angry Birds inheres in the smallest details


The most important circle in Google+ might be this one:plusone.jpg

That's the reward that you get for playing the casual game that is at the heart of the Google+ experience. When you go to add a friend, the service presents you with a series of rectangular tiles with people's names on them across the top of the screen. At the bottom, there are several circles into which you can drag the tiles. As you do so, the circle pulses to life and when you drop the person into it, the green +1 circle drifts upward. This is a classic way of indicating a game reward, as in, say, Super Mario Brothers. A number drifting upwards on the screen means, "Points!" The +1 indicates not just that you've added someone to a circle, but that your high score just went up.

I think this explains why I've been compulsively pulling tiles into circles for the past few days, despite never having had the urge to create Twitter lists or sort my Facebook friends.

It's hard to know why this game works so well, but the genius of Zuma or Tetris or Angry Birds inheres in the smallest details. There's something brilliant in the way objects teeter in Angry Birds or the way the frog ball shooter thing rotates in Zuma. The way the +1 floats up in Google+ isn't quite in that league, but it's still great -- and a hell of a lot more useful.

This is my third post on Google+ in the last two days. Obviously, I'm excited about its potential. I find it intuitive to use it because I've already created subsets of my total social graph in several different social networks. And I think I've learned a lot from those other experiences and want to build a new network from scratch. But there was one big problem. How was I going to survive the laborious process of creating a bunch of network subsets all at once? That's the biggest problem that Google+ faces and it just happens to be the specific problem that the minigame mitigates.

Image: Google.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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