Scoring Points and Making Friends

Turntable.fm screenshot

Today is the day BennyDNGR reaches 10,000 points, the first person in DNGRBeats to do so. It’s his turn up on the DJ decks, and people are starting to buzz about getting him to the 10k this round. “Benny, let’s do it,” says Smash City. Benny starts playing Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around.” It’s an unusual choice for this crowd, who are used to listening to ambient electronica or aggressive drum and bass, but Cash is a classic. “10k or not, this deserves an awesome,” chimes Hypo-Luxa. Halfway through the song, he breaks the 10,000 mark, and the crowd goes wild. “Yayyyyy!!!!” from Dan Delaney, “WOOOOOOOO” from Sprinks. Benny himself is humble: “I feel like I have accomplished everything and nothing.”

Maybe I should explain a bit. This scene occurred on Turntable.fm, a website where people come to play music. On the site, users take turns playing songs for each other, and are awarded points if the listeners decide they like the song. Much like the AOL chat-rooms of yore, the site is organized into different rooms that cater to different communities. With 20,000 daily active users according to data-tracking website AppData, as well as a variety of celebrity investors and partnerships (including Kanye West, indie darlings Passion Pit, and noted electronic music producer Diplo), Turntable has successfully turned music sharing into a computer game.

Full disclosure: I am one of those daily active users, and ardent proponent of the site. I first came to Turntable when it was still in private beta, in July 2011, and it was a totally new kind of experience for me. I had never been the kind to play video games as a hobby. Video and computer games always seemed very complicated, very solitary, and, honestly, very pointless to me.
Instead, I found my passion in music, which I would listen to and share with the same fervor as the most committed gamer.

When you think about it, however, are playing music and playing games really so different? It could be argued that music sharing has always been a game among friends. Anyone who’s been to a concert can attest to the sense of play they feel among the crowd while the band is performing. So can anyone who has ever sat in a basement listening to a record with a group of like-minded fans, or shared headphones with someone so you could show them a new song. Dutch thinker Johan Huizinga termed this feeling the “magic circle,” moments that are “temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart.” The magic circle is a sense of community that is an essential component of any game – it’s what sets the game apart from “real life.”

Turntable has found a unique way to combine these magic circles by creating an environment where music sharing is imbued with game aspects, turning an activity that has always been playful into a proper game. The first step towards this was making it possible for everyone to listen to the same music at the same time. Whereas previously, technological constraints made sharing music with other people something that could only be done via file transfer, Turntable users can create playlists, either by searching Turntable’s extensive catalog or by uploading their own tracks, and then take turns “DJing” one song at a time. The rest of the users in that room listen together, and can give instant feedback via “Awesome” or “Lame” buttons at the bottom of the screen. Your musical taste is immediately validated or rejected, which in either case encourages continued play. If your song was liked, you feel like continuing your streak and garnering more praise; if it wasn’t, you feel challenged to find something that the crowd will like.

With that validation come points, a common traditional game aspect. For every “Awesome” vote a song you play gets, you are awarded a point. As your score increases, you get access to more avatars, meaning more options for how your character appears in the site’s rooms. That’s it – no badges, no hidden levels (or songs), no trophies or achievements or accolades. What you do get is a very basic sense of how “good” your music taste is, and watching those points add up (and feeling your ego about your music taste grow) can be addicting. In fact, the point system may have been what first got me hooked. Not only was my music taste being arbitrated instantly, but I watched that peer approval slowly add up. For my first few weeks on the site, all I thought about was how to play the kind of song that would get as many people as possible to press the “Awesome” button and boost my score.

This may seem like it’s not much of a pay-off. Today’s players are used to highly customizable avatars and environments, or hidden levels they can play once they reach certain goals, or at the very least trophies or badges for the most banal of accomplishments. However, for Turntable, simplicity is key. By keeping the point system simple, and the rewards for those points basic, Turntable allows the music-sharing aspect of the site to dominate while points slowly accumulate in the background. This means the focus of the site is less on the quantity of points you’ve earned and more on the quality of the time you’ve spent earning them. At the same time as I was earning these points, I was becoming a regular in certain rooms on the site. I got to know the other regulars, and started looking forward to hopping into the room each morning to chat with them as much as listen to the music. The more time I spent on the site, the less I worried about the points themselves and the more I worried about what the points represented – that my new friends liked the music I was playing, and by extension, that they liked me.

That is the beauty of Turntable, and of most successful group games and music-sharing enterprises – the communities they build. The technological advances that have made instantaneous group listening possible set the stage for effective music-sharing sites, and the gamification of the experience provided a powerful hook. So while the traditional game aspects of sites like Turntable may be essential to their early success, at the end of the day, it’s the magic circle, that sense of community, that keeps users coming back. That’s why, for Benny, breaking the 10,000-point mark felt like accomplishing “everything and nothing.” It wasn’t the points Benny was aiming for – that’s the nothing part. It’s the fact that his friends were so excited to get him there, and that meant everything.

Michelle C. Forelle is currently a master's student in NYU's Media, Culture, and Communication program. Her research interests include music videos, how they live on the internet, and how emerging media and internet services are changing the ways artists, fans and the music industry interact. She is particularly curious about how new avenues for interactivity are redefining the medium of music videos and the music industry as a whole. Michelle graduated from Boston University in 2007 with a BS in Film/TV/Radio, and has spent the years since working in video production and music video blogging.

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