The Reality of Playing Twitter Like a Video Game

Charlie Brooker once reckoned Twitter was a video game. It's not, obviously – but it can be played like one, like this.

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Jan 25 2016, 3:15am

Twitter's delightful Fail Whale, originally designed by Yiying Lu, now retired but never forgotten

In his 2013 show How Videogames Changed the World, writer and presenter Charlie Brooker suggested that Twitter was, in fact, a video game. Not only that, but that it was one of the most important games of all time, worthy of being celebrated beside contemporary classics like Braid and The Last of Us, and older but hugely influential works like Elite and Tetris. We all got excited, people started talking about "gamification" and "integrated reward systems", and the world was changed forever. We all know that now. Things are very different, here in the future.

Of course, other than people who hadn't watched the programme, and who form their opinions solely from briefly glimpsed, reactionary headlines, nobody actually thought that Twitter was a video game. It isn't. The show's point, of course, was that the social media service, by encouraging us to constantly seek new followers and encourage fresh favourites, was reflecting the kind of behaviour regularly seen in gamers. The acquisition of an unprecedented number of followers in a day provided a similar buzz to when we successfully did away with that level-seven boss that'd been slaughtering us every night for the past nine weeks.

One person I know who loves nothing more than a new follower or favourite is Chris Slight. Some of you may know Chris from Videogame Nation on the UK's Challenge TV, or from his appearances at TwitchCon, MCM, Sky News, CNBC or any of the other things he'll be delighted I've mentioned here to demonstrate how much he's a credible person who you should hire for video game things. I met him just over a year ago on Ginx Live, and we soon became what hip teenagers these days quite possibly don't refer to as "chums".

During that first year, we had a similar level of Twitter followers, with me always slightly ahead of Chris, but only because I'd been "in the business" longer, certainly not because I'd made any real effort. Chris did, though. He's good at all that stuff and when, on the 4th November 2015, he overtook me (1335 followers to my 1330), he was delighted.

Now, I didn't care about Twitter, but I did (and do) like winding Chris up, so I loaded up an app someone had made me take a look at a few months earlier, Crowdfire, which basically takes the donkey work out of proactively nurturing your account. "Proactively nurturing your Twitter account," as you will all no doubt be aware, typically being one of the preordained sentences that signals the end of times.

I went to the section that allows you to view someone else's most engaged followers and follow them yourself. Given me and Chris were turning up on a lot of the same things, it seemed reasonable to assume that if people were following him, they might fancy following me, too.

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And it turned out they did. Within half an hour I'd got 80 new followers. Soon after, not only had I resumed my place ahead of Chris, I'd actually got 100 more people hanging on my every micro-missive than him. Okay, I'd sort of poached these new virtual acquaintances from him, and all of this had been achieved while I sent him abusive texts, while also drinking whisky in the bath (see, men can multi-task). I should have felt bad. I didn't. I was thrilled. Chris was livid.

Mission accomplished, I put my phone to one side... but not for long. The process had been intoxicating – I love video games and this gave me the exact same thrill as finding out you've shot ahead of a friend on an online leaderboard for a game you've both been playing. "Hmm", I thought to myself, even though nobody has ever thought "Hmm", specifically, while mulling something over in their mind; "if 100 followers could make Chris sad, imagine what 1,000 could do."

Related, on Motherboard: The History of Twitter's Rules

So, because I'm a terrible friend, I started to build Twitter mining into my day. I travel in and out of London two or three times a week, so whenever I was at an otherwise loose end on a train, I'd spend a few minutes tapping away on Crowdfire, following the followers of accounts I figured I might get good results from – basically, people, projects or companies I work with.

After three weeks of casual tapping, I'd gained over a thousand new followers. It wasn't enough. If I wanted to be a Twitter millionaire by Christmas, I needed to start hijacking some of the biggest gaming accounts out there – Eurogamer, IGN, GameSpot, you know the kind I'm talking about, with their six-figures-and-more follower numbers. But these didn't yield the desired results – I did better tapping into smaller accounts. A bit of @GinxTV mining – just over 10,000 followers, versus @IGN's three-million-and-more – helped my followers whiz up rapidly. It seemed that the closer my affiliation with the account I raided, the greater take-up rate I got. After six weeks of occasional fiddling, I'd more than doubled the number of followers I had before embarking on this deliberately gamified Twitter campaign, and reached 3,000.

Did you know that Twitter's bird logo/mascot is called Larry? After Larry Bird? The famous basketballer? Well, you do now.

And while all this was happening, my relationship started to change with both Twitter itself and my new followers. Whereas before I'd just posted generic promotional messages for stuff I was doing into the void, now I began to chat with the numbers. Turns out, they were mostly real people, just like you and I. Some got in touch to say they enjoyed my work; others even came along to my live shows. This ultimately gave me a better insight into what gamers were excited about than I'd ever had when I was just following other games journalists.

I suppose I'd always thought of things like Crowdfire as cynical tools designed to fill your followers list with fake accounts and bots; but I found a whole bunch of awesome people on the other side of my pursuit for numbers, people with an active interest in the things I was involved in. Well, most of them, anyway – twitteraudit.com reckons two percent of them are fake accounts. No idea how that happened, but that's alright, right? (It's better than alright, Steve – @VICEGaming is followed by 480 fake accounts, apparently, making up four percent of our total.) The long and short of all this is that, actually, as a by-product of trying to make Chris Slight sad, I'd actually used Twitter to grow an actual social network for myself. Which I suppose is what it's for. It's been a really positive experience. Isn't that awful?

So even if Twitter itself isn't a game, Crowdfire definitely is. But is it a fun one? Well, if you play it competitively against your friends, it certainly can be – as long as they care far more about the result than you do.


PS: If you'd like to follow me on Twitter, you can do so@stevemcneil but, really, the decent thing to do would be to follow @chrisslight instead – he actually cares.

PPS: One final sweet irony of this is that it was Chris who suggested I pitch this piece to VICE. So, not only did me mining his Twitter account for followers help me race ahead of him over there, he's also essentially responsible for me getting paid for the pleasure. Cheers, Chris.

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