Gaming the System

Enigma machine

Image by Tomasz Mikołajczyk from Pixabay

This story was written for the Reedsy contest "End of Story".
More specifically in the context of the prompt: "Write a story that ends with a character asking a question."

Gaming the System

I am a huge fan of "gamification". In my previous life as a software developer, not a day passed without me paying a visit to the Stack Overflow website. For those who don’t know Stack Overflow: it’s the flagship of the Stack Exchange Network. It’s a place where developers go to ask and answer questions about programming languages, software libraries, and software development in general.
I like the Stack Exchange Network because it applies game-design elements and game principles to all of its communities, be it a community that exchanges recipes for cooking, people who want to discuss philosophy, or travelers who want to share information about the most interesting destinations in the world. All these sites have one thing in common: good questions get up-votes; bad questions get down-votes. The same goes for answers.
Stack Overflow has some extra perks that are fun. For instance: during the Winter Holidays, you can earn special hats for your Avatar by achieving challenges: “up-vote ten questions”, “visit the website between 12 AM and 3 AM on New Year’s Day”, “delete one of your answers that is outdated”, and so on.
Sure, there are always people who try to “game the system”, but automated mechanisms and moderation by peers make it very difficult. On Stack Overflow, cheating doesn’t pay. Algorithms detect possible abuse, such as bots trying spoil the game.
As a user, you also get certain privileges based on the reputation points you’ve earned. Starting at 15 points, you can flag posts; you need 125 points to cast a down-vote; starting at 2K points, you can edit questions and answers; at 10K points, you get access to moderation tools to review and delete reported questions and answers. These are only some examples; the list is much longer.
This type of gamification really works for me: since august 2012, I asked 5 questions and provided no less than 2,182 answers. By doing so, I reached 5.1M people, accrued of 67K+ reputation points, bringing me in the top 0.26% overall (top 5000 out of 12.5M users). That means something in the world of software development.

In 2018, I quit my career as a developer, and I decided to become a full-time writer. I started writing short stories in Dutch, and it didn’t take long before I was successful. In 2019, I won the first place in three writing contests, five of my short stories were published in anthologies, three stories were published in literary magazines, and I won ten nominations / honorary mentions in other contests.
To raise the bar, I decided to switch to a different language. In December 2019, I searched for a website that issued weekly contests and that used gamification to keep it fun. I found Reedsy and I immediately liked it. The weekly writing prompts inspired me to write stories about different topics in different genres. I posted my first story on January 7, and I haven’t missed a single week ever since. There were weeks that I really didn’t feel like writing, claiming that I didn’t have any inspiration, but the gamification aspect —and my place on the leaderboard— helped me to bring up the discipline to write a story anyway. After hitting the submit button, I was often amazed by the result —regardless of what others thought of the story.
So far, I have posted 37 stories, resulting in 532 points. Every story but two received 10 points; at first I didn’t know why two of my stories didn’t get awarded, but afterwards I discovered that the word count was lower than 1,000 —something I didn’t notice when I posted them. (This has now been solved by the system: it no longer allows you to submit stories that don’t meet the word count criteria.)
With the 35 stories that did meet the word count criteria, I made 350 points just for submitting them. Additionally, I received 27 up-votes on comments —I don’t comment much; I usually agree with the comments of other people. For me, the 175 positive votes I received on stories are more important. That’s an average of 5 votes per story.
I had hoped that I would be able to use the voting system to select the best stories for publication, but I discovered that this doesn’t work. The votes don’t always reflect the quality of the story. Timing can have a bigger impact: stories that are released by the moderator(s) as early as the first Sunday after closing the contest usually get more votes than stories that get released a couple of days later —unfortunately, I didn't keep track of this metric; maybe I should start doing so.
Also, there are some people who seem to vote for one and only one reason: to get a return-vote, but let’s take a look how my ranking and score evolved before digging deeper into that phenomenon.
On January 31, I reached place #90 on the leaderboard (83 points); on February 29, I was already at place #54 (155 points); on March 31, place #25 was mine (263 points); on April 30, I obtained place #16 (473 points). Today, I have more points (532) but I dropped one place on the leaderboard: I'm now #17. I surmounted other authors, but I was also overtaken by others.
That’s life, I thought at first, but then I examined some of the authors who beat me not with ten points, but with hundred points. Allow me to pick one: Rhondalise Mitza.
This author won 625 karma points with only 22 stories! That’s almost 100 points more than me with 15 stories less: 220 points for the stories, 281 points thanks to likes (an average of 12.77 per story) and 124 for up-voted comments. What can I learn from Rhondalise Mitza?

Lesson #1: Write more comments

I wrote 84 comments; Rhondalise wrote 198. I should double my efforts to write comments and target people who are more inclined to up-vote comments.

Lessen #2: Win more points by posting the same story twice

There have been weeks where I wrote a story that was inspired by more than one prompt. In those cases, I had a hard time choosing which prompt to use when submitting the story. Rondalise found a solution to that problem by posting three stories twice. Instead of 22 stories, Rhondalise only wrote 19.
For contest 36, two stories were written, but four were submitted: “The Reign of a Super Villain as Told by his Sister's Journal” was submitted for the prompt “In the form of diary/journal entries, write about someone who's up late at night because they're having trouble sleeping” as well as for the prompt “In the form of diary/journal entries, write a story that provides glimpses into a person's life at different ages.”
A few days later, on May 8, 2020, “A Young Diary” was posted once for the prompt “In the form of diary/journal entries, write a story that provides glimpses into a person's life at different ages” and once for the prompt “In the form of diary/journal entries, write about someone who's just decided to take up journaling.”
One month later (contest 41) “Blue Moon Corkroaches” was posted twice too, once for the prompt “Write about an animal who changes a person's life (for better or worse)” and once for the prompt “Write about an animal species that doesn't exist in real life — an alien, new discovery, imaginary creature — it's up to your interpretation!”
I don’t know if this is against the rules —I don’t think so—, but it’s an easy way to make an extra 10 points.
One would think that double postings would dilute the votes an author gets on those stories, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Adding up the points accrued by the three double posts, results in 83 points. That’s 13.83 points per post or 27.66 per story.
I wondered: how did this happen?

Lesson #3: Entice other authors to cast a return vote

Recently, Reedsy added a “Library” tab. This tab shows how many stories a person up-voted. In the case of Rhondalise, we’re talking about 451 liked stories, 248 of which were liked since April 1; that’s almost 35 stories a week. I only up-voted 87 stories, 30 of which since April 1; that’s 4.2 stories each week: I read about 4 stories a week that are recommended in Reedsy’s "Critique Circle" mail and I read some stories of the people I follow.
Again, it’s not against the rules to up-vote stories, hoping the author of that story will visit your profile and thank you by up-voting one of your stories. Actually, that’s also how I discover other authors, but when I look at some profiles —other than the one I scrutinized— I see that this behavior is used as a strategy.
Being a software developer, I know that it’s not that difficult to write a bot that automatically sends a welcome message to authors who post a story for the first time (Lesson #1), posting the same story twice should be done manually (Lesson #2), but liking every new story that is submitted (Lesson #3) can easily be automated. I guess it would only take me a couple of hours to write the code to achieve this.

The answer they have is different, but both the developer and the author inside me are asking each other the same question: Should I start gaming the system now that it’s still possible?


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