Attention Economy: The Game

In my course Friend Request Denied: Social Networks and the Web I have my students play a game I developed to let them explore the dynamics of building a reputation online by giving and capturing attention. It’s also a fun way for students to get to know each other. I’m posting the game instructions and materials here (under a Creative Commons license) for anyone who wants to try it. If you make any improvements, please share!


Attention Economy: The Game

Ulises A. Mejias


How do new bloggers gain recognition? Why are some people in MySpace or Facebook more popular than others? Why does one YouTube video get seen by thousands of people, and another by just a few? What does it mean that “on the internet, everyone is famous to 15 people”? Can the subject matter of the content we post to an online network make us more or less popular?

This game is an accelerated simulation of the process of gaining attention online (acquiring more readers, friends, hits, etc.). The goal of the game is to collect the most attention. The game tries to condense a process that can take weeks or months into about an hour. It is intended for people who are new to the study of online social networks, but anyone can play. The game can also be used to teach some basic characteristics of networks, such as the role of hubs or connectors in scale-free networks. Players are asked at the end to critically reflect on the values that drive this Attention Economy.

Number of players: around 10-25

Time for activity: 45 minutes to 1.5 hours (depending on number of players)


Attention is “the action that turns raw data into something humans can use” (Lanham, in Lankshear and Knobel, 2003, p. 111). Information is not scarce, attention is. Attention Economics establishes that what information consumes is “the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it” (Simon, in Lankshear and Knobel, 2003, p. 109).


Game Set Up

Goal: Collect the most attention.


  • Newbies: Individuals who just joined the online community. Few people know they exist.
  • Oldbies or Hubs: Individuals who have been around the online community for a while. They have established reputations, and people pay attention to what they say.

[Tip: In a group of 20 players, I usually designate 3 oldbies, but this number can be adjusted.]



  • Attention Credit cards: Used by players to directly award or “pay” attention to another player.
  • Recommendation cards: Used by players to try to influence others to award or “pay” attention to someone.

[Tip: The reason section of the Recommendation card can be left blank, but writing something here can make the recommendation more “sticky”.]


  • Log sheet: Used by players to keep track of how they have allocated their attention and who has awarded them attention, which is translated into points. Note that for every two Recommendations players receive, two points are gained.




  • Topic Boards: Used by players to identify themselves and the subject matter of their content. Players can change their topic as many times as they want during the game. It might make it easier to limit the topics to a few areas. For instance, I have students choose topics related to Entertainment, Sports, Politics or Religion.

[Tip: Dry-erase boards work best as Topic Boards, but they can be a bit expensive. I purchased the ones I use from The Markerboard People. Twenty boards (with markers, erasers, and display base) cost around $130.00 USD.]

Playing the Game

Different scenarios can be provided. For instance, players can be told that they are part of the blogosphere, and their topics reflect the subject matter of their posts. Or they can pretend to be YouTube users, and their topics reflect the subject matter of their videos, etc.

Game Setup
  1. Sit in a circle, so everyone can see each other.
  2. Have players write their names (in big letters) in the top section of their Topic Board.
  3. Newbies get 15 Attention Credits and 5 Recommendations
  4. Oldbies get 15 Recommendations and 5 Attention Credits. Make sure oldbies are clearly identified (attach something to the Topic Board, have them wear a party hat, etc.)

[Tip: The number of cards each player receives can be adjusted to control the duration of the game. The fewer cards, the shorter the game. I usually prepare individual player packs with the corresponding number of cards before the game.]


Playing the Game
  1. Choose a starting topic and write it on your Topic Board (remember that you can change your topic as many times as you want).
  2. Pay the Oldbie Tax: All newbie players must write their first Attention Credit card to one of the oldbies [Tip: if the game goes on for a long time, you may want to have players pay the Oldbie Tax more than once during the game.]
  3. Decide who you are sending your first Attention Credits to, fill out your card, and log your decision.
  4. Decide who you are sending your first Recommendation to, and fill out your card.
  5. Send Attention Credits and Recommendations by passing them from left to right only along the circle. If something is addressed to you, keep it. If not, pass it along quickly. If it’s a Recommendation, read it before passing it along. Players can send cards to the same person more than once (or even send all their cards to the same person!).
  6. Log any received Attention Credits or Recommendations.
  7. Continue to send the rest of your Attention Credits and Recommendations until you run out of cards.


Ending the Game
  1. The game ends when all cards have been used and received by their intended parties (or you can end the game early by stopping all traffic).
  2. Have players calculate their scores and post in on their Topic Board.
  3. Discuss the post-game questions.

Post-Game Questions

  1. Why did oldbies have less Attention cards but more Recommendation cards than newbies?
  2. What strategies did newbies employ to gain attention?
  3. How did you decide to allocate recommendations?
  4. Was it possible to gain more attention than oldbies?
  5. What was your strategy for selecting or changing topics?
  6. What was more important in guiding your actions: reciprocity or self-interest?


Lankshear, C., & Knobel, M. (2003). New literacies: Changing knowledge and classroom learning. Buckingham [England]; Philadelphia, Pa.: Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press.

See also:

Join the Conversation


  1. Ulises, I’d be very interested in hearing what the results of the game tend to be. At first glance, my hunch is that people would seek attention because that might be easier to attract. Is that the case? And do they move to seeking recommendation?

    Given the timeframe of an hour, I’m assuming they’re not really making posts. I wonder what would happen if the students were able to post to actual blogs and read each other’s work over, say, three weeks?

    I’m glad I came across this (that’s attention), and I’ll be posting about it myself (recommendation).

  2. Dave,
    Actually, students pursue both things simultaneously (getting attention and recommending). I think part of the lesson is that you can gain attention by recommending (of course, some people–the hubs– have greater recommending powers). And no, they don’t actually post anything but instead the erase-boards function as post titles. Students have great fun with that (one memorable “post”: “I wear diapers. Ask me why.”). Yes, we could go through the actual process over a couple of weeks, but then this would stop being a simulation! πŸ˜‰ What I am hoping to achieve is to sensitize students to some issues _before_ they begin doing the actual thing (of course, some students already blog– but not all).

  3. I have a couple of variants of this, which I am sharing. I took it from the body of your post that you are using a CC SA license – it would be great if you could clarify exactly the terms of your license. For the time being I have just included a link here for people to see your version (would be nice if I could include it on our site with full attribution to you though!)

  4. I came across this blog/article and actually find this to be a pretty interesting teaching game! I agree with you on the dry erase boards being better to use. There is another company called Flex-a-Chart that has great pricing as well, and can actually print onto the dry erase boards, which may be benefical!! Very Nice Article!

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