The Genius of South Park
So I’ve been aware of South Park for over a decade now, but I wasn’t a fan because I just thought it was just some potty-mouthed kids who cussed a lot and loved gory death scenes. I didn’t even think the kids had different personalities.
However, last year my friends decided to watch a bunch of South Park for after-work relaxations, and I happened to drop in on a few episodes. What I realized, is that once you get pass the potty-mouth cussing and gory scenes (which I still don’t like), all the kids (and parents) have their unique personalities, flaws, insecurities, and moments of strength. It also actually brings a lot of insights to many deep social issues as well as psychological maneuvers that fit perfectly inline with my Gamification Framework Octalysis.
My mission here on the blog is to teach you how to do *good* gamification design, which is beyond just the Points, Badges, and Leaderboards, but ties directly into the 8 Core Drives of Octalysis (which are intrinsic motivations). But of course, it’s difficult to remember all 8 Core Drives, let alone using them in actual design and thinking.
Hence I thought presenting some lessons of gamification through fun episodes of South Park is a good way to learn in a fun way (after all, Education in Gamification is a big field these days).
In this episode, Cartman inherits $1 Millions from his deceased grandmother, and decides to use almost all it to buy a struggling theme park.
Instead of trying to improve its business, Cartman makes a TV commercial to show how fun “Cartmanland” is and emphasizes that no one besides him can enjoy it.
After realizing he needs to hire a security guard to keep people out, he starts to accept one customer a day to pay the security guard. Then he starts to realize that he needs to hire and pay for more things in order to sustain operations, so he started to open it up to 2, 3, 4, 10s, and then hundreds of people everyday.
Since people all saw how they couldn’t get into Cartmanland, when they learned that it is starting to accept more people, they rushed to get in.
Eventually, everyone wanted to go to Cartmanland and it went from a near-bankrupted theme park into one of the most popular ones ever. This is a great example of the Octalysis Core Drive: Scarcity & Impatience (#6), where people want something, just because they can’t have it.
2. You have 0 Friends
This is a pretty straight foward episode regarding the Core Drive #5: Social Pressure & Envy. In this episode regarding Facebook, Stan sees that every one of his friends is using Facebook, and all of them are feeling that they’re not really “friends” unless Stan adds them.
Stan eventually succumbs to the pressure and starts to use his Facebook account. Then his dad and girlfriend all get mad him for not adding them as friends or changing his status to being in a relationship.
On the other hand, Kyle added an unpopular kid who had no friends in school, which resulted everyone else unfriending him due to “bad association.” Unable to stand the social pressure, Kyle finally unfriends the unpopular kid in school, hoping to add back his popularity again.
In this episode, we also see Core Drive: Development & Accomplishment (#2), as everyone tries to keep track of their friend count, with Cartman jumping for joy when he sees that he had more friends than Kyle.
3. Butters’ Bottom Bitch
In this episode, after Butters becomes a customer of a girl who would kiss anyone for $5, he decides to start a “girl kissing business” where he would hire girls around school and kiss other boys for money.
To motivate the girls, Butters introduced an “employee motivation” system, where the girls would earn a sun on a calendar every time they got clients, but if the girls fail to show up to work that day, they would get a stormy cloud.
It works in kindergarten, and it works for pimps.
In this parody of Pokemon, the boys become obsessed with collecting all the Chinpokimons toys out there, relentlessly doing everything they can to complete their collection. The commercials keep reiterating on the theme “gotta buy them all!”
Kids not only need to get all the toys, they started needing to collect the video game, stickers, and eventually join the camp.
This is a strong example of Core Drive #4: Ownership and Possession, the concept that once people feel like they own something, they want to protect it, improve it, and acquire more.
Additionally, Kyle consistently falls behind on the trend on what the other kids are doing, while they laugh at him for doing things “SOO last week,” and so he constantly tries to catch up with his friends.
When he goes to the store to buy his first Chinpokomon, the store owner says, “I honestly don’t know what you see in these things.” And Kyle just responds with “Neither do I!”
There is also the Core Drive: Epic Meaning & Calling (#1) involved: the Japanese company consistency brainwashes the children regarding a higher challenge to defeat the ultimate evil force by collecting all the Chinpokomon toys, which gets every kid passionate about the bigger cause this presents.
This of course is also another great demonstration of Social Pressure & Envy (Core Drive #5). In fact the only way to get the kids to get off liking Chinpokomons, is to apply negative social pressure by having their parents’ fall in love with it too.
5. Breast Cancer Show Ever
In South Park, many episodes are completely devoted to Cartman trying to prevent public shame or humiliation that he brought upon himself.
In this episode, Cartman makes fun of Breast Cancer, enraging the cause-driven Wendy to eventually challenge him to a fight. Cartman at first laughs at Wendy as she is a girl, but once he saw how serious Wendy is, he became secretly timid, especially after his classmate Butters saying, “Yea, if you got beat up by a girl, everyone will think you are [a weak person]“.
From that point on Cartman does everything he can to secretly beg Wendy to not fight him, while publicly still trash talking about the fight. He went as far as literally eating his own underwear as well as defalcating on the teacher’s desk during class, just to get into detention to prevent the fight.
This is a great example of Core Drive 8: Loss & Avoidance, where people would do extreme things to prevent a loss, in this case, public humiliation.
6. The List
In this episode, the boys heard that the girls made a list that ranks how good looking each boy is in their class. Even though Kyle did not care about some “stupid list” at the beginning and didn’t even care about looking at it, when he saw that he was last place, he became obsessed with that information and it changed his life.
On the other hand, Clyde found out he was first place, which instantly made him more social and confident, talking to girls freely.
Towards the end, the boys realized the list was part of a conspiracy for the top level girls to date Clyde, whose parents’ run a high end shoe store in the mall, without losing their social status.
The list is a good example of how the common gamification tool Leaderboards can influence behavior and drive actions toward something through a combination of Development & Accomplishment (Core Drive #2) and Social Pressure & Envy (Core Drive #5).
7. Simpsons Already Did It
In this episode, Butters tries to assume his evil identity Professor Chaos to stir havoc in the city.
He continuously comes up with new ways to create problems and trouble, just to get countered by his sidekick General Disarray who tells him that the Simpsons already did it.
After continuous attempts and realizing that the Simpsons have done it too, Professor Chaos gets more and more frustrated, getting himself obsessed with constantly thinking up new ways to create trouble.
This is a good example of Empowerment of Creativity & Feedback (Core Drive #3), where the process of constantly thinking up creative solutions to a problem and seeing immediate feedback (in this case whether the Simpsons have done it or not) drives people’s behaviors and keeps them engaged regularly.
8. Scott Tenorman Must Die
Spoiler Alert: this clip shows the twist at the end that makes this episode such an incredible thriller. I would recommend you watching the full episode here instead of spoiling it.
This is my all-time favorite South Park episode, primarily because how it drives the story, brings out my undivided curiosity, and surprises me big time during the twist at the end.
In this episode, for a variety of silly reasons, Cartman must seek revenge to a 7th Grader who pulled a prank on him. Cartman then starts to plan the perfect revenge, which initially sounded silly, but eventually turned out to be one of the most ingenious and nefarious revenge plans I have seen.
This is another great example of the Core Drive: Empowerment of Creativity & Feedback (#3) as Cartman devises his evil yet creative plan, while being overjoyed when the feedback of success (Scott Tenorman crying being one) finally arrives.
Another Core Drive that is heavily utilized is Unpredictability & Curiosity (#7), as the ending twist is so unpredictable that the viewer is left with a sense of awe and surprise at the end, very much like how the Harry Potter books end.
9. 4th Grade
This is a simple episode where the kids finish 3rd grade and enter into 4th grade with a new teacher, Miss Choksondik. The kids panic and try to figure out a way to get back into 3rd grade.
Towards the end of the episode, Miss Choksondik teaches the children a valuable lesson: “A fun game is a game that gets harder as it goes – just like life!” The children then decide to not go into the time portal that they successfully created to go back into the past.
While this obviously is a great lesson in Core Drive #2: Development & Accomplishment, it also reminds us of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow Theory, where the Challenge of a journey must match the growth in skill in order to be engaging.
In this episode, Cartman decides that he is too mature for his friends and tries to make “mature friends” on the Internet. He eventually joins NAMBLA, the North American Man/Boy Love Association, thinking that grown men want to hang out with him because they think he is mature like them.
The men of NAMBLA then asks Cartman if he could bring other “young friends” to their special banquet, and so he invites everyone besides his usual close friends.
He then tells Kyle that he is part of a mature organization now and he invited everyone but not Stan and Kyle. Stan and Kyle started off saying, “We don’t want to go to some stupid adult meeting anyway!” But after Cartman repeatedly says, “No, You CAN’T go.” in response to “We don’t WANT to go,” Stan and Kyle eventually feels like they should figure out how to go to this meeting.
Needlesstosay, this is another great example of Core Drive #6: Scarcity & Impatience.