Have Social Games Made Us More Social?

This is a Guest Post by Rick Jones.

To ponder whether social games have actually made us more social should really be saved for some post-conference, drink-fueled discussion. Although there is little real research available to understand how these games affect social behavior, we should arm ourselves with the arguments (while sober at least) by looking at evidence behind the emerging patterns of behavior.

A 2004 study by Nicole Lazzaro (Founder and President of XEODesign) was keen to promote the ‘social’ factor in explaining a game’s popularity by recognizing MMOGs as true, socially interactive platforms. But times have already changed. By being casual and in reaching out to traditional non-gamers through social networks — are twisting genres, turning demographics and the definition of what makes a game ‘social’ in the real world seems to be forever evolving.

The study by Lazzaro cutely suggested that it’s the person who is addictive and not the game but Dan Porter, CEO of OMGPOP thinks the social nature of a game that provides the catalyst for longer gameplay. “On OMGPOP, when you’re playing a match and that other real person beats you, you mentally say, OK, one more game and this, on average, turns into 35 matches per session. ” He adds,”you play a single-player game and when you’re done, you’re done. For us, it’s when you’re done competing with other people, which like a great conversation, always extends longer than you imagine.”

A study into the success of World of Warcraft by Palo Alto Research Center and Stanford University in 2006 looked at the time players spent playing the game in and out of groups and argued the prevalence of a pure social experience in MMOG’s may have been overstated. The report finds that what appears at first to be a sociable environment is actually a game with an addictive and carefully crafted reward structure cajoling single players to form communities with other players purely for mutual interest. This, in turn, puts social pressure on people to play longer in order to ensure a mission does not fail. Indeed, the three most popular character classes were the most “soloable” (better chance of survival alone) and spent the least time in groups. The study’s analysis found that World of Warcraft’s undoubted success in the social sphere does not necessarily come from direct support and camaraderie but instead in simply providing a shared experience and a ‘real’ audience to show off one’s cultivated reputation.

With this in mind we can certainly see a distinction between MMOGs and community games like Second Life which, by their very nature, support a much wider and more casual social play — albeit anonymously through a avatar. As Dr Marc Fetscherin stated in his 2007 study of Second Life, “[These] virtual worlds are not just games as there are no levels, no scores and no game over. They exist in real time where individuals communicate, co-operate and collaborate with each other like a real world.” In this way a pure virtual community allows people to be social and perhaps open up in a more honest way than in real life but that then begs the questions whether these pure communities should be considered social ‘games’.

Indeed, the argument that social games offer a wholly different social aspect to real-life is advanced by Mark Pincus, founder of Zynga, who believes in three principles that contribute to a successful social game. First, they should give the player a feeling of playing with friends; second, they give the player a way of expressing him or herself. As Pincus stated recently at this year’s Social Gaming Summit, “Games need to be a playground for personality.” Thirdly, long-term success comes from games which “give players an opportunity to invest in a game over time” – which is why, he argues, items play such an important role.

Even though it seems the same rules apply to social games online and those in social networks, there are some key differences in the way people connect to each other. In reality, Facebook itself is a social game for people to showcase themselves eager for a friend’s response to a status update or a posted photograph. In the same way, the games that surround it (having now become a key part of the platform) provide an ideal, passive way to ‘stay social’ and keep in touch with people you do not talk to and socialize with normally. To play and compare scores in easy-to-play casual games with your actual friends has been a definite draw for non-gamers and a gateway for the gaming industry to attract people. However, it can be seen again through articles like The Most Popular Girl in Pet Society that Facebook developers are evolving much like MMOGs did in using the social tag and rewarding players for interacting, this time, but with a heavier focus existing friends.

With the boundaries of what is considered ‘social’ being redrawn more often than the Pepsi logo, to decide whether social games have made us more social is both impossible to calculate and easy to argue. Certainly, in a world of convenience, where theoretically we should have more time, social games are a viable and perhaps vital alternative in being the communicative glue that binds us to new ways of thinking and the people that have shaped and are shaping our lives.