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Psychology of Play, Social Games and Game Design
by Michael Fergusson on 11/25/10 06:44:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Can social game designers learn something from child’s play? You be the judge. I came across an interesting social game design article from Mike Sellers and his blog, Online Alchemy, and I thought I’d share the link with you. 

Sellers’ blog post examines the close relationship between the emergence of gameplay in popular social games and the path of individual psychological development of play.  Why is this so interesting from a game design and business perspective?

If you’ve been following my blog, then you know how interested I am in the meaning of play and its fundamental role in human behavior. It’s not just for fun, but it’s a biologically based, evolutionary contribution to human survival and development, a crucial vehicle forcultural learning and cultural transmission.

Sellers' blog post discusses a 1930′s study published by Mildred Parten looking at the development of play in children. Simply put, there are 6 stages of play that correspond to a child’s physical, cognitive and social development. Here are some the developmental stages of individual play:

Solitary play: Playing by yourself (ignoring others around you)

Onlooker play: Noticing others around you, but not playing with them

Parallel play: Implicitly recognizing the play of others around you, doing some of the same things and playing in the same cognitive space, without open social interaction. (Think of two kids building sand castles near each other that resemble each other, even though they never said a word or joined together at all.)

Associative play: Light social interaction with others nearby, but without involving play as a topic or structure

Cooperative play: socially interacting and organizing using play as a structure on which to build these interactions.  Note that this implicitly includes competitive play, as the social structures involved necessarily require in-group (our team) and out-group (the other team) interactions.

According to Parten, as we develop as humans our forms of play become more social and common. We tend to play less alone and want to cooperate and compete during gameplay. As Sellers points out, if we examine the emergence of social games, we can see similarities in this regard:

Solitary play: Bejeweled, tower defense, most early casual games. The game design and moving parts were simple and easy.

Onlooker play: the addition of leaderboards, “who’s playing now”, and other features that, while they don’t give you the opportunity to be “playing” with others, or even observing their actual gameplay, at least give you some indication that there are other people out there playing at the same time.

Parallel play: current social games such as Farmville, Pet Pupz and Mob Wars, where you may have “neighbors” but the game play is largely solitary. While you’re able to associate with other people and even observe their play, in terms of the gameplay you’re almost entirely working on your own.  These games do however start to edge up into Associative play.

Associative play: your play involves interacting with other people directly, and their play is one of several factors that effects yours. Foursquare would be an example, as well as higher levels in Mob Wars and Farmville.

Cooperative play: think of people forming teams for the purpose of playing the game and these interactions enabling the formation of communities. Think of games where complementary roles —as well as shared goals and complex in-group/out-group interactions are part of gameplay.

As you can see, there’s plenty here for game designers to consider! What about games where the play within the game evolves through the various levels of sociality as you progress? What about games where individual players can decide independently how deeply they want other players to effect their play? What are your thoughts? Email me at michael [at] ayogo [dot] com.


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Nick Green
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"According to Parten, as we develop as humans our forms of play become more social and common. "

I think this theory actually relates specifically to child development, i.e. by the time most of us are playing online multiplayer games we've already progressed through all of these stages. So I'd only see this as potentially relevant for developers making games aimed at young children.

But I think what's interesting is that you've illustrated a parallel between human and technological development in play. The underlying premise of Parten's theory is that the observed changes in children's play is the result of cognitive development in a maturing biological organism - the more sophisticated the organism, the more sophisticated the play.

The game examples you've given show the same pattern.

Keith Nemitz
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Even Freud, the bastard, recognized the need for adult play. I don't believe adults ever move beyond these types of play. They may favor some over others, but each type can still be enjoyed by all. It's more than likely that a good game will overcome an adult player's play type preferences. Tens of millions of adults continue to play Bejeweled and its like for years.

Nick Green
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Keith - I didn't suggest that adults don't play. If that were the case I'd be a 35 year old child :)

My point was that Parten's theory relates specifically to child development - i.e. children go through these stages over a period of years, during their childhood primarily as a result of _biological_ development.

To suggest, as the author did, that games should move players through these different stages - isn't sensible. "Normal" adults and adolescents (i.e. the majority) who play social games are already at the co-operative stage.

So designing a game to move them these stages again would just be completely arbitrary.

Justin Nearing
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"by the time most of us are playing online multiplayer games we've already progressed through all of these stages"

That's why you are playing MMO's or team-based FPS games. The primary audience for "social" games are people that have never really played any kind of computer game. It would make sense that the games these users are attracted to evolve as their style of play develops.

The interesting thing is that the evolution of social gaming is following the evolution of childs play.

Nick Green
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For what it's worth I'm a psychologist.

Human development, barring neurological and/or psychological trauma, happens once. This is what Parten's theory is about - biological and social maturation.

Most people (everyone except children), even those new to social gaming, are not experiencing biological maturation.

Most will also already have matured socially.

So Parten's theory doesn't properly apply in this manner.

Darren Tomlyn
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The one question I have to ask in relation to the post above, is where, and how, competitive play would fit within such stages of development?

The reason this is important, is because games are, of course, competitive activities. (Many have tried to argue otherwise, but fail to do so, mainly because either they've failed to recognise the role and presence of indirect competition, or mistaken (specific) applications of competition for being competition itself).

(Another point, which would be another topic for another day, is that games are not just playful activities, but also have a role in and for some activities that are consistently recognised and described as being work - (so that games (in general) != play when used as a noun (and as a verb related to such a noun), just like art/puzzle etc.)).

Nick Green
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Different kinds of competition are possible in every stage except solitary - and even then you can theoretically compete with yourself, i.e. try to break your own record.

But if you believe that all games are competitive and all who have argued otherwise have failed.... that probably says that you enjoy competition (nothing wrong with that) but can't appreciate that others might have different preferences.

Many players have no interest at all in competition of any description. They really don't care about beating others in combat, shininess of equipment, levels or anything else. There's plenty of enjoyment to be had in the challenges posed by a game and co-operating with others towards shared goals etc. etc.

You can see this most clearly in real-life.

One person decides to be a merchant banker and accumulate as much wealth as they can. Another dons monastic robes and retires from the world to seek enlightenment. And there's a broad spectrum in-between.

Not everyone is competitive :)

Darren Tomlyn
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There is one main mistake with your reply, however, right at the beginning - you are not recognising the difference between play, in general, and games. Play, does NOT have to be competitive at all. It merely represents an activity or behaviour that is not productive - (the opposite of work), and whether or not it is competitive does not matter. What do records matter for play in general? They don't!

None of the types of play mentioned in the original post mention competition at all, and can all exist independently of such a thing (in theory, anyway).

Some of the problems are to do with subjective opinions and applications of what the word competition represents - which is part of what is causing the problems with games and their understanding and recognition in the first place.

Games, are, by their very nature, based on how the word is, and has been used - (for a VERY long time) - competitive activities. EVERY single activity that is (consistently) considered to BE a game, can be recognised and defined as being competitive, based on what the word compete represents. Even PUZZLES can be seen and recognised as being competitive in such a manner, let alone games!

The ONLY reason why none of this is happening as it should, is the lack of understanding and recognition of what the words compete, and competition as an application of compete, actually represent:

The act/behaviour of TRYING to gain an (any) outcome, at the expense of, or in spite of, someone or something else.

There are a number of problems people currently have with their own perceptions of what this word represents, such as:

Thinking that competition is defined by the goal/outcome being competed for in itself.

This is WRONG, since the goals being competed for are merely IMPLIED by the word compete, since it represents the act of trying to gain such an outcome; whether or not the goals are tangible or not, subjective, or even exist, DOES NOT MATTER, for the use of the word in general. Competition can be, and often is, PERPETUAL. Any and all goals/outcomes being competed for are therefore part of a subjective APPLICATION of what compete and competition represent.

A failure to recognise and understand the presence and role of INDIRECT competition. ALL single-player games, and even puzzles, are, by their nature, INDIRECTLY competitive activities.

Challenges, by their very nature, involve competition - just because it's not DIRECT, doesn't mean it's not competitive!

Life in general is competitive! (We're called a race for a reason!)

Just because people don't FOCUS on competition itself, doesn't mean it doesn't exist!

How people use and APPLY what the word compete and competition represents does not matter here. Just because people may not care for competition in itself, (when they actually recognise its presence), does not mean they don't care about the ramifications and/or results of such a/its presence.

Nick Green
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Much and even most games are competitive. But to claim that they all necessarily are is a serious stretch.

The only difference between 'play' and 'games' is that games have some kind of structure, i.e. rules and or conventions. The addition of rules and or conventions does not necessarily turn play competitive.

Your use of the term 'indirect competition' is something you've come up with yourself? You may want to rename it because 'indirect competition' already has a different, widely accepted meaning.

Darren Tomlyn
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No - the meaning of the words direct and indirect in relation to competition are, as AFAIK, completely consistent with the nature of the word compete to begin with - it's merely an extremely logical extrapolation based upon its definition:

Direct competition, would be the type found in a simple game of, say, football - one team is directly competing against another to try and win the match, by scoring more goals than their opponents.

In, say the premier league, even though in each match you directly compete against an individual team, you are still, indirectly competing against every other team in the league. AFAIK this is exactly how the terms are used. My post above is completely consistent with this.

The only problem, is that people don't fully understand or recognise just how PREVALENT competition really is within our existence, or feel it is TOO prevalent, and so generally tend to ignore it.

Games ARE competitive, because the moment you examine ALL games for what they ARE, the similarities between them become extremely obvious. There are a handful of simple games which EVERY other game in existence is derived from - and all of those are, by their nature, competitive. If an activity does not fall under such a description, then there is generally a very good reason for that - it's not actually a game, merely a puzzle, work of art, competition, or simple play, (either structured or not), that is mislabelled as a game.

But such an examination hasn't really happened yet. There is a very good reason for this, however, which I am working on at this time.

Structured play is simply not enough to describe a game. Without an element to compete against, it would not be consistent with how the word is used. I play a musical instrument - and can do so for either work OR play. Playing a piece of music for my own enjoyment - (non-productive reasons) - would be considered play, and would count as structured based on the rules I would be following when reading the music in doing so. Is/would playing a piece of music in this way (therefore) count as a game? No. The use of the word game is not consistent with such an activity. I am not competing against anything, either directly OR indirectly in playing a piece of music for itself, therefore it is not a game.

Tag, hopscotch, snakes and ladders, and all other examples of basic and simple games DO involve competition, however, and is one of the primary reasons for their existence, whether recognised or otherwise.

If you can think of a game (which would be perfectly consistent with the word and how it is used) that does no involve competition of any kind then tell me...

I very much doubt you will, however, since, as I said, I have yet to come across ANY game, (which would not turn out to be a puzzle/competition etc.), that does not involve such competition, and therefore does not appear to be derived from the 3/4 basic games humanity has always had.

The words game, art, puzzle, competition, (as an event/activity), work and play (as nouns), all exist INDEPENDENTLY of each other in the language, based on how they are used.

The problem we have at this time, is that people do not fully understand how and why that is the case, and so get confused.

Understanding each of these words for what they represent, (based on how they are used), and how they are related to each other based upon such a thing, and how the word competition, (as an application of compete), is related to them as-well, is very important in understanding how, and therefore being able, to fully design and create a (good) game to it's full potential AS a game.

The reasons behind such problems are what I'm working on at this time. (An examination of games as a matter of linguistics).

EDIT: One of the biggest problems people have in understanding and recognising what the word game represents, based on how it is used, comes from recognising that play, as a noun, actually has no place in its description/definition. Games are also often played for WORK. Since the nature of most work IS as a structured activity, simply defining games as such is COMPLETELY INCONSISTENT with how the word is USED.

The word game, is, and has been, used by humanity as a whole to describe something far more specific than just a structured activity. The lack of recognition and understanding of the word compete/competition, is part of the reason why the word game itself also suffers from such problems. Since you fail to recognise and understand that my use of the term indirect competition, is fully consistent with how both of the words are used, it is obvious that you also fail to fully understand or recognise competition for what it represents too.

You may like to know that, based on my studies, we are simply dancing around a deeper problem in the language itself at this point, but I'm afraid that you'll have to wait to find out what that is...

Nick Green
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Darren - your use of the term "indirect competition" is not consistent with its widely accepted meaning.

Google "indirect competition" definition and see for yourself.

Your own use of the term also seems to be internally inconsistent.

Your football example is just plain old, regular competition. But what you've tried to describe as indirect competition - competing against others 'once removed' doesn't apply to your earlier claims:

"ALL single-player games, and even puzzles, are, by their nature, INDIRECTLY competitive activities."

It just seems like you're trying to stretch the definition of 'competition' to include things it doesn't.

I appreciate that you clearly have a strong opinion on this matter but you frequently make completely untenable statements, eg.

"There are a handful of simple games which EVERY other game in existence is derived from"

To make this claim, or even your basic claim that all games are necessarily competitive, requires omniscience. And I don't think anyone's going to buy that, no matter how many words you capitalise for emphasis.

Competition is a component of many games, yes, but take a look at the wikipedia entry for 'game'. You'll notice that 'competition' is not included as a key component, i.e. most people would not agree with you on this.

Darren Tomlyn
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Nope - just FYI, I already have looked at the term 'indirect competition' before - again, the problem even those have is the mistake of confusing an APPLICATION of competition, for competition itself!

The wikipedia entry for game, as-well as a few other words, is NOT fully consistent with how the word is used! (Again, it suffers from the same problem as everything else in this matter).

I have already given you a definition of compete that IS fully consistent with how the word is used:

The act/behaviour/process of trying to gain an outcome, (goal), at the expense of, or in spite of, someone/something else (usually involving animate if not living entities) (if you wish to be more precise).

The terms direct and indirect, then, according to such a definition, HAVE to refer to the relationship between competitors!

This is EXACTLY how I've been using it. Every other use of the term is also consistent with that, only generally limited by a certain applications of competition, rather than just applying to the act of competing itself. Again, recognising and understanding the difference between what a word represents in its use, and an APPLICATION of such a representation is PARAMOUNT for understanding the English language in general.

Of course, the BIGGEST problem in recognising the type of competition offered by a game, is to fully recognise and understand WHO the competitors ARE in the first place!

Game MUST refer to structured competitive activities, since without such a description, it would simply be FAR too general compared to how it is used. Nearly all of our lives are spent in a structured environment of some kind, and so the term game, would then need to be used for EVERY activity within such a state, in order to require such a definition. But it is NOT. As soon as the presence of competition is added, of ANY NATURE, however, such a description then becomes consistent with how the word is used in general, save for certain uses where people have simply misunderstood and mistaken what the word represents in the first place - (a puzzle is not, nor can ever BE a game, for example, though may be interleaved with one at its expense).

Just because PEOPLE fail to recognise and understand the presence and role of indirect competition, does not mean humanity as a whole also does!

Humanity as a whole has generally been very consistent with how it uses all these words. Unfortunately, PEOPLE, because of the way they perceive the language, are, at this time, unfortunately NOT.

One of the main reasons for the recent problems, is that certain people are now in a position of influence, especially for games, where they can decide for others what is, and is not, a game, irrespective of what humanity itself already thinks. Unfortunately, such people generally have no real understanding of what the words must, and do, already represent as far as humanity itself is concerned, based on how they are, and have been used for centuries, so hence the reason for the growth in such problems today.

For instance - Just because something is on a computer, does NOT make it a game - if something is considered a puzzle or competition outside of computers, then it should still be considered a puzzle or competition when on a computer too. Of course, when people have no real understanding of what puzzles, competitions and games ARE, be it in isolation, or, even better, in RELATION to each other, such problems are really to be expected.

As I said, if you can find consistent evidence of the use of the word game, (without people being mistaken/misunderstanding the word itself- (Sudoku is considered a puzzle, not a game, and so calling it a puzzle game, just because it's on a computer is inconsistent for example, likewise interactive fiction/choose-your-own-adventure style stories etc.)), to represent an activity that is NOT competitive, then I would really like to see it! (And I mean that, since I haven't managed to find one myself yet - and I HAVE been looking, and all those I have seen are due to modern mistakes and misunderstandings as I have described).

As I said, considering that even PUZZLES can be seen as being indirectly competitive activities - (trying to gain an outcome, (a solution), in spite of its creator(s)) - trying to find any game which would NOT be competitive is probably impossible.

Of course, there ARE activities currently called games for OTHER reasons, sometimes precisely BECAUSE such a label would not be consistent, and therefore inaccurate! Most activities found in casinos for example, are NOT games at all, based on other events and activities that are found elsewhere, but are LABELLED as games by casinos to try and lull people into a false sense of power over their own destiny in such an activity. For example, I've already ran into people on this very site who consider roulette to be a game - and yet, activities and events with the same mechanics everywhere else are called LOTTERIES, and are considered to be competitions, not games!

BECAUSE people have no real consistent idea of what games, puzzles and competitions ARE, especially in relation to each other, they can be taken advantage of!

The real question, is WHY these problems happen to exist - which is one I can answer, just not now!

Bart Stewart
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While I find the 1930s-era study interesting, I'm put off by what seems to be an assumed norm: that solitary play is juvenile and social play is mature. If that proposition doesn't come across as questionable on its face, a brief experience in any MMORPG or multiplayer FPS should be enough to debunk it.

Instead, I think "the more sophisticated the organism, the more sophisticated the play" is a much superior way of understanding play styles from a cognitive development standpoint. Still, even that ought to be questioned -- is a person who prefers simple games to be considered less mature than someone who naturally prefers games as complex systems?

For that matter, what qualities determine the "sophistication" of any particular game?

Dave Endresak
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@ Nick and Darren:

Games are not inherently competitive, not even indirectly. Johan Huizinga (Homo Ludens, 1938) did not realize this simple fact. Or, to be more precise, he realized it, but simply discounted other forms of play that are not competitive. Nor is it true that the majority of games are competitive, directly or indirectly. Just as some examples to illustrate the point, the huge volume of Japanese (solo play) adventure games, visual novel games, and simulation games are not at all competitive. They are about experiencing a story, and that's all. The argument that Darren advances is one of ludology over narratology, but that has been soundly debunked simply by the actual game market (as long as the entire global market is considered, of course, and the statement is being made as a broad generality for all games, after all).

Also, folks, no scholar cites Wikipedia or other non-academic sources. If a person claiming to be a scholar does such a thing, other scholars basically ignore the person and discount any "research" they offer. Of course, there are plenty of mistakes and misleading statements in peer-reviewed research, too, but responsible researchers use accepted academic research sources and methods to conduct and support their research and its results.

Finally, play is not the opposite of work. In this regard, Huizinga had things pretty much correct. All forms of human activity are play. However, that does not mean that people generally classify various activities as play. Instead, people change the meaning of certain activities due to various factors such as an activity becoming a formal pursuit of some kind. Still, there is a saying, "life is just a game." This is true. Maturation of a human being is simply learning the rules of the game and how to play it, and the concept of "culture" is simply another idea of playing at life.

Oh... and despite claims about biological determinism, modern theories stress the importance of enviroment and social construction of roles that people play. It's pretty much a copout for biological determinists (or evolutionary determinists, whichever term we might prefer to use) to claim there is a "correlation" between genes and later personal development. Correlation means naught; correlation doesn't equal causation. Sure, it can spark further investigation into possible causes, but the causes can be a huge complex of other (environmental) factors that have nothing to do with genes.

Since Nick mentioned being a psychologist, I can mention that I am currently pursuing my PhD in Technology with a concentration on technology studies, particularly feminine elements in games and the social impacts of games on our global culture.

Darren Tomlyn
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No - you see - here is the PROBLEM. Interactive story-telling is not considered a game - it's a PUZZLE in every other FORM - OUTSIDE of a computer, and therefore must be considered a puzzle UPON a computer as-well, or there is NO consistency and such words lose their meaning - (which is happening, unfortunately, and it is BAD).

Simulation games CAN be competitive if that is what people see within such an activity - competing against the rules and structure of the program itself, (and therefore, indirectly, the people who created it), to achieve whatever aim they have, in a SUBJECTIVE manner - a SUBJECTIVE APPLICATION of a (hopefully objective) definition!

There are many games out there that I do not, myself, consider to be games at ALL, but other people DO, because they SEE a challenge, and competition within, where I do not (like The Sims for example) - that is FINE - that is EXACTLY HOW the ENGLISH LANGUAGE is SUPPOSED TO WORK.

As I said - the matter of puzzles = games, which is a big problem at this time has become a very MODERN problem, and has only happened precisely BECAUSE PEOPLE do not fully understand the difference and relationship between what these two words must represent based on how they are used INDEPENDENTLY of COMPUTERS, and computer programs, and therefore fail to understand how they should be applied to computer programs too!

Based on how the words are USED, work and play, as nouns, ARE considered to be opposites - representing activities that are either productive or non-productive respectively, and therefore represent a firm dichotomy - something cannot be both, simultaneously, (from a single perspective and opinion).

'Life is just a game' might be a saying, but it is simply NOT borne out by how such words are USED in general - people do not use the the word game to describe their everyday life or actions within, only referring to specific activities or an occasional referral to a non-productive activity ('it's all a game to him/her etc.'). But such a referral has nothing to do with the use of the word game in general, and is therefore merely an additional definition limited to precisely that phrase.

EDIT: I want to flesh this part out because a few people have had problems with it. The saying/phrase that 'life is (nothing) but/just a game', is similar to the one in Shakespeare - 'All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players etc.'. Just as this phrase does not determine the definition of stage/life/a play/art in general etc., neither does the phrase for games. It is merely a subjective application of what the word game must represent in its general, applicable USE. Of course, the use of the word in such a phrase is intended to imply a non-productive application, i.e. play, rather than work, but, as I said, it's a subjective application, not its definition, which is based on far more than just this one phrase.

Both of these phrases, however, have the same function - to subjectively apply something that man has created - art/games etc. - upon the one thing we have NOT - the universe itself, maybe to try and imply and represent some power and control over our own destiny and behaviour, and even to treat the universe itself in an anthropomorphic way.

In other words, it's a metaphor...

Games have been proven to be played (verb!) for both work AND play (noun). (Just like I can play (verb) music for work or play (noun) too). For words such as these there is therefore a disconnection between play as a verb and play as a noun...

Because of that - there is a large difference between play, and games, which unfortunately, is not being recognised consistently at this time, and is also part of the problem.

ALL of this, is simply a matter of LINGUISTICS, and has its roots in a single, basic problem within the English language...