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The State of Social in Social Games

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The State of Social in Social Games

October 19, 2010 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

[Digital Chocolate's lead social designer Aki Järvinen analyzes the current state of social exchanges in Facebook games. He introduces concepts such as social presence, social graph, and social space to explain the kind of social interactions these games embrace, and fail to embrace. The feature presents work in progress from a book Järvinen is writing.]

Is Social Broken?

Signals from the field seem to indicate that the "social" in social games is broken. For example, a GDC 2010 presentation Daniel James from online and social games developer Three Rings described the sociality of social games as something that equals passing notes under the door of a friend, instead of knocking on the door. Social games mainly work as distractions rather than playful social interactions.

Other developers have gone to the length of accusing social games for "hating" socialization, and in his critique of social games, Ian Bogost sees social games merely instrumentalizing social relationships into simple game resources, thus implying that more authentic forms of playful social interaction entail something different altogether.

In the summer 2010 issue of Casual Connect magazine, David Rohrl from Playdom gives away that there are particular elements that make games socially relevant, or more precisely, "make players feel like they're playing with their friends (even when they're not)" -- the final part is significant, as it implies that social game developers are practically in the craft of creating sets of smoke and mirror tricks in order to create illusions of social exchanges where there truly are none.

The story continues on the players' side as well. According to findings in the SoPlay research project, players mainly consider social games as single player games, which, despite putting their friends on display on the game, is "not the same" when compared to their conception of multiplayer games. It seems that players have hard time articulating what they are doing when they are interacting with their friends via a game on Facebook, even if the games are supposedly built on the premise of being social.

These observations seem to signal that designing social games means moving from designing social interactions to designing social distractions. Yet social games thrive on social networking platforms for a reason. Should their sociality, then, be judged with the criteria of social context and how it contributes to the social experience, instead of evaluating the social in gameplay? I will explore this starting from the broader contexts of social networks and online communication before moving on to studying particular games and their social design.

Social is Communication

Social media and network theorists have emphasized the fundamental role of communication in social networks. No relationship is possible without communication, and the more there is relevant and mutually satisfactory communication, the more intimate the relationship. Therefore also in games the social has to be built on the available means of communication and the social exchanges it breeds.

In case of social games, Facebook provides the social substrate with its communication channels. Simultaneously, as the de facto platform for social games Facebook molds their sociality to its constraints. Yet games work as independent applications on the platform, and developers can take theirs beyond the platform constraints by implementing additional means of communication into the game.

While doing so, however, they begin demanding more from the users. More complex or different ways of social interaction than the ones provided by the platform itself might consequently reduce the games' accessible and spontaneous nature that powers the social exchanges.

An even more constraining factor spurs from something implied in the above, i.e. that Facebook use in its widely adopted form apparently rules out demanding players to access a specific application or site at a particular, shared time. This is the key difference of social, and to an extent of casual games, when compared to video games. Social games try to facilitate players' daily routines rather than the other way around: players do not need to reserve a specific time slot from their daily lives in order to play at all.

To circumvent these constraints and still be able to facilitate social play, social game developers have promoted asynchronous communication as the dominant form of social exchanges in their games, essentially following and constantly adapting the core communication functionalities of the platform. The resulting types of play have been described with terminology from studies of children's play: "parallel play" -- i.e. playing independently beside others but checking the others' progress from time to time.

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Ian Bogost
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Good article Aki. I wonder if you might expand on this tidbit (about social graph/feed culture)

"complex social relationships are 'stylized' for the sake of fun"

Aki Jarvinen
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Ian, it's basically my counter-argument to one of your criticism of social games in the sense that rather than 'instrumentalizing' social relations, these games make caricatures out of social relations in order to simultaneously connect the gameplay to your friends and then disconnect it from any broader history or baggage of those relations. 'Stylize', 'tokenize', take your pick.

Maureen Nappi
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Hi Aki,

I appreciate your articulation of terms + their respective --and sometimes--contradictory ig [in game] and oog -[out of game] associations -- as in the last of McLuhan's Four Laws of Media - Reversal.

I did though find your association of "parallel play" and asynchronicity somewhat problematic. Since parallel play occurs when two or more children, or adults are together, usually in the same space, and at the same time, and are side-by-side or in parallel, engaged in her or his singular activity, yet feels the parallel companionship of a mirrored activity being performed by her or his play-mate. Whereas, asynchronicity, is by definition, not parallel but asynchronic.] Can you discuss?? Doesn't your release of simultaneous temporal activity of players, by definition, unparallel? Best, DrMo

Raph Koster
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"the casual nature of bridging type of social relations might drive acquisition, and engagement to an extent, but it is not optimal for retention -- for that, designs for bonding in social games are needed."

I find this interesting, because in MMORPGs, we have been talking about the need to support weaker ties for a long time. MMOs are so driven by the bonding ties that it proves to be a significant acquisition barrier (and retention barrier, should users fail to find or form any such ties).

Aki Jarvinen
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Raph, yes I believe it's definitely about finding a sweet spot between lowering the barrier of entry, with the promise of social value, and at the same time implying a burden of dedication in terms of time (and possibly money).

Thanks for sharing your GDC Online slides, btw!

John Currie
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Thanks for the great article! I'm interested in how this article fits in with the plan for a full length book - Is this a summary of the work in-whole, or one topic from many?

Aki Jarvinen
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Thanks, John - it is supposed to be one topic among many, even if the 'many' makes concrete progress on the book constantly harder...

Vin St John
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I found the point about role differentiation very interesting. In my opinion, this is what keeps most social games from producing content that goes truly "viral" - because most user experiences are relatively similar, no one is producing content that will spread wildly. Halo and LittleBigPlanet don't incentivize users to post match videos or levels (to my knowledge) and yet these games have truly interesting, unique content generation systems that players want to share and that have the potential to go viral. The virality of this content serves to advertise the game or drive repeat plays, but it doesn't link back with the gameplay at all. Is it possible, I wonder, for a game to combine this kind of truly unique, interesting viral content with a "social" gameplay loop like those employed in FrontierVille?

Lucas North
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Great Article. I think one of the reasons developers didn't go for real-time games is the complexity of running and scaling such servers.

The only real 'real-time' games on facebook are poker and bingo games (zynga, playdom, mytopia, etc...)

I think the current generation of games will soon be gone, and games will become more realtime. On a social network, it's the only real way to allow communication.

John Trauger
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I think this article over-analyzes this first generation of social games. It's good theory that could guide building a good social game, however.

"Clearly, social games in Facebook have had a weak impact in terms of social presence: they resemble the act of slipping the message under the door instead of knocking on it. Immediacy does not belong to the vocabulary of social games."

It's actually more like finding one's mailbox stuffed with spam sent from a friend's return address. People react accordingly.

Note that social games abuse every social channel they're allowed into. These games are all about being seen in hopes that that somewhere someone will get curious and click the link. So they MUST spam the player's Facebook environment to survive and prosper.

I'll be curious to see if the second generation of social games evolves above this fast-food approach to gaming.

Aki Jarvinen
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John, your comment implies the frequent hope of social games evolving beyond 'fast food', disposability - essentially to being games as we (used to) know them, whereas one of my points towards the end is that perhaps this is a different paradigm, we should expect incremental evolution at best, and not necessarily evaluate social games with the criteria we game developers and gamers are used to.

And yeah, over-analysis, that's my special ability.

John Trauger
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Hey, I dig over-analysis. :)

One thing I notice about articles here on social games is the author either talks up the good points and gives cursory or no treatment to the issues or talks up the issues and gives cursory treatment to the good points. I'd love some balance.

It's important to acknowledge that these games can be and are exploitative in order to define what *isn't* exploitative. You are outlining a player experience that is something more than a simplistic cattle-call airbrushed to give mass appeal, ending up as empty calories. I like that. But it's also useful to acknowledge that "fast-food" is the general state of social games today. Social gaming comes into its own when games appear that have more going for them than metrics-driven casual gameplay.

I think there's a lot of useful wisdom for social games to mine in looking back to BBS games like VGA Planets and Trade Wars. These game were often run on BBS systems that only had one connection, so asynchronous multiplayer play was a fact of life, yet social games seem fascinated by mass-appeal generality, which is not to the genre's credit.

Abel Bascunana Pons
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Hey Aki, please let me link to an article i wrote this february about the topic. It's by far not as extense, in-depth and accurate as yours, but i drew some identical conclusions... i admit i was a bit ironic with the use of "social" here, the same way any application in the 90's was considered "Multimedia" for having animations and sound...

Thanks for your article, there's many stuff condensed here that is worth another reading.

Bonnie Nadri
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This is an interesting read to me for several reasons:

There seems to be an assumption that social network ties are, by definition, both strong and definitively friendships; but most social network ties are more likely to be acquaintances (which would more readily imply a level of weakness and fluidity). This fluidity and weak tie makes "passing notes" less risky, easier, and perhaps even more fun. (Minimal requirements of maintaining positive acquaintance and sharing an activity, maintaining a low level of committment and active responsibility; the perfect and ultimate "casual" entertainment.)

As Abel mentions, just because there are groups of people doing something doesn't make that something "social"; the example of the "solo" MMO player seems fitting. When playing these "social" games, one is either loosely affiliated with others (usually to obtain access to content; the parallel to the MMO remains), or are actively recruiting/using others to reach achievements that require proselytizing (hardly what one would consider a normal, usual, or even ethical tactic in friendship, but which is generally accepted within the boundaries of weaker ties like 'acquaintance'; again, the MMO parallel remains aligned).

The "thing" missing in these "social" games is the same thing missing from any MMO and most social networks -- support for differentiation and stratification between the acquaintance and the friend. True social status; with its own reputation system, indicators, and rewards. (The "Circle of Trust" application in Facebook is the only thing I have ever seen that even remotely attempts to address this in a "game" format, even as, obviously, it is no game when your actual FRIENDS are involved, is it?)

The pattern for most games is either an embrace of the Red Queen (infinite progress toward an unwinnable goal) or nested/progressive/linear layers of this same thing to make things more "interesting" or "important". But that's the funny part about complexity, it rarely indicates something is more interesting or important as much as it is tediously difficult or time-consuming. The lack of the social dynamic renders that complexity sterile.

In my opinion, the real key to make truly social games is to incorporate known mechanics of social stratification and status AND to grant them the same meaning and level of reward as given to combat, leveling, and invested time. This also means loosening one's grip upon the security blanket of recurring mandates for access (be they regular play, monthly subscriptions, or [insert item here]).

F2P and subsidized games and the results they've found seem to indicate quite consistently that this is far from the risk it was once considered and the recent NPD studies indicate quite clearly that this is a known path of both acquisition of new gamers and cross-pollination into all platforms and genres. (1)


(1) Klots, M. (2010, July). Are Social Networks creating new gamers?. Video Games Special Feature and Monthly Summary, The NPD Group.

Vin St John
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"In my opinion, the real key to make truly social games is to incorporate known mechanics of social stratification and status AND to grant them the same meaning and level of reward as given to combat, leveling, and invested time."

While I suspect this isn't what you mean, it sounds like you're supporting the sort of spammy, 'gaming of the network' exploits that are usually a focal point of the criticism of social games. For instance - a known mechanic of social stratification and status is having more friends, so people tend to amass meaningless relationships and connections. Could you clarify what you mean? I'm sure there's a good point there I'm just not understanding what it is.

Bonnie Nadri
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A clear distinction and related motivators for people to distinguish and cement the boundary between acquaintances and friends; yes, precisely the opposite of what you think you're reading.

In such an environment, it is not "enough" to "have a lot of friends" (the MySpace/Facebook effect). Consider it a similar type of ranking/relationship as say, Google's page ranking or determination of relevancy between mutual linking partners. (Perhaps not the most refined analogy, but the pattern/shape of it is contained.)

People game the system because the system is built in a manner that makes it easy and does not actively disincent them from doing so. This... this is the place at which lives the lack of which I speak.

Consider the real world and our various personal, professional, and hobby circles. Consider how and why we readily affiliate ourselves with some, less so with others, and not at all with still others. The elements that drive THAT level of social discrimination is what's missing.

Alan Jack
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This is really interesting!

I actually had a similar theory in regards to parallel vs genuinely multi-user play that you can see in my blog.

I don't think the limiting of social interactions is restricted to social games, and that's a big problem. The issues are easier to see when games are built on top of a social network and fail to properly engage players with one another - but games which attempt to use their own social tools (say, Modern Warfare 2) fail even worse in trying to engage players with one another.

I'd even argue that MMOs - while they *rely* on deeper and more memorable social interactions, they don't support these all that well. You are required to team up with other players, but the experiences you have are still essentially singular, and the deepest interactions come in discussing the events both before and after.

Inter-player interaction in gaming represents, to me, one of the least explored frontiers of video games, and those looking into it are likely to be the ones producing some of the most exciting and memorable experiences in the coming years!

Luis Guimaraes
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Unless it's local multiplayer...

Yvette Wohn
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The effect of presence may be stronger than you think! My most recent research tried to isolate the effect of reciprocity on bonding social capital in an experimental setting and I found that presence is an extremely strong mediator (i.e., reciprocity increases presence, which increases bonding social capital).