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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 Previous Page 2 of 3 Next
 

Social through Presence

Asynchronicity and parallel play have consequences for how fellow players' presence is experienced. In studies of mediated communication, a recurring research question concerns how our experience of social presence changes when communication shifts from immediate physical proximity to communication across distance.

Lack of nonverbal cues, such as facial expressions and eye contact, lessen the sensory impact of the communication situation. On the other hand, these constraints make communication leaner, which can also accelerate the number of messages exchanged.

As a result of studying this area, scholars have introduced the term "social presence". It conceptualizes the salience of others when communicating across distance, and the salience of interacting with them in said situations. Social presence has been defined as the degree of person-to-person awareness that occurs in a mediated environment.

Immediacy is a quality that social presence relies upon -- and it is strikingly apparent that asynchronous communication is less immediate than one taking place in real time.

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.

Without the prefix, "presence" is another theoretical concept researchers have been using to explain how people experience immersion and immediacy in virtual environments. Presence in this context has been described as a psychological state where the virtuality of experience becomes unnoticed.

In a highly social game of any kind, then, the virtuality or mediated nature of social exchanges should become unnoticed; they should be experienced as an organic aspect of gameplay. Or, the social exchanges should become so intense that they become increasingly memorable, as that is what tends to happen to emotionally salient experiences.

Neither seems to be overwhelmingly the case with social games at present. In many cases, social presence of others is introduced via distraction, such as a pop-up reminder for sending gifts, inviting more friends, etc. The smarter viral mechanics strive for such organic relationship, but in general, returning to spoiled crops -- again -- hardly counts as a uniquely memorable moment.

Then again, it is tempting to jump into such conclusions without proper sample of data from the millions of social game players out there: this is something that quantitative metrics do not tell you. Perhaps the weak but ambient social presence of other players is fitting for gameplay in a network where the primary function is to socially interact despite games rather than because of them.

Social Graph is Social Capital

Facebook has largely come to own "social graph" as a term that refers to people's relations within a network and how they can be globally mapped. The social graph visualizes and aggregates social relations one has in the context of a particular network platform.

The social graph implies that it brings additional value to using a social application or site, as it draws information from your social network. Social graphs are made out of information and identities, and it is up for the application to instantiate specific means of social exchange between you and your social graph.

The assumption is that leveraging the social graph will enrich your experience of the application. Social games start from the same presumption by laying your social graph out at your fingertips, readily available for game invitation requests, neighboring, competition, etc.

For understanding the role and substance of social ties embedded into the social graph, the concept of "social capital" is useful. Social capital is the intangible value of one's social network. The value to be gained from social capital does not lie in the individual but in the structure of her relationships and how they can be leveraged.

Theorists have identified two kinds of social capital: of the bridging type and of the bonding type. The first refers to weak ties which privilege exchange of information or new avenues of thought. The second refers to a more tightly knit web of emotionally close relationships. Whereas a friend leaderboard in a social game would represent an example of a social object that has a bridging function, a photo gallery from a social event full of tagged individuals would count for bonding.

MMOs, with their guilds, raids, and persistent demand of commitment (including peer pressure) foster the emergence of bonding type of social capital. Conversely, it would seem that social games in Facebook are typically low maintenance: any social capital that emerges is bridging in nature. It is there for viral purposes, such as for asking parts for collectables in the Facebook stream, but it rarely manifests concretely within the application and the gameplay there.

This observation is in line with the criticism of social games instrumentalizing relationships to the status of mere tokens with which to advance in the game -- yet this kind of design gesture can just as easily seen from a more positive perspective: complex social relationships are "stylized" for the sake of fun without the baggage the relations would carry if they were applied into the game in all their complexity.

Yet there is the emergence of an "Add me" culture in Facebook, where people are willing to extend their social graph to perfect strangers in order to include them as partners in the game. This phenomenon, even if exclusive to "hardcore" social game players, is highlighting how social graphs are transforming into interest graphs, which are centered around common interests and relations -- rather than relationships -- between enthusiasts.


Each post from the developers of popular social games is followed by a legion of 'add me' requests.

I'll conclude by translating the above observations into terms of customer relationship management: 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.


Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

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