What is so social about Games?
The Social Dynamics of Gaming
In a broad sense, social games can be defined as “online games that adapt your online friendship ties for play purposes, while accommodating your daily routines” – says game researcher Järvinen. hat is the academic world, but what does this mean for us! There are two noteworthy facts related with this definition: First, it clearly describes the distribution via online private networking mechanisms. Second, it points out that the gameplay is embedded in the daily habits of users. That is why most social games are embedded in social networks - making use of the networks not only in terms of viral distribution but also by using the real-life identities of the players. Narrower definitions define social games as online games that are designed for a multiplayer purpose and feature asynchronous gameplay mechanics.
However, social games also have changed the dynamics of social networks like Facebook. Before social games have been introduced on Facebook, most of the content within the network was actually based on experiences that were generated outside Facebook. Social games have changed that because they now provide experiences that are generated inside the virtual community. This has converted Facebook into a place where social experiences actually take place. Therefore, it is reasonable to say that social games can be defined as games that are played and marketed on social networks like Facebook. The close linkage to social networks is also the reason why most of the social games can be characterized by their cooperative playing style.
Moreover, social games challenged the established business models of digital games by successfully implementing freemium business models with high profitability and enormous scalability potential. While the basic access to these games is free, the users have to enhance their game status by in-game purchases of virtual items and services. The implementation of micro-payment systems and virtual item selling support the viral distribution of these games because players are incentivized to recommend the game within their peer group (e.g. among their Facebook friends). The mechanisms of online social games are optimized for monetization, virality and user retention. Therefore, providers of such games adapt the game mechanics based on feedback data such as server logs and user behavior metrics on a very regular basis. Designers of social games deliberately make use of the psychological principle of social proof in order to virally distribute the message. Especially the social graph on Facebook, the so-called “the global mapping of everybody and how they’re related” is an excellent example of how social data is used to optimize distribution of such games.
However, the description of social games as “social” falls short because they are in fact not social at all. Almost every social game, especially the most popular ones like Farmville, lacks synchronous interaction between users. In fact, social games are rather “massively single player games” where the interaction is mediated by representative objects (avatars). Social games are seldom using cooperation mechanics and are therefore not known to facilitate social interaction. In this context, it is important to distinguish between the notion of social play (e.g. team cooperation, multiplayer modes) and sociability (e.g. instant messages or chats).
Nevertheless, the analysis of social network games provides valuable insights into the successful implementation of game mechanisms. Social or not, the success of social games shows that game designers manage to integrate these games into the daily habits of their users – very successfully!