Soapbox: Devouring the Social Game Buffet – Why We Play

Sat, Apr 24, 2010

Facebook, Features, Social

Pondering the psychology behind social gaming usually starts with personal experience.

Does this sound familiar? I don’t even want to look at my to-do list some days, much less tackle it. So why is it that I look forward to a virtual to-do list of serving up dinners, harvesting crops and digging for treasures on Facebook each day?

Looking back on some of the things I said (and didn’t say) in “Why do we play social games?” I can’t seem to let it go… My degree is in psychology. I live, work and basically breathe social games, social media and the video game industry. Yet, for the life of me, I can’t explain it.

Most of the Facebook games I play are straight-up simulators of real world activities that I have no interest whatsoever in doing. What is so enticing about the Facebook gaming platform that makes me want to perform mindless point-to-click tasks several times a day, just to maintain my virtual game world full of cafes, farms, islands, pets, gangs and big cities? I assure you there are dozens of other things I could do with all those minutes of my life.

If you think this is a cheap stab at social game developers, think again – in fact, Facebook game developers are obviously privy to knowledge the rest of us aren’t, because for such unexplainable phenomena, social gaming business models and loyalty rates are through the roof. They’re smart, savvy and quick-to-action. Every industry should be so lucky.  I’m just searching for answers behind the psychology of social gaming, and it only makes sense to share.

I’ve conjured up some philosophical theories about social gamers. Some have been tossed around before, some have psychological backing, and some simply come from personal experience. In the end, it’s probably a combination of all of these and more:

* Reality check – We play social games because we can do things we’d never do in real life. We can barely scratch the surface of our real life to-do list – seems like there are never enough hours in the day. But in a few short minutes, we can virtually harvest acres worth of crops, redecorate a 9-bedroom home, build an elaborate city park, and cook up 10 new delicious dishes to serve to hungry customers. We are in charge, and we have the ability to complete big tasks and achieve big goals, with little effort invested.

* Gold star syndrome - We earn points and level up for almost every action we take in a social game. Our friends pitch in and help us earn special prizes and rewards to redeem in-game and showcase to our worldwide web of Facebook friends. When does that happen in real life? We don’t typically earn money for doing chores in the real world. There are no levels and no scoreboards to top. Social games feed into childhood ideas of reward and motivation – aka, gold star syndrome.

* Bragging rights – “If a tree falls in the forest and no one’s around to hear it…” When we earn a new high score that breaks personal and network-wide records, we want someone else to acknowledge how hard it was to score that many points in a 1-minute round of match-3. Or once we’ve built the best farm or city on Facebook, we want to share it with our friends and show them how creative, funny or crazy we can be. It’s not nearly as much fun to score 400k+ in Bejeweled Blitz if we can’t brag to our friends about it (and have a shared scoreboard to keep us honest).

* Calgon, take me away - It’s an escape. Social games give us a quick getaway from real life. The formula has been proven millions of times over by companies like Zynga and Playfish: Give us something fun and interesting to look at and strive for, spruced up with some inconspicuously catchy tune that repeats on loop. Constantly give us new items to decorate our virtual spaces in ways we couldn’t afford or physically do in real life. Get our minds off of our worries, and let us rule our own world for a few minutes. That’s all it takes to reel in happily hooked players. Playing social games can even help us refocus and think more creatively.

It seems the only gameplay elements (motivators, if you will) missing from social games are challenge and chance. Are players hungry for more? Let that soak in and then check back tomorrow for my regularly scheduled Sunday Soapbox, where I’ll try to take social gaming to new heights via opinion.

Meanwhile, what do you think? Have I left out something obvious that drives us to play social games (and spend real money in them), or have I gone off the deep-end entirely with the list above? Why do you think we play social games?

Brain image courtesy of Flickr, Dierk Schaefer. Collage by Frisky Mongoose.

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Related posts:

  1. Sunday Soapbox: Why Do We Play Social Games?
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  3. Sunday Soapbox: Hungry for More Challenge and Chance in Social Games
  4. Sunday Soapbox: Pop-Up Edition
  5. Opinion: Where’s My Meta Social Game?
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  • http://AzamKhan Azam Khan

    Great post. I'd like to make some comments.

    - allows new audiences to enjoy a gaming community atmosphere
    I think what's great to know is that people can login in a 'familiar' environment and play around. People poking around facebook find more interesting things to do. It's kind of like a kid who goes to a summer house with his family and is too young to drive or go anywhere and looks around the house for interesting things to do. Who wouldn't get excited from finding a secret hallway or something that creates imaginative experiences and fun emotions?

    - do things we can't in reality
    Exactly the same reason people love to watch Entourage and The Sopranos. How else do you get to see upclose of what stardom tastes like or the look on a man's face after he buries a body? BirdLand is a new game in which you can take care of birds, without worrying about the annoyances of cleaning the bird cage or chasing escaped birds.

    Feedback is critical. Asides from the fact people love to collect things, progress in levels and grind, and do fun social exchanges, feedback keeps people in the know that they are getting somewhere, and being rewarded. Asian gaming companies are great as they provide ample sound and visual responses to condition people. This is also an important area for monetization-tie-ins. How well you exploit this area can increase your ARPUs. Even for chance based games, the illusion of control gives people essentially that illusion, that they are influencing the outcome somehow even though they aren't (i.e. solitaire)

    -Bragging Rights
    I personally love to share my high typing score, score on word challenge and so on. This is especially strong for 1on1 tie-ins as you beat others scores that you have strong real life connections to.

    Totally. Customization and the ability to play around and explore things without consequences is essential.

    All in all there are many reasons people play and will get used to these games, hence causing the social gaming industry to create better quality titles, yet the ethical dilemma of the games remains unresolved.


  • Kate Hancock

    Thanks very much – for reading, and for the thoughtful feedback! All good
    points, especially familiarity and customization options, which I didn't
    touch on as much in this post as ones prior. I definitely agree that poking
    around Facebook feels safer and (obviously) much simple than trying to find
    cool games and apps on the Web at large. Facebook is breaking down barriers
    for people who'd never have considered playing online games before, and that
    makes me smile :)

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