So-Called Social Games

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[The following text is part of my upcoming master’s thesis on the use of game mechanics in therapy games for children. This is just a rough first draft, and I gladly welcome all critique and suggestions – be it on a content level or regarding my use of language.

After having analysed some of the most-played Facebook games in previous instalments of this series (Candy Crush Saga, FarmVille 2, Puzzle Bobble Clones, Diamond Dash and Pet Rescue Saga), this final chapter looks at what is so “social” about these “social games” – if at all.]

It is a common assumption that games that are part of the Facebook platform are inherently more “social” than other games, since that platform offers the possibility to developers to tap into the social graph. They are thought to “encourage social interaction among players”, resulting in them being called “social games” (Chen, Shen, & Ma, 2012, p. 467). A thorough analysis of Facebook’s most-played games (in spring 2012 these would be Candy Crush Saga (King, n. d.), FarmVille 2 (Zynga, 2012), Pet Rescue Saga (“Pet Rescue Saga,” 2012), Diamond Dash (Wooga, 2011) (according to “Facebook Apps Leaderboard - AppData,” 2013)) shows however that many of those “social” elements are not that new. Other “social” mechanics are purely for monetisation purposes and have little relevance to the actual game play. In the end, the repertoire of social game mechanics in the games analysed is rather limited, likely also because Facebook offers no real multiplayer functionality, but is limited to asynchronous play.

Probably the most common “social” element in Facebook games are leader boards. It is an excellent way to egg on more competitive players. Most games (analysed) offer a way to compare yourself with your Facebook friends that play the same game. By limiting the leader board to people the player personally knows, it becomes more relevant, more personal and manageable, as opposed to global leader boards, where the player is just one line amongst thousands of other undecipherable nicknames. Candy Crush Saga (and other King “Saga” games like King, 2011; n. d.) has probably one of the most thorough implementations of leader boards throughout the game. On the level map, the thumbnails of Facebook friends are shown beside the last level they played. When starting a level, a leader board is shown showing the scores of all Facebook friends that played the same level. During gameplay, their thumbnails are shown again beside a visual representation of the score, giving the player an idea when she surpasses her friends. After finishing a level, they leader board for the level is shown again, this time with the player’s score inserted. Additionally, another pop-up window shows any changes in the ladder whenever the player surpassed any of her friends. As such, the leader board is visible at all stages of the game, spurring competition. Diamond Dash (Wooga, 2011) and other Wooga games (i. e. Wooga, 2010) use the form of a weekly tournament. The player has to play at least once a week in order to stay on top of the leader board and receive “crowns”, which count how many time a player has been placed in the top three of the weekly leader board. Even games that are seemingly less competitive, like FarmVille 2 (Zynga, 2012) have leader boards – FarmVille 2 in the form of a bar at the bottom of the screen that lists the player’s FarmVille friends (or neighbours), all with their respective levels visible. While more subtle in their approach than Candy Crush Saga, the goal is the same: give the player an idea how he fares compared to his friends, and giving him motivation to continue playing and improving on his score (or, in the case of FarmVille, his level). Leader boards are an often requested feature in therapy games – often by (highly competitive) patients themselves. So far, designers have refrained from implementing them. Since the patients are sometimes on significantly different ability levels, having them compete against each other (which is what happens with a leader board) would hardly be fair, and possibly demotivating for some patients.

Another social mechanic used in the games analysed is not about collecting points but other, more concrete (yet still virtual) objects – and showing them off to your friends. Collecting objects, as many and as rare as possible, is a common pastime, not just for people playing on Facebook. Especially FarmVille 2 (Zynga, 2012) makes use of that by giving players the possibility to buy decorative objects with the coins they gain while playing the game and placing these objects on their farm. Since the farm can be visited by other players, these objects can be proudly displayed and can serve as a way to gain prestige.1 Achievements function similarly, but as the Facebook games analysed don’t use them2, this mechanic will be looked at later. While the act of collecting objects in and of itself is not necessarily a social act (imagine stamp collectors), it becomes one as soon as the infrastructure to easily compare the players’ collections is available.

The third mechanic we have encountered in the analysed games that taps into the social graph are road blocks. The players are being blocked from continuing to play and are given a choice: either they pay actual money or they get their friends to play as well. This can happen through different ways. Farmville 2 (Zynga, 2012) does it by requiring that certain upgrades only function when the player asks other people to “help” him. Without this help, the upgrade is not functional. Candy Crush Saga (King, n. d.) demands that the player collects three “tickets” from his Facebook friends in order to advance to the next set of levels. Bubble Safari (Turmell, 2012) does the same. In all of those cases, these roadblocks can be circumvented by paying real money. This mechanic might seem counterintuitive at first: why would game designers want to keep the players from playing their game? However, this game mechanic is part of the business model of Facebook games that works similar to spam mail. Like spam, the majority of users will never bite and pay. Only a small minority actually spends money on the game (in the case of Zynga, only 2.5% of the players paid in 2011 (Takahashi, 2011)). But if the overall number of players is high enough, even this small minority might be quite large, and since the game is a digital good, it does not cost a lot to add more players. Facebook games enforce this by adding game mechanics that encourage players to get their friends to play as well. Either these new player belong to the minority that pays, or they become the messenger of the publisher, spamming their friends’ news feeds, in the hope that these will play as well, and pay or recruit even more players: a perfect pyramid scheme3. It is quite obvious that these roadblocks are not a real game mechanic. They could easily be removed, and the game would not feel any different. This “social” feature exists purely for monetisation reasons, as part of the “zynganomics”, as one author on Mashable called the underlying rationale of these game mechanics (Zichermann, 2012).

The last mechanic goes into the same direction as being stopped from playing past a certain point. Many Facebook games require the players to ask their Facebook friends to do them some favour (e. g., give them some object) in order to complete a task. All the friends need to do is to start the game and click the button to “gift” this object to the player who asked for it. In case the players do not want to bother their friends, they are being offered the possibility to pay real money in order to get the objects directly. A less intrusive version goes into the other direction: Other games give players a reward and offer them the possibility to share those rewards with their friends. By sharing those rewards, a message is injected into the newsfeed of their Facebook friends, offering them the reward as long as they click on the link and open the game. The goal of the producers of the game is to get the players to return to the game and play it repeatedly. By having a Facebook user’s friend publishing these gifts and pleas, they get personal as opposed to just an anonymous, automated message reminding the user to play again. The user is much more likely to answer these personal calls. It is worth noting that during this sharing and gifting, value is not exchanged, but created: Players that are asked to give a certain object do not need to have said object in their inventory, they just have to agree to give such an object to their friend. The object is created through the exchange itself. The same goes for “sharing the rewards”: the player does not have to share anything, the system simply generates more resources for other players. These Facebook games (e. g. Zynga, 2012; Playfish, n. d.) only pretend to offer an economy based on exchange. Commonly, this distinction does not matter for actual gameplay.4 This social feature is largely a tool to get players to return to the game and invite other Facebook users to play as well.

These four mechanics together paint an ambiguous picture. Regarding the last two mechanics, they are on one hand clearly exploitative. Forcing players to bother their friends with endless requests has nothing to do with fostering “social” gameplay, but a lot with generating revenue through acquiring more potential cash cows. On the other hand, the knowledge that other people play along with you and the possibility to “help them out” and being helped in return can be an important factor for some people to play these games (Chen, Shen, & Ma, 2012) as these tasks may form a stream of small social interactions that makes people feel connected and accompanied. These two exploitative game mechanics can be considered “inventions” that are connected to “social games” since they tap directly into Facebook’s social graph. However, they do not necessarily contribute to make a game more engaging or fundamentally change its gameplay. Compared to that, the first two game mechanics (i. e., leader boards and collectables) are both well known and are likely to motivate players, as they allow players to compare their performance with that of others. In conclusion, we can see that the much-touted “social” features of Facebook games we analysed are either not that new at all or are simply in place to drive sales in (paradoxically named) “free-to-play” games.


  1. It is worth noting here that actually two motivations can lead to the same behaviour: One player might show off her most valued objects on her farm in order to impress her friends. Another player is placing similar objects on his farm just because he likes to play dollhouse and wants to create a “beautiful” farm, without a thought about other players that might visit his farm. While the resulting farm might look the same, the underlying motivations are not. ↩︎

  2. Many Facebook games are being ported to mobile devices (smartphones and tablets), where this feature might be integrated. ↩︎

  3. Or, in the words of Facebook evangelists: the game went “viral”. ↩︎

  4. Since most of these Facebook games don’t have economic simulations where prices are market-dependent. ↩︎