Sharing is caring. The famous phrase that is fueled through the website lands in the Social Games World. Are Social Games really realizing why players need to share and how they feel when they do? Shall there be a change of their agendas to restablish their core social part? Are users equally vulnerable to aged formulas?
Social games are powerful tools with a new set of mechanics that makes players engaged, in this article we’ll try to focus in the fact of social sharing relationships between players and the game, and why some positive and beneficial changes shall be taken in order to benefit both enterprises and users.
In order to attempt a description, I’d prefer to rely on Sande Chen’s definition in her article The Social Network Game Boom, as an “online game in which one typically plays through a social networking site. In addition, social games place heavy emphasis around the multiplayer aspect and the connection/interaction of one player to other player”. Chen’s explanation, tough it represents perfectly what they are in its core, is perhaps right now far from the reality that surrounds such genre.
Social games uses their medium where they work in just to boost on specific activities unable in any other brand, that means that, inside their mainframe, they use mechanics, dynamics and features which are not new for any experienced or casual players. The social layer on above promotes the fact of socializing, taking the player’s circle of known people as a powerful tool from where to gather help, challenge or recognition; receiving in exchange viral spread, retention and therefore, possible revenues.
Far from their functionality and performance charts, the social games’ environment has developed an extended and particularly helpful terminology: retention, Average daily users, whales, freemium, monetization, game cap, visibility of control, coercive models, etc. But what’s most important, the amount of studies seems to grow progressively, and theories, techniques and tricks are starting to populate the channels positively, and knowledge is good.
The current state, further than any forty paged discussion, seems to be buoyant even though it had its rising point at somewhere before when we’re on, where Villes & Wars boom filled the market and its numbers were outstanding. Still, social games have proven an excellent niche to re arrange formulas, discover new players who were ignored by other serious parts of the industry and generate astonishing amounts of revenue for those global stakeholders such as Zynga, King, SocialPoint or Supercell, among many others.
Numbers are still far from decreasing significantly, charts show how a huge segment of Facebook users decide to spend some time checking out their gangs, farms, villages of barbarians, dragon islands or neo cities and moreover purchase little by little to break the constrains that such games place in order to monetize their way out, but even though it’s a cool topic, that discussion belongs to another space than the one we’re attempting to focus on. Moreover, their cross-platform features with mobile devices has propelled outstandingly the performance of such titles, and that’s where data pyramids scares.
What about types? Even though there are a vast range of formulas for social games, the ones that have proven to be incredibly satisfying for both players and enterprises still are simulators, and more specifically farm games, where players need to manage an arranged amount of units/assets in order to succeed. Farm games use one of the most powerful constraints that we could ever found in games: time. Time as directly reinforce of boredom: if the game isn’t powered up by a premium currency (others call it hard currency, the one obtained through the purchase with real money to operate trough the game without using real currency) the game advances at a pace that challenges the player’s pain resistance (provided pain is the diminishing of the lusory attitude or engagement). Skill games are as well powerful vindicators that compete basically at the same time and place with farm models, their simplified mechanics alongside their fast feedback response and fast satisfactorily/challenging formulas are a powerful combination to cover any desire for a quick and engaging moment of a player.
In order to talk about players, the central pillar that sustains the viability of this models, is ought to know what we know so far about why motivates them (us) to dive into the social channel of gaming. In User perceptions of Facebook Games by M.H.Phan and B.Chaparro, a complete study helps to clarify some aspects of why motivates players to keep on, yet social games are still a blurred field with little attempts about establishing solid studies. Phan and Chaparro identified that Boredom is the main reason why players decide to start playing Facebook games, quickly followed by receiving an invitation from Facebook Friends (NOW we’re getting closer).
In order to tackle the social sharing in games, is ought to know what we know so far about the ultimate and aggressive usage of social networks from users to users: oversharing.
With any form of usage of everything comes the over-whatever variable attached to it, so it does with sharing stuff on social networks. Oversharing is known as the excessive usage of social networks for publishing content, mostly user-related, creating a dependency between the user and the feedback received from everything posted. This field has been more detailed in terms of researching than social games are, and a wide set of papers has been published about why, when and where users engage this behavior. A huge number of them identify dopamine releases on constant publishing and an interesting reward system beneath, and a need to share in order to feel self actualized as a primary need, such as sleeping or eating. People constantly publishing on social networks about their doing in so different ways, that there has been identified different types of sharers depending on the theme of what they share and what they’re expecting from it: Altruists, Careerists, Hipsters, Connectors, Boomerangs and Selectives. The New York Times gives a more detailed study on their behavior and preferences in Psychology of Sharing: Why do People search Online?, but what we can extract from it is that inside social games the figure of a sharer is mostly related to the Hipsters (searches for an identity trough their posts, helping to define himself and constructing an ego) or the Boomerangs (who constantly need validation of their publications and satisfy themselves through the reactions or feedback received by such posts).
Most of the oversharing issue has lots to do with the needs of self-actualization that users present in order to maintain the flow of current publishing without seeing diminished their constant feedback. And moreover, feedback acts as a roulette: a randomized activity where users can find no reward, an small one or a huge jackpot. If there’s success, users will see their efforts rewarded therefore bringing a sense of completion for what it takes the activity of sharing content: my stuff is getting read, therefore I can keep on.
Diana Tamir and Jason Mitchell, from Harvard university, identified higher dopamine releases on behavioral experiments about how much we love sharing our thoughts against disclosing others’, and social networks proves a way to elaborate bigger and more detailed feelings than the ones we’re able to build alongside a speech, where we usually have to handle more brain activity trying to manage the other’s feedback to modify fast enough the upcoming words. So keeping that in mind helps to understand why things that come from users such as game records, requests and helpful hands will usually be more important than revising the other one’s stuff related to the such content.
And then, games
Even though social is just the core part of social games, often the interaction is undermined or partially hidden, taking into account that every social action is asynchronous, provided every action from one player to another is stored and it will be received just when the player one logs in and accepts it; without requiring the other part to be connected during the process.
Social sharing acts for companies as powerful tool with a double edge. On one side, it provides an increase of the variable K, known as viral (which symbolizes the amount of new players generated by each player). This is given by the tools games provide players to share the game to friends in order to invite them. If the request is successful, then a powerful reward is given to the player as an incentive for the good behavior on spreading the word, therefore bringing new players to the scene.
On the other side, they increase retention by another wide set of interaction tools between players: sending gifts, helping each other on quests, giving resources, fighting against each other, etc. So players have a constant reminder to keep on playing, provided friends have a collateral effect on the overall pace of the game’s progress. Usually the more friends a player has, the easier expansion is done: whether is reaching higher levels or buying new lands, the more stronger the web gets, the better the player will be aided and therefore the better the company can ensure players are inside an stable environment, where they feel surrounded by friends which they can count on, causing a more sustainable retention numbers . And they are intensified if the game includes a leaderboard inside (or a city visit), where players can see their metrics and progress in comparison with others, giving an enormous value for the beloved Bartle’s killer types, whose aim is to surpass everyone at any cost, and even more if they’re friends which you can boast at work or class about their poorly performance. So social is working, and it gets clearer when we go back to Phan and Chaparro’s research, where the three most important reasons of why people did play Facebook games where because a) they received an invitation from Facebook friends and b) they saw many Facebook friends playing it.
Then, social interactions are double rewarded inside games: they help players to access new assets and boost their performance; and they create interactions with other friends or users in the game, which of them can end up in nothing but a simple action, or they can evolve inside a further conversation or a play relationship/teamworking situation. So players progressively were identifying social interactions with prizes, a reward system of giving where once entering in the loop the responses could be partially mechanized until the point of erasing the real meaning of the boundary system: friends acted as another currency or resource.
Dressing ourselves as respectable behaviorists, we could even state that this is directly proportional to the method of Operational Conditioning, where reward systems acts as reinforcement of the subject’s voluntary behavior to operate in a determined way. The first dopamine releases when rewards come will be significantly high, but as soon as the process gets redundant and automatized, the subject can end up extracting nothing from it ending up in extinction (the weakening of the response until its disappearing). Applying this reliable theory upon the state of social games, different stakeholders founded how social interactions, as long as time goes by, were falling inside a pit of meaningfulness in terms of their primary or core purpose, often feeling void and instrumentalized.
The instrumentalization of social interactions
The social games playground has evolved significantly to keep considering the ideal field as a powerful social identifier and builder among friends; and thus has been created directly and indirectly. Directly because companies tried to push harder the K variables and retention in any way possible, and thus tools seemed way too illogical to be left unattended or underdeveloped. Therefore, games tried to push a little harder the fact of sharing, until the point of constraining players to advance if no social interaction was done (or else they would have to pay hard currency to advance). This forcing issue left companies on a blink spot: the formula was being left pretty visible and players were negatively reinforced by such procedures. At higher levels, the game turned into an ask/send routine where advancing was determined by the large amount of active friends willing to help players, and if that was not the case, they would have to dig a little bit further and ask for someone to get inside the game to fulfill their needs to grow further and stronger, thus progressing inside the game.
Indirectly because the media is counting aggressively on the flow mechanics of social sharing formulas, that users are getting used and tired of seeing the same repetitive pattern all over again. Wether the game offers a new mechanic, in what it takes as social features there is nothing but reiterative models of sharing without any other viable offer in the transaction but items, turning friends into resources, as Ian Bogost states in his article Cow Clicker. Moreover, inside Aki’s Jarvinen detailed article of The State of Social in Social Games, far a huge set of developers and researches are seeing the relations inside social games as mere distractions and illusions of being socially connected to the friends circle inside the game’s boundaries.
And partially social developers are taking as standard that players expectancies to react to another title in the same way they’ve been doing since they played the first one, are going to be exactly untouched. When I decided to write about this global subject I just wanted to focus inside the fact of why such games constantly suggest players to share their records as a primary thing, sometimes feeling like there is no other option than posting inside one’s wall about the last success the player has experienced, but as deep as I digged, more issues where coming to the scene and I feel unable to just let the whole space to a single target.
And that’s where we’re coming: Why we need to share aggressively proven the relationships are undermined? Is there anything taken as inherited when social games treat players? There is: in one way or another, games are trying to walk towards the fact that players are killers wanting to share their records in a pool filled with relatives, and to taken beforehand that the social network should be filled with tempting messages to beat others. The Visibility of such actions is where the problem resides. Rather than suggest and offer viable solutions on what are the benefits of doing certain actions, social games (in a percentage) forces the action per se, hurting the player’s reaction of the game when a sense of meaningless or dangerous share is triggered.
Even more when cultural reactions are capable of thrill the player’s need of self actualization (when a community takes that playing a game repeatedly is a synonym of addiction), or if their type of sharer is selective (meaning that they carefully spread the word to the chosen channels, rather than letting themselves exposed by posting anything at any moment), the actions turn into a dangerous modificators of the overall player’s predisposition to keep on playing such game, and being part of an instrumentalized set of tasks that no longer benefits himself, giving no reward in exchange: ingame or outside of it. If meaningful play turns into engagement, when the offer is excessively constrained nothing relevant or positive to the player can be extracted from it, creating just the contrary effect.
When oversharing is merged with this interactions, the social games environment activates their radar and tries to complement those propellers of viral prophetization to ensure they’re used at their maximum percentage. Powerful sharing individuals could be seeing staining their speeches with constant aggressive maneuvers, therefore relying into another source for their self completions when they build their alter egos, making game stats posting a viable activity. But this case will only unmasked itself as a predictive exploited behavior, and thus who are not inside the circle will feel themselves treated as culturally known sharing addicts, even though it is the worse word any developer could ever tell to their players.
Ending up this article here seems as unfair as leaving it cut by half, but the vast majority of theories around the state of social is wide enough to consider this one an attempt to reach all over. What is ought to know is that developers shouldn’t change their mechanics much more than what their social agendas should. There is a focus on trying to follow a mainstream of proven figures and patterns that no longer sustain themselves as a helpful or reliable activity to players, but an aggressively suggestive set of tricks. Players aren’t shielded against them, but as time goes by, there is an extensive development of antibodies inside the rewards systems of players. Rather than nurturing the social keyword of social games, a core feature that would be effective to boost the fact of extending player’s sense of community and therefore establishing meaningful boundaries, the instrumentalization on some titles seems to be temptative to obstruct the way of creating different titles with other ideas in mind than using relationships as mere resources.
Sharing is caring, and therefore interacting. Social games will tend to change positively as long as the users will get along the formulas and some titles start to retake the core for betterment. Thus monetization values can still be intact and virality kept for company’s betterment, so there is no reason to fear the change of such dynamics for a more caring ones. People will always feel tempted to play, and therefore spreading the word to earn relatives to play with and feel self actualized or to nurture his sense of belonguing. Gamers can still feel safe and companies can still deploy newer and more profitable models into scene. Hope they come soon. Hope social stands for social.