Developers and the psychology of social gaming

It’s probably a familiar scenario to most of us; we log on to our favorite social networking site, say, Facebook, and are instantly greeted with at least 5 new invites/pleas for new farm animals, jewels, or some kind of candy. Annoying? Yes. Incredibly effective? Absolutely. Social gaming – basically, social media interlocked with mobile games – burst onto the scene about the same time as the major social players, and while there have been some definite falls from grace (Zynga), it’s definitely not going away anytime soon.

Spamming your friends for fun and profit

There are a few games out there that have gotten a bit of a bad reputation for their penchant of “spamming” people on social networking sites in order to get more points, levels, or just to encourage them to play. One of the most prevalent mobile/social games, Candy Crush, doesn’t work that way:

“…..the way Candy Crush works is much more effective, by instead persuading players to help each other out, rather than do the developer's dirty work for them and bombard friends with requests to join in.

The difference, Lovell explains, is that where Farmville's messages were clearly for the benefit of developers Zynga, Candy Crush tells players "you need to share this because it benefits your friends."

Players can only play five levels at a time until they run out of 'hearts', meaning they must wait before playing again unless they buy more - but during this time they can give hearts to their friends.

"After a while of helping everyone else," Lovell says: "You think 'I don't mind asking them for help now because I've shared the love, it's my turn [to ask for help and be rewarded]'."

This combination of helping friends, improving their view of you and being encouraged to spend money only on items that seem like a good deal - but aren't absolutely necessary to complete the game - is how Lovell believes the freemium model can succeed without being the wild west it at first appears.” – “Freemium app purchases and Candy Crush”,

A TED talk featuring Sina Kamala Kaufmann talked about how social gaming, while a somewhat recent phenomenon, takes advantage of our inherent need for socialability and gaming by its very nature:

"Playing is a core human need. The rational homo economicus may indeed be a myth, and the concept of a homo faber, who is by definition productive, may have to be enriched by the element of playfulness and fun as driving powers.Social Games are a fast-growing phenomenon - more than two hundred million people are playing Social Games each day on Facebook alone. Who are these people and why do they spend so much time playing? And how does their farm, their monster garden, city, or brain weight fit into the puzzle of their identity?....In a time, when rationality seems on the rise, people all over the world integrate gaming activities in their everyday lives. Games - unproductive by nature, strongly irrational and driven by social rewards - are immensely engaging. The total time spent on gaming is astonishing. Some people say games are a waste of time, but are they? What actually is playing and what has it to do with our identity?"

Watch the entire talk here:

These games are primarily played by the “casual gamer”, someone who picks it up and then puts it down, not necessarily playing it to exhaustion. Successful social games, according to, have one or more of these five distinct characteristics:

Short and Sweet: Casual gamers are called such because they play games when it suits them.  The casual gamers find the experience convenient and easy to break from.  

Keep It Simple: The games found on social media tend to look sophisticated but the mechanics remain simple.  The most popular games are usually rooted in matching, putting things in order, or a point and click interface.  No matter the case, they are popular because they are very intuitive and simple rules make for easy play. 

Electronic Clay: Odds are, if the game title ends with ville, city, or world, the player gets the opportunity to create something.  Creating something provides a sense of fulfillment while being able to customize provides a sense of freedom. 

Just One More: Some game programmers worked out a formula that takes advantage of a compulsive need to be rewarded.  Whether the player is growing a plant or cooking something for their restaurant, gamers want to make sure that the time they waited is rewarded with a finished product. 

Who Says You Can’t Get Something For Nothing? Until social media and mobile games came along, video games represented a hefty investment. However, the vast majority of social media games are free.  Money is typically optional and rarely necessary when friends play.

Looking at the latest statistics, it’s apparent that the psychology behind these games is definitely paying off:

“More than 250 million people are playing Facebook games every month, and roughly 100 developers generated more than $1 million in revenue in 2012. But one statistic that Facebook mentioned is particularly loaded: 55 percent of the top 400 iOS apps are integrated with Facebook. Far and away, the most popular game on Facebook is King’s Candy Crush Saga, which, according to Facebook, has roughly 100 million monthly players. While Candy Crush Saga is a behemoth on Facebook, its dwarfed compared to King’s internal data — a representative told the New York Times this summer that the game receives 600 million active game sessions from mobile devices each day. Given its ubiquitousness on iPhone and Android, it’s likely that mobile gaming is influencing social gaming, not the other way around.” – “Zynga may be coming back but social gaming is not what it was”,

The mobile game/social gaming industry has a huge reach simply because access to a mobile device is much higher. It’s not rocket science: if I want to play a game, all I need to do is pull out my phone and I’m playing. People also know that with mobile games, they’re going to get something that is the latest thing. Social games are all about availability and connectivity; they’re meant for casual, pick-it-up play.

And casual, pick-up play is especially appealing to women - in fact, according to an article from, a study showed that 55 per cent of all social gamers in the US are women: 

".....women tend to flock towards simpler, social media-based games. Perhaps it’s a predisposition for being better at multitasking (tending to Farmville cows while making a casserole), or being drawn into the social layer that sits on top of these cute, reward-heavy game engines.How women interact with one another yields a clue into this new hormonal hegemony: if you’re familiar with Dunbar’s number (an anthropological conceit that posits human beings can only keep up stable relationships with 150 people at once), recent studies suggest this number could be higher for women, which would explain a natural inclination to be drawn to more social games with dozens of new friends.

Casual gaming and gambling is eating up your average soccer mom’s spare time, partly because it doesn’t eat into time needed for chores and errands, but instead fills in those empty minutes waiting for the kids to come home. Add all those minutes up, though, and you have created a force to be reckoned with." - "Rise of the Girl Gamers",

Social gaming made for crowdfunding 

Social gaming isn’t just great for users; it’s also pretty effective for developers who are looking to not only get their games to go viral, but maybe just even get off the ground, i.e., perhaps via a Kickstarter campaign. One developer used Reddit to jumpstart their game process:

“Another Kickstarter success story, Jordan Weisman, said that Twitter and Facebook were the greatest helps to his two funded projects, Golem Arcana and Shadowrun Returns (total raised: $2.4 million). “Reddit was an effective tool for deepening engagement with people that were already aware of the projects but not that effective for new customer acquisition,” – “Does social media help videogame developers find fans? It depends on whom you ask”,

The monetization in social gaming is much different. The same person who might balk at springing $50 for a game won’t blink an eye forking over .99 to level up in a game that they might only play a few times. Sure, you might never of heard of the game or app you’re buying, but it’s only a few pennies wasted. This makes the barrier of entry for developers; they know that people are going to be more willing to jump into something new, which makes the potential for monetization higher. It’s a good circle of economics to be caught up in.

What do you think? 

While some major players have been in the news for falling from grace, we’re still in the very early stages of social gaming and what developers can do to integrate this technology in the games and apps they release. Social media is here to stay, which means that social gaming, in some iteration or another, will be as well.



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