Lately I have been giving a couple of workshops for business clients on how to introduce elements familiar from games, such as quest-like motivational structures, into their online services and applications. At the same time, I have been pursuing my research and development on social games. These two strands unite in a one-day workshop package which focuses on creating and designing game and ‘funware’ concepts for online social networking platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter.
Game Design for Social Networks is a one-day workshop where the participants will learn about creating and designing game concepts for online social networking platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter. The workshop is built around my work on researching social game design drivers and frameworks, and putting them into practice.
The workshop will debut in an academic setting in the MindTrek Conference in Tampere, Finland, later in the year, but I’m happy to receive requests for running the workshop already earlier. For that, please use the contact form.
Game Design for Social Networks is a one-day workshop where the participants will learn about creating and designing game concepts for online social networking platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter. The workshop is built around my work on researching social game design drivers and frameworks, and putting them into practice.
The workshop will consist of two parts, bridging research, theory, and practice: First, there will be an introduction to a design framework, which establishes useful constraints for designing games for particular motivations that characterize social network use.
Second, the framework will be taken into practice through a number of design exercises. The exercises will enable participants to come up with new game concepts. Participants will also be able to bring existing ideas to the workshop, and have a chance to refine them through the analytical design approaches introduced throughout the day.
Agenda for the day:
• Introduction to workshop and participants
• Lecture: Game design for social networks
• Exercise: Establishing design drivers for networked play
• Lunch break
• Lecture: Introducing game mechanics & themes as design constraints
• Exercise: Brainstorming social network game mechanics
• Exercise debrief: Bridging mechanics into themes
• Coffee break
• Exercise: Preparing game concept presentations
• Concept presentations & Evaluations
• Workshop debrief & closing
The workshop package includes an evaluation report delivered afterwards by me. It will collect the concepts into a single report, and include an evaluation of each concept with suggestions for further development. The workshop can also be customized to run across two days – or, it can be had as an introductory, half-day version as well.
Again, I’m happy to receive requests for running the workshop. Please drop me a line, thanks!
The guys at the Finnish gaming magazine Pelaaja are writing a feature about Xbox Live Achievements, PSN Trophies, badges, and such. They asked me to comment about the matter, and my notes grew into this post. Let’s look at the motivations behind amassing all that cultural capital of gamerpoints and completion percentages.
Obviously the heart of the matter is that achievements let gamers share evidence of their skill and persistence with a game, and overall gamer status, as, e.g. the total amount of gamerpoints at Xbox Live. Thus they have to do with players’ emotions of pride – ‘fortunes-of-self’ in terms of emotion theory. Or, with admiration and respect of others. In summary, achievements give concrete evidence for bragging rights.
Achievements are also a form of extraneous goals to the game, i.e. they seldom are tied to the theme/fiction of the game – achievements give another meaning to player actions, results, and goal resolutions than what, e.g., the story of the game.
To keep in line with the perspective of this blog, i.e. emotional game design, one wonders if there could be a way to categorize achievements from an emotional standpoint? It would seem that most of them have to do with the emotion of pride, but there aren’t necessarily many more emotional spaces or nuances that achievements would occupy. Peer acknowledged and generated achievements would expand that space.
One reason for this is, that at least for now, achievements and trophies are measured by quantitative means – they are something that the game as a system can calculate and thus keep track of. Qualitative achievements would have to relate to a certain style of play, or to something recognized by peers. To my knowledge, there does not seem to be many achievements like that. The one in Mirror’s Edge about not using firearms – ‘Test of Faith’ it’s called – comes close in spirit, but it’s still down to something quantifiable in the game.
Summary in the form of hypothesis:
At present, game achievements and trophies relate to prospect-based emotions only. Qualitative, peer generated achievements would expand the emotional space of gamer communities, such as Xbox Live and PSN.
Dr Awesome is an iPhone game where the players are put to treat virus outbreak patients in a series of mini-games that resemble Qix. Besides the fact that I’ve always regarded Qix as an ingenious game design, it is interesting how Dr Awesome taps into the emotional potential of one’s address book. This gives me a chance to explore another concept from emotion theory, namely the variables that affect the intensities of emotions.
The address book design feature in Dr Awesome basically tries to make us care more for the goals of the game, by embodying those goals into the contacts from the phone book. It’s not exactly a design solution that makes your hands shake as you are ‘operating’ on the patients, but it’s clever enough, and manages to put an inch more intensity into the gameplay and your valuation of the goal. As you can see from the screenshots, the patients and their relationship to you is addressed in the game’s rhetoric as well.
Based on the few goes I’ve had with the game, it’s mostly been distant friends or business contacts I’ve had to work on – so it seems it picks the patients out by random. Then again, I’ve not come across any close friends and relatives that I call or text the most, so there is a chance that these more emotionally resonant patients are left for the higher levels of the game. It makes me wonder how playing the game with, e.g., my mother or my girlfriend as the patient would make me feel. I will try to find out, even if the game gets quite hard pretty quickly.
How does this connect to concepts from emotion theory? Well, in Ortony, Clore & Collins’ theory on the cognitive structure of emotions – a theory I’ve found useful to adapt for game design and analysis purposes – they define a set of variables that affect the intensity of emotions. These are variables that affect the ‘baseline’ intensity of an emotion, i.e. whether it will be experienced as stronger or milder. I’ll be posting a series of analyses, focusing on each of the variables.
Dr Awesome and the case of the ‘Sense of reality’ variable
The first variable I’m discussing is called sense of reality, defined as ‘how much one believes that the emotion-inducing situation is real’. Sense of reality is obviously at work in all games that strive for an immersive experience where the player is transported into another world. You can read my post about Far Cry 2 through the lens of the variable.
Thus in many cases, sense of reality variable is addressed through audiovisual means, in effort to suspend disbelief. On the other hand, Dr Awesome hints at other techniques more familiar to ARGs and the like. Being developed for a phone, the game tries to address the sense of reality variable with another technique: by taking our real-life contacts, exposing them to sickness, and making the player operate on them, as if their lives would be dependent on her. This design solution also opens up the world of so-called ‘fortunes-of-others’ type of emotions, such as empathy.
I find that this metaphor of ‘game as saving the lives of my close ones with my expert surgeon skills’ is more of an entertaining aspect of the medical theme, and all credit to Ngmoco, the developer, it does not try to be anything more.
Nevertheless, it allows a peek into an emotional design space for games that could use more experimentation, definitely.
Besides simple trivia or math quizzes, attempts at RPGish exploration of the Twitterverse, or word puzzle based movie-tie-in campaigns like the Terminator Salvation game, and the Spymaster flooding issues, we are starting to see game designs that are less obvious or inaccessible in their complexity. SNODS – ‘Social Networks Online Defense Squad’ – is a case in point: the game displays clever solutions in how it takes advantage of Twitter’s social dynamics and how it builds a certain kind of social graph around you. Here’s my analysis of the game, and some observations of how these solutions can be carried into social network games in general.
SNODS case study: Game design features
First, let’s briefly run through some of the features of SNODS that are interesting, game design wise.
Game mechanics and goals
First, in SNODS (developed by Itch) players take other Twitter users as captives. Every player has his won holding pen, initially for six captives. The users a player takes captive start producing hourly income, as the screen capture from my account shows.
Other players might try to kidnap my captives, which would give me a chance to instantly recapture them. The motivation for this is that the tweeples’ hourly production rate is dependent on their status in the Twitterverse, i.e. number of followers they have. There are plankton, guppy, fish, and whales in the sea, as SNODs labels them. See Christopher Mack’s post on Inside Social Games for more information about the game’s features.
SNODS is a waiting game with some additional twists: Similar to the clever Facebook game Parking Wars, in SNODS there is a gameplay dynamic where the players login/logoff to the site becomes a risk reward structure: if one stays away from the site and/or Twitter, there is a risk of losing one’s captives, or losing money directly as one is able to try to steal it from another player. Players can purchase guards to prevent this. Also, one can make the decision of putting a valued captive into ‘solitary confinement’ which betters the chances of keeping him/her captive. There is a catch to this, as the captive does not produce income while in solitary confinement.
In the fashion of Mafia Wars, 140 Mafia, and countless other social network games, the leveling structure is highly hierarchical and related to different missions and upgrading possibilities. Missions present specific instances of gameplay stringed together essentially as quests, in the overall, seemingly endless leveling structure. Stealing money and captives from others pits players against each other. Yet, what is missing is the ‘gotcha’ element of Parking Wars – i.e. when one is able to catch a fellow player parking illegally and slapping a ticket at him.
Still, SNODS does afford, at least in theory, different levels of commitment; hardcore players can use specific, hashtag based tweets as commands, whereas casual players (like me) can still have a sense of progress without delving into such intricacies of the system.
Then again, having played the game now for a week or so, it has become somewhat stale with the level of commitment I am willing to invest at it – players do not steal my captives, as they are not probably desirable enough in terms of the game; some people steal money from me, but I do not get aggravated enough to go after them, and so on. Still, SNODS has kept me interested longer than Spymaster, for instance, because there are strategic aspects to it that I find more interesting, and the same goes for the core gameplay mechanics. In other words, there is a stronger sense of gameplay.
SNODS offers the players a chance to become a ‘Special Agent’ (which is strange as everyone is dubbed ‘SNODS Special Agent’ by default) by purchasing a three month subscription plan for 14.95$. As a UI design note, this option is hidden behind way too many links. The paying player is allowed to accelerate their leveling up, they get 50% more resource accumulation, discounts from buying upgrades, extra recaptures of kidnapped captives, and so on.
Spymaster made the flood issue in Twitter game design quite apparent: Non-playing Twitter users were flooded with the #spymaster tweets that were irrelevant to them. What was interesting was the fact that it was a game that generated a heated discussion concerning Twitter’s lack of filtering options.
With SNODS, the developers have taken precautions at the flooding issue, and the game does not reward tweeting to the same degree as Spymaster. Yet, it also hints at a complete level of control, which is not the case, however, as tweets about upgrades will find their way to your tweeple anyway. This brings up the question of the social acceptability of playing Twitter games, especially in relation to the particular sensibility of one’s own follower community. Personally, I felt uncomfortable that in order to make the observations documented here, I had to channel some potentially unnerving tweets at my followers’ eyes.
Work in Progress: Twitter Game Design Principles
Based on my analysis of SNODS, and other Twitter games mentioned here, I will present some tentative findings as game design principles. These are guidelines or hypotheses very much still in the making, but I believe they help in thinking about specific design solutions when creating social network game concepts. These are not in contradiction to the more general design drivers and principles I have written about earlier (‘Game Design for Social Networks’).
Time-based risks & rewards
Visiting and revisiting, or logging in / out, of the game is a dynamic that not only characterizes social network use, but lends itself to game design, because a risk-reward structure can be built in connection with it. It also supports the emotion of curiosity, which is fundamental to play-related emotions, i.e. what makes games fun and captivating, experientially speaking.
Follows/followers status (or ratio) as resource
Every game is not only a system where players interact with each other, the game elements, and the rules, but also always an information system. Thus, a game system can utilize the information the social network contains, and build its rules around that information, and give it new meanings. With Twitter, I do not think the game design solutions regarding follows/followers, number of updates, and other quantifiable information are exhausted. Game designers can look at the information services like Twit Truth provide to think about the possibilities.
Content from tweets as input to the game system
The substance of tweets is another information users produce into Twitterverse. However, due to it being qualitative in nature, its worth in terms of a game has to be based on player evaluation rather than system evaluation. This is a double-edged sword: on one hand, it might make your game’s rules less clear – but on the other hand, it gives room for player expression, and thus for more emergent play experiences.
Embedding game mechanics into #hashtags
A technique related to the above is what the Moonfruit Twitter marketing campaign implemented: As long as users include a specific #hashtag in their message, they are spreading the message. In a similar fashion, hashtags can have uses as subtle game mechanic which counters the flood issue: If your players are willing to include your game’s hashtag in their off-game tweets, it presumably does not bother those not playing to the same degree. To support this, a website or desktop client functionality which inserts the hashtag automatically is in order. Because of this, it would not be surprising if a Twitter desktop client/widget would be launched specifically for game purposes.
The Retweet as human touch and reputation system
One of the playful aspects of, e.g., Facebook games is the symbolic physicality that pokes, hi-fives, sending drinks and gifts, etc. give to game play. They add a symbolic gensture of friendship and human warmth across the mediated network space. Twitter does not really have that – or does it?
Even if it lends itself to ‘insult swordfighting’, i.e. a witty exchange of ideas and compliments, I would argue that the practice of re-tweeting is the most inherent symbolically physical act, even if different from the Facebook examples. RTs also touch on another interesting aspect of social networks, namely the reputation systems many of them embed into their community functionalities (e.g. Flickr). Reputation systems are inherently related to hierarchies and roles between players, and thus RTing as a game mechanic should be given more thought.
Flood control – social acceptability
In any case, the public timeline and non-reciprocical nature of Twitter is both a possibility and a constraint. It gives your game a broadcast channel, much like a push SMS without costs, but you will not be able to control where it lands with precision. Direct messages help in avoiding spreading unnecessary flood, but they are more like e-mail than tweets in nature, and make your game go perhaps a bit too much under the radar in terms of your game’s viral propagation. This is a case by case design solution, and it is very much dependent on the theme and business/design goals of your game.
Website as external interface and visualization aid
A website external to Twitter might sound obvious, but there are particular reasons for its necessity, and these might also have consequences for game design. This is particularly due to Twitter’s non-visual and fast-paced nature.
A website is able to function both as a history and a home base for individual players, with information that Twitter can not handle or which is simply not part of the user experience of Twitter. The game’s website should function as an external hub that visualizes the game state and data, and makes Twitter-based communication and community functionalities clickable – preferably into one-click actions that get the game mechanics rolling spontaneously.
Thanks for reading – I’d love to hear your comments, please post them using the form below. I am in the process of developing a game concept based on these design principles and patterns – more news to follow!
I worked on a Ph.D. for a number of years, mostly on the side of other, design and development related jobs. The work was finally completed in late 2007, and I defended the thesis in March 2008. You can download a PDF from the link below, or head to Amazon to buy the book.
In the thesis, I construct a theory of what elements games are made of, and complement the formal, structural approach by applying studies and concepts from psychology in order to understand the experiential and emotional experince of playing games. The theories lead to a number of analysis methods and design implications, which I try to illustrate with a number of case studies. The ‘100+ Games Project’ is a part of the thesis, where I have analysed more than 100 games – across different media ranging from pen & paper to computers – with the methods.
In the first part of the article, I argued that designing games for online social networks, such as Facebook, can benefit from mixing methods of game design with interaction and service design approaches. I also identified symbolic physicality, inherent sociability, spontaneity, and asynchronicity as aspects of social network games that can be set as design drivers in a project. However, they are high level concepts – in this, part two, I begin to elaborate a number of them into an evolving framework that helps in thinking about design decisions.
Game Design for Social Networks – Part 2: A Design Framework
The design framework is a result of analyzing a number of Facebook game apps. My focus has been on games, which have either been among the most popular in Facebook (Lil’ Green Patch, Mafia Wars, Who Has the Biggest Brain?), or interesting in terms of their game design (Parking Wars, PackRat, PhotoGrab).
The analyses will be available in detail later this year in my Siggraph conference paper. The paper will also include an in-depth discussion of what follows.
This article will focus on summarizing how the analysis results can be translated into a framework that can inform design decisions, and how that framework can also be used as an inspiration and tool for thought when brainstorming social network game concepts.
A Design framework for social network play dynamics
As a quick takeaway, here is a framework of design drivers in visual format. I will elaborate on its various aspects below.
First of all, I have added another design driver to the ones introduced in Part 1: Narrativity. As one looks into how popular social network games’ play dynamics work, it becomes evident how fundamental it is for the concept that various player actions and play results are narrated across the network. That is why I argue that Narrativity, in this sense, deserves to be identified as an important aspect in the framework.
Asynchronicity permeates play in social networks: Play takes place in turns, or in individual time units (‘ticks’) per player which then get acknowledged by the game as a system facilitating networked play. That is why it is pictured as an orange, cyclical path of game play along which players repeatedly go through. Furthermore, their progress, network standing, and reputation evolves parallel to this cyclical process of core play mechanics.
In the visualization, the clouds between individual play moments specify some consequences for player experience, or ‘PX’ as Nicole Lazzaro calls it, that the particular transitions bring about. Therefore, the idea of the framework is that design solutions affecting and producing such transitions can be put into specific focus, and some perhaps emphasized over the others, thus giving the play the game facilitates potentially a different flavor.
Now, let’s start identifying design patterns which relate to the four aspects of playful interactions: Spontaneity, Symbolic Physicality, Inherent Sociability, and Narrativity.
Design patterns for social network play
The illustration below unravels a number of design patterns that can be used in supporting a particular aspect of social network play. Various specific implementations of each pattern can be found already out there, especially in Facebook, and without doubt, new ones will be introduced. However, such design solutions are constrained by the particular network they are implemented within, to varying extent.
I feel these patterns are rather self-explanatory, and as this article presents ongoing research, I will not describe them in more detail here. This piece is meant to start discussions, and put designs in motion.
Future R&D in the form of continuing observation of social network games, and prototypes and applications in personal and collaborative projects – don’t hesitate to drop me a line to propose a project! – will be used to validate, reconsider, and develop the framework.
Designing social network play: Unlearning game design and embracing network play
To end with, some observations about particular aspects of game design for social network games. In a way, many of the observations in these two articles imply that certain ‘truths’ about game design, as we used to know it, do not hold anymore – or, the design space has changed qualitatively.
I argue that models that are extremely useful in other game design contexts, such as the MDA framework, do not quite cut it here – or, one has to shift the perspective, at least.
To elaborate my point: Design topics traditionally held as integral to good, successful games matter less – they are there to pay attention to, but they do not necessarily break your game. For example: game balance, i.e. designing the goals and rewards in a balanced way for each player to guarantee satisfactory play experiences, seems to matter less in social network games than with board games, or computer and video games.
Another aspect to unlearn, to an extent: Subtlety of game mechanics, and the dynamics they create, are not that important, when we are designing networked social play. This is largely due to the fact that it is the network, and its whimsical and contextual factors, including players with playful dispositions, that substitute such design sophistications in creating fun (enough!) experiences.
As a game designer, it can be hard to break from the above-mentioned tools of the trade, as they can be the very reason that games and designing are fascinating. But online social networks, and how people play them, is fascinating as well, right?
The near future of innovation in social network games
The above is not to say that new game design innovations won’t be seen in social network games – however, it is to say that the innovations will more likely take place in the aspects that characterize the network, rather than the game as a design object.
As an example of this I will use an anecdote: In a recent GDC talk, area/code’s Frank Lantz described their stand-alone network game for Electrolux, Kelly’s Bags, which aimed to model fashion and trends into its game mechanics – i.e. into its verbs, goals, and the network as introduced in the model in Part 1. The game proceeded to the point where players started switching friends, i.e. their network contacts, rather than bags, the game objects that embodied the game’s goals of having the trendiest set of bags.
A design research question from this play incident might be, for instance: ‘What does it take for people to start untying their online social relationships in order to win a game’?
This example gives evidence that games in social networks are events and services, and they should be designed as such. This means being sensitive to the constraints and possibilities of networks, and the online human interactions – and creativity – they facilitate.
How can interaction design inform game design practices in the context of designing games for social networks? How can understanding of user motivations be formalized into design principles that would solve and inspire new design solutions in this particular design space? In the first of two parts, I explore specific issues that game designers will have to face when designing games for social networks.
Game Design for Social Networks
Part 1: Interaction Design for Playfulness
Abstract: In the article, I argue that tasks of designing games for online social networks, such as Facebook, can benefit from understanding the project as a practice where techniques and methods of game design are embedded into interaction design and service design tasks. Research into motivations and emotional dispositions of social media use, and analyzing existing popular games in said networks, help in identifying game mechanics that tap into user practices across social networks. I try to extract a set of design principles into a design framework where interaction, social, service, and game design meet. The framework aims to support the inherent sociability, spontaneity, and playfulness that permeate online social networks. See also Part 2.
Social network games as an emerging area of game business and development
Facebook applications attract millions of users per monthly basis, and game applications frequently reach the top 10 lists of the platform. Furthermore, social media experts are claiming that social media games are threatening the market of so-called casual games, due to, e.g., their virality, accessibility, and scalability.
Furthermore, it can be argued that online applications and services incorporate playful, game-like qualities, even if they are not explicitly presented and marketed as games. Facebook has drawn this line in the water by separating the application category ‘Just for Fun’ from the category of ‘Gaming’.
In terms of design practices, these observations point towards a junction where interaction design projects embed game design tasks, and vice versa. From the vantage point of game design, it becomes engulfed by interaction, or service design tasks. In practice this means that the context of use, or in this case, play, has to be taken into account in the design in more complex ways.
Valentina Rao has studied the ‘playful mood’ that, e.g., Facebook applications encourage, noting that individual use them both for entertainment purposes and socialization tools. Often the games are considered as unsatisfactory experiences, which, on the other hand, forces developers to reconsider whether they are designing and developing games or something on the borderline of social media and games.
How can interaction design inform game design practices in the context of designing games for social networks? Second: How can such observations and findings, based on an understanding of user motivations, be formalized into design principles that would solve and inspire new design solutions in this particular design space? In the article, I explore the overlapping design spaces by identifying prominent game design principles.
Definitions: Service/Interaction/Social Design meets Game Design
The subject and goals of this article also speak to two developer communities that can be quite different in their aspirations and methods: Andrew Chen has made observations differences between web developers and game developers, e.g. regarding the role of content production and distribution: Game developers want to compete in the quality of content rather than distribution. Social application and web developers seem to be interested in games as medium, whereas game developers are interested in the particular genres of the medium, developed for video game consoles and high-end PCs.
However, recent news show that some game developers, e.g. Valve, are clearly considering and developing the service design aspects of their business.
Wikipedia defines ‘game design’ as
the process of designing the content and rules of a game. The term is also used to describe both the game design embodied in an actual game as well as documentation that describes such a design.
I argue that game design is a subset of interaction design. Therefore we need to define ‘interaction design’.
Dan Saffer gives us a definition that goes as follows:
Interaction design is the art of facilitating interactions between humans through products and services.
Saffer goes on to include to his definition interactions between humans and products, which are able to respond to human actions, i.e. devices and services with microprocessors.
Thus, game design is a subset of interaction design that focuses on facilitating interactions of player and games as particular entertainment systems.
In addition, it is useful to relate these fields to so-called service design. Saffer defines it as follows: ‘A service is a chain of activities that form a process and have value for the end user.’ Saffer relates service design to the design of systems by stating that in service design projects, the system is the service. He goes on to say that service design focuses on context, i.e. ‘the entire system of use’.
Game design in this context is, on one hand, succumbing to the constraints of the social network service, and on the other hand, using the service’s social functionalities to its benefits. Andrew Mayer has echoed this by claiming that ‘Your Game is a Service Business’, stating that
The gameplay experience ends up simply being another point along that service chain. And social games push us even further out, demanding that the platform provides every user with appropriate, dynamic, and safe relationships that allow blur the lines between users and content creators.
I suggest that there is one more area of design, or at least a term, that we need to relate game design to. Joshua Porter has introduced the term ‘social design’ to emphasize the social aspects of particular interaction and service design projects:
Social design is the conception, planning, and production of web sites and applications that support social interaction.
One could conclude, then, that social design is a subset of service design, where social functionalities – e.g., communication, sharing – are the design drivers.
For the practice of designing games for social networks, the consequences are: The game design part of the design has to be embedded as a subsystem into the larger system of the social media service.
In practice this often means that the developer does not design, nor own, the service itself, but takes advantage of the service API. In effect, the API brings along a number of design constraints, but also possibilities. In any case, the community context, as with service design, becomes part of the game design.
Game Mechanics for Social Networks
The notion of applying game design techniques to the design of online applications is gaining prominence. Amy Jo Kim is a designer who has promoted an approach she has entitled ‘Putting fun into functional’, where the design of game mechanics is applied as an interaction design method for social communities and applications.
Kim’s notion of game mechanics as ‘a collection of tools and systems that an interactive designer can use to make an experience more fun and compelling’, works as a starting point. In her work, Kim has also identified certain core gameplay mechanics, i.e. player actions, such as collecting and exchange.
Daniel Cook is a game designer who has put forward the idea of ‘building princess applications’, i.e. taking advantage of structures like goal hierarchies and skill progression in designing applications. Cook takes the high level goal of the classic video game Super Mario Bros. and uses Mario’s (i.e. the player’s) journey through the game as a structure that could be applied to the use patterns of any application.
Jonathan Follet is an user experience designer who has promoted the benefits of designing playful experiences. Follett outlines four features that a playful digital product should have: lots of small rewards, no negative consequences, building on the work of others, and frivolous interaction in general, ‘just for fun’. His definition of playfulness in user experience
as those elements of a digital design that engage people’s attention or involve them in an activity for recreation, amusement, or creative enjoyment
is useful, yet it seems altogether too broad for game design purposes. We will need to start narrowing down such observations if they are to work as design principles that can be used to solve design problems.
The design space of game design for social networks is certainly not exhausted yet, especially as new social media platforms emerge almost monthly – without doubt, an increasing number of design elements and patterns can be identified and tested within this design space. This can be easier if we lay down certain vocabulary and conceptual framework from which to follow the development of social networks for purposes of game design.
Designing Game mechanics: A Method of Triangulation
I will introduce a method of triangulation, which helps in designing game play into social networks. It starts with a more concise definition of ‘game mechanics’.
In theoretical conceptualizations of game design, the design of so-called core mechanics has been widely acknowledged as being of fundamental importance in creating play. Core mechanics has been defined as ‘the actions that players repeatedly take in a game’ (Salen & Zimmerman, Rules of Play).
Instead of understanding game mechanics as generic game design elements, I suggest a narrower yet more practical definition: Individual game mechanics can be thought of as verbs that game designer give the players to act in the world of the game. The mechanics are linked with the goals of the game, i.e. they are the means to reach the ends. Core mechanics are, thus, combinations of individual game mechanics that are used to accomplish certain goals imposed at the player. In effect, these relations are the building blocks for designing play. (See my PhD for more.)
Whereas in a single player video game, the core mechanics might create a feedback loop between the player and the software as a system, in multiplayer games, the system becomes more complex, as it will govern the actions of multiple players and their relations. In social network games, the system becomes the social network as a whole, consisting of both the service (e.g., the Facebook platform), individual players, and the community as large.
Therefore, the mechanics need to reach ‘outside’ the game itself, or, we need to expand our notion of what a play session with the product is: Besides the actual, rule-governed gameplay, play in social networks games engulfs the in-between moments – and more importantly, the ‘afterplay’ and ‘foreplay’. The latter consists of various means of network propagation that Brenda Brathwaite and Ian Schreiber write about.
Game play in social networks is a feedback loop of player actions that try to accomplish goals, and are given feedback through the network, either through the system itself, or individual players, or community as a whole. This dynamic within these elements can be thought as a triangle with three elements, around which the user experience starts to emerge as play:
The model gives us a tentative idea of the scope and focus of designing games for social networks, i.e. what are the elements through which play can be created in this context. In which kind of rhythm and reciprocity should this dynamic be put into action is another game design question that we will tackle later.
Before that, a more substantial, user-centered question is: What are suitable verbs and goals that speak to a user’s motivations of engaging with social networks in the first place?
Motivations for online social networks and games
In order to bridge interaction design with game design techniques, it is useful to take the motivations of, first, social media use, and second, game play into account.
The advantage designers can gain from thinking about user motivations is that they can proceed to design opportunities for the users to act in ways that become expressions of the users’ motives. Therefore, games for social networks should target motivations of using those networks, and stylize them into playful interactions that give the players a feeling that they are expressing their motives — consciously or unconsciously.
In his study of social networks, Yochai Benkler (2006) has identified the following motivations for social media use: Social connectedness, psychological well-being, gratification, and material gain. Peter Kollock (1999) has defined four motivations of contributing in online communities: Reciprocity, reputation, increased sense of efficacy, and attachment to and need of a group.
On the other hand, people playing role-playing games are motivated by aspects having to do with achievements in the game (e.g., competing, and advancing) , and immersing themselves into the game’s world (e.g., discovering, customizing, enjoying the story aspects). Social aspects matter as well, e.g., working in a team, player relationships, and socializing in general.
I argue that these two sets provide a useful starting point for synthesizing a framework for thinking about game design for social networks. It combines a number of the above features, however, by filtering them through the emotional disposition of playfulness. Therefore the motivations for game play in social networks may become more casual (random, fleeting, effort-aversive) than the ones of, e.g. players of MMORPGs by average.
According to emotion theorist Jon Elster (1999) emotions transform into emotional dispositions through their long-term consequences, i.e. repeated experience of an emotion that is triggered in connection with a particular event, object, or agent, becomes an emotional disposition towards it. Playful disposition, and variations in it, can thus be seen as long-term consequences of emotions experienced during the play of social media games.
If we look back at the notion of user’s behavior as an expression of their motives, and designing for it, the challenge is how to design for playful dispositions. Principles for such design challenges can be found by transforming identified motivations and mechanics into design drivers, and iterating from there:
Four Design Drivers
Now we are ready to establish a framework of motivations and dispositions regarding social network use, which in turn can be formulated into a number of design drivers.
Valentina Rao identifies three qualities to the playfulness that characterizes Facebook use: Physicality, Spontaneity, and Inherent Sociability. As a particular game design feature, I will add Asynchronicity into these qualities, as discussed by Ian Bogost. I will use this four-fold distinction as a framework for further identifying principles that would support designing for the playful dispositions.
Rao identifies the symbolic ways that Facebook games ‘add physical depth to playful interactions’, such as poking, drinking beer, hi-fiving, etc. These features essentially try to add ‘human warmth’ of actual physicality to the non-physical online space.
The apparent silliness and/or simplicity of Facebook games, such as a complicated game mechanic as a verbs being simplified into a click of a single button, is there to support the inherent spontaneity of user behavior in online social networks. Many of the above-mentioned manners of symbolic physicality draw from this quality as well.
‘Playfulness is intrinsically connected to social situations and cannot exist without them’, according to Rao. Again, the above-mentioned features highlight this – in addition, Rao lists fast rewards for player actions, abundance of positive feedback, no negative consequences for exploration, and ability to build on someone else’s work as design solutions that support the inherent sociability – very similar aspects that we saw Follett outline earlier. These features are, by and large, similar to ones identified from the design of casual games in general.
In terms of designing games, the inherent sociability opens up possibilities for intuitive teaming of players, since networked individuals might have a particular social context where they know each other. Nabeel Hyatt has indeed pointed out how social network games can ‘rely heavily on social context (namely school, department, and residence loyalties) to provide a framework for alliances, gameplay and motivation.’
Ian Bogost lists four features of asynchronous play – it ‘supports multiple players playing in sequence, not in tandem’, it requires a ‘persistent state which all players affect, and which in turn affects all players’, it is organized around the breaks between players: ‘‘opponent turns in Scrabble often mean bathroom breaks, email checks’ (Bogost 2004) Yet, according to Bogost, this kind of asyncronicity needs not be the game’s defining characteristic.
However, it would seem that most games in social networks do center around such breaks, it is just that the quality and quantity of the breaks are based on the nature and/or constraints of the system – i.e. breaks in play in social networks that center around instant messaging or micro-blogging, such as Twitter, would create different variety of asynchronous play than Facebook, which supposedly has a slower, more structured rhythm of use.
Interaction Design for Playfulness
Concluding from the definitions and observations made thus far, we can tentatively define game design for social networks as ‘Interaction design for social playfulness’.
This means designing for inherently casual yet highly engaged disposition to play around in the social network, with the general means afforded by the platform, and the ‘extended’ affordances for play that applications, such as games, bring with them.
Yet, designing for playfulness also means that the focus of the design result should privilege emotional engagement rather than highly intricate and innovative gameplay – even if these two are not necessarily in contradiction.
Matt Mihaly echoes this observation by stating that successful social network games are as much about expressing oneself through communication as they are about gameplay. Andre Mayer has noted that to such players knowing their standing and progress in the game, can be almost as important as knowing what will be their next goal in the game, and how to play towards it.
Rao concludes her research by stating that ‘Facebook Applications seem to appeal to the sphere of emotions (fun and playful mood) rather than actions (gameplay)’. She elaborates that instead of modeling and stylizing actions concretely for gameplay as verbs, which is what ‘real’ games do, these games rely on compressing that action into a few clicks (at most), and then narrating the resulting action through a ‘dramatic tale’, as Rao puts it. As a consequence, minimal engagement produces high rewards.
One could summarize this difference into a comparative principle: Whereas video game designers create skill-based justifications for resolutions of events, i.e. whether an action was successful or not; social network game designers create community-based, or story-based, justifications for the resolutions of events in their games.
In Part 2 of Game design for social networks, I will explore how ‘interaction design for playfulness’ is evident in a sample of social network games and their designs. From this sample, and by identifying some potential blind spots in the design space for social network games, I will synthesize a set of game design principles.
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Elster, Jon (1999) Strong Feelings. Emotion, Addiction, and Human Behavior. MIT Press.
Laurel, Brenda (2003) (ed.) Design Research. Methods and Perspectives. MIT Press.
Porter, J. (2008) Designing for the Social Web. New Riders.
Saffer, Dan (2007): Designing for Interaction: Creating Smart Applications and Clever Devices. New Riders.
Salen, Katie & Eric Zimmerman (2004) Rules of Play. Game Design Fundamentals. MIT Press.