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
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.
Benkler, Y. (2006) The Wealth of Networks. Yale University Press.
Brathwaite, B. & Schreiber, I. (2008) Challenges for Game Designers. Non-digital exercises for video game designers. Charles River Media.
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.