When I started to use Facebook about 5 years ago, there was no such thing called ‘Games’ in it. And just all of a sudden, I was spammed with feeds about FarmVille, Mafia Wars and MouseHunt on my News Feed. Despite being a little annoyed by the ceaseless and almost meaningless (at least to somebody who does not play the Game) posts, I was actually more intrigued by this whole list of ‘App Feeds’. Many people play games on Facebook not because of the actual contents of them, but rather the fact that they could interact with their friends (and possibly find new friends) by engaging in virtual cooperation and competition.
What is the difference between games on conventional gaming systems and games on Facebook and similar websites? Sony and Microsoft have both provided user-networking platforms on PS3 (PlayStation Platform) and XBox 360 (XBox LIVE), which are intended to give users the ‘social-networking experience’ while playing video games. However, their user counts are still dwarfed by the enormous 240 million of Zynga, the largest ‘social-networking game provider’. Taking into consideration the age of Zynga (founded in 2007) and the ages of XBox (first generation released in 2000) and Play Station (first generation released in the 1990s), we are even more amazed by the impact of social games on us users.
Most of the social games require very simple control methods, sometimes only a few clicks (exemplified by the game Cow Clicker). Instead of complaining about the lack of intellectual challenge compared to video games that usually involve complicated control systems and demand good body coordination, I believe such simple and ‘unintelligent’ gaming methods are exactly one of the reasons why people enjoy playing them so much. Sometimes people are so exhausted by tasks at work that they just need a simple way to relax. And a game that is player-friendly and at the same time helps one interact with one’s social circle could be the best choice. Without the trouble to figure out the proper way of playing the game, players could dive into the gaming environment almost instantly. That is why thousands of users are drawn to Cow Clicker and remain enthusiastic in this game despite it being somewhat ‘dumb’.
Having said that, many social games are actually not as ‘unintelligent’ as they appear to be. In order to obtain higher scores in a social game, there are certain strategies which need to be employed. These strategies deal not just with the mechanism of the games themselves, but often involve theories in human psychology and behavioral studies as well. The social games could be simple to play, but since people who are playing them can display complicated and unpredictable behaviors, the resultant interaction can provide profound knowledge on our insight of the human mind.
Moreover, the different intentions with which people play conventional video games and social games also influence the rapid user growth rate of social games. When we play games on PS3 and XBox 360, our primary intention is to explore the content of the games themselves. The part of ‘interacting with friends’ usually comes after that. However, when we open Mafia Wars or FarmVille, we are trying to use the tools in the game to compete with our friends online. So our top priority is social interaction instead of solely game-playing. And that means we will try our best to involve our friends (interact with their characters, obtain higher scores than they have, or post feeds on their wall) in the games. As a result, one user’s action could trigger multiple responses from many other users. This nearly exponential rate of user involvement in social games plays a significant role in the rapid growth of firms like Zynga, and is the primary factor that distinguishes social games from normal video games.
Social games have become so integrated into Facebook that they are now an indispensable part of our ‘social-networking experience’. Leaving the positive and negative influences of such experiences aside, I am more interested in the fact that firms are now connecting fields (gaming, music, news) that were not associated with social networking in the past to websites like Facebook and Google+ so as to enrich our online interactions. The list of fields associated with social-networking sites is constantly increasing and hopefully, one day our social life online could be as colorful as our daily life (or is it already more colorful than our daily life?).