Tag Archives: social network games


Cultural differences in how we play social network games

My colleague Yu-Hao and I have a new article out in Computers in Human Behavior about how cultural orientation affects people’s motivations to play social network games and how they play social network games (e.g., what they are doing in the game). One of the reasons that we did this study was because in our previous study, we found some very interesting differences in playing patterns between Asians and Whites. We also noticed that a lot of the literature looks at different nationalities and different patterns of play, but we didn’t like the idea of a race or nationality as being a good theoretical explanation for why people play differently.

This study uses four dimensions of culture  based on two “axes”: horizontal/vertical and individualism/collectivism.  Individualist cultures emphasize autonomy and personal goals over group goals. Interpersonal relations in individualist culture can be explained by rational exchange theory; people will only cooperate to the extent that the cooperation benefits the personal. Personal attitude influences behavior more than norms in individualist culture. On the other end, members of collectivist cultures perceive their self identity as part of the collective. These two dimensions are further distinguished by their emphasis on equality (horizontal) or hierarchy (vertical). These creates four types: Horizontal collectivism, vertical collectivism, horizontal individualism, and vertical individualism.

We found that culture plays a very small but significant role in explaining why people play social network games and how they play. People’s patterns of game play were mediated by their motivations/expectations.

One of the most interesting findings from a non-academic perspective was that of people who were vertical collectivists. This was the only cultural orientation group that indirectly predicted spending real money to buy virtual goods, which was fueled by a motivation to seek social expected outcomes. So this can be interpreted in the sense that people buying virtual items were doing so in relation to their social activity. This finding was very consistent with research that I’ve done analyzing actual purchasing behavior of users in a social game, where I found in the server-level data that people who spent more money were also engaging in more social activities, such as exchanging goods and messaging. This may explain why the free-to-play business model of games that rely on microtransactions of small virtual goods works in East Asian countries such as Korea,  and Taiwan, as these countries have been categorized in prior research as being more vertically collectivist on a national level. Although there are national-level trends, individuals can have different cultural orientations depending on their personality, social role, community norms, etc. From a business perspective identifying and targeting those people who have vertical collectivist tendencies may be a good way to earn money.

You can download the full paper here.

Enhancing Relationships with Farmville?

I just finished submitting the camera-ready copy of our paper on how social network games can initiate, maintain, and even enhance relationships. (Co-author J. Vitak has written a blog post summarizing the findings of this paper) This may seem like a ‘no duh’ finding, but I think this paper is really important because we’re beginning to see relationships mirroring those that do not involve any computer technology. A lot of the research in the past 20 years has been bashing technology and saying how it generates all these negative social outcomes, but now that we have a grasp of how to use this awesome thing called the Internet, the technology is no longer limiting us. Playing social network games through Facebook is almost the same as playing D&D or poker with your friends at your house- but with different pros and different cons. Of course, if you are comparing the face-to-face social game play involved in Friday D&D night with playing Mafia Wars online with your friends, you’re probably going to get more positive social benefits from the face-to-face game play. But comparing face-to-face game play with social network game play is not a fair comparison. Think about the availability of friends that could actually come to your house on Friday. Given the fact that people are located in remote places and everyone has different schedules, you could still get some positive social benefits from playing social network games with those friends whom you would probably not invite to Friday D&D night.

Reflecting on Casual Connect & advantages of being on an social network platform

Wow, it has already been two weeks since I attended Casual Connect, which was held this year in Seattle. Being in academia, this isn’t a conference that I would normally attend (and it was quite expensive to attend due to the ridiculous flight costs) but I feel that you can’t research cutting-edge technology without knowing what is going on in the industry. I know that a lot of game researchers conduct research without playing games or knowing about what goes on in the game industry, which is fine, but I feel that knowing the medium intimately helps me develop more interesting research questions that are not only theoretically interesting but realistically helpful. (I have a rant about how this is sometimes ignored in the development of serious games)

Steve Chiang of Zynga talks about the scale of games such as Frontierville by comparing the number of marriages

The conference was definitely a lonely experience because most of the people seemed to be developers or distributors. The interesting thing was that a lot of questions were posed in the sessions I attended (I went to the social games track) were those that I, or other people doing social games research could have answered. For instance, in talking about how players decorate their avatars, one person brought up the question of whether or not there are cultural differences. (The answer is, for certain specific types of customization, yes!) It is always fascinating and disappointing how things that are done in academia rarely make it over to industry, unless the school is extremely press-savvy. Some of the research I see published in popular press is stuff that isn’t as well-regarded in our field. (But who am I to complain- even among academia, it is so hard to share findings…so sad…)

I found out that the conference was posting all of the talks online, so I technically didn’t have to be there, but the conference seemed to be more about networking than sharing information. It was also somewhat amusing how differently people are dressed; at academic conferences, I rarely see women in stilettos.

The exhibition space was in the lobby of Bayonara Hall, the concert hall for the Seattle Symphony. I went to the PopCap booth and excitedly said, 'You should make stuffed animals for the characters in Plants vs Zombies~!" and they were like, "uh, yeah..." I guess people don't like free advice.

The interesting thing was, when talking to developers, is that a lot of them didn’t have a strong “theoretical” justification on why they developed games the way that they did. For instance, I pointed out that most of their games had a female lead character, and asked if that was a deliberate choice (I have another paper under review regarding gender representation in casual games). The companies, however, were like: “Not really, I’m sure if we had a male character, it would be equally succesful…” or “Hm, I’ve never thought about that. Maybe it’s because most of our players are women. But then wouldn’t women prefer looking at men?” Clearly, there weren’t rationales about why they did what they did. Or perhaps the designers did have a very good idea but the people in management and marketing just didn’t have a clue.

I wrote an article while I was there for Play As Life. It’s about discussion among industry on how important the platform (in the case of social network games, that would be Facebook) is for social network games. I have no doubt that Zynga, if it chooses to move away from Facebook, would still be able to roll along since it already has a huge dedicated user base. HOWEVER, if Zynga were a fledgling company, I don’t think it would be able to be successful without Facebook. As I’ve written in several academic papers (yet to be published, since the academic publishing cycling is very long) one of the key things that make social network games different from existing social games (such as MMORPGs) is that the game facilitates interaction with one’s game friends even outside of the game, and that external interaction then feeds back into the game. For instance, publishing game achievements on one’s Facebook wall has so many implications. 1) You are letting your friends know that you are playing the game. If you are alone, this doesn’t have a huge impact, but a critical mass of people who are doing this affects your friends who are getting all this game-related notices in their NewsFeed. This largely creates two different responses: people become curious about the game and then start playing, or they become appalled by the game and don’t play. Either way, you are still building the game’s reputation in terms of size.

2) You are reminded through the notices that someone needs help or has accomplished something. This elicits feedback and the interaction leads to other forms of interaction, both inside the game and outside. One paper (currently under review) that I have discusses how people maintain and even enhance relationships with existing acquaintances through Facebook games. In these cases, the games played an important role in facilitating communication.