Why people play social network games…

(cross-posted on Play As Life)

Why do people play games? A lot of scholars and market researchers have looked at game motivations and have pretty much come up with similar results. People play for several reasons, some of which include to be social, to engage in competition, to immerse in fantasy, etc. etc.

But why do people play games on Facebook? We would expect that a lot of motivations that apply to regular games would also apply to Facebook games. However, maybe Facebook games are different. Compared to MMOs, they are most definitely smaller in scale. Also, with Facebook games you are more likely to play with your existing friends (yes, you could play with your existing friends on MMOs and Xbox Live, but with those games you don’t necessarily need that friendship tie in order to play). The games are also mostly asynchronous, browser-based, and easier to learn/play.

So we set out to see why people were playing Facebook games– and especially, in the context of social network sites– if people were playing for social reasons.

A few colleagues and I did some empirical tests and turns out, yes and no. We focused on non-game-specific motivations (we didn’t look at competition or fantasy elements) and found four distinct motivations. People said they played games on Facebook because they:

-Wanted to achieve common ground (get topic of conversation to talk with other people)
-Wanted to engage in reciprocity (give gifts, get gifts, etc.)
-As a coping strategy (relieving stress, getting enjoyment, etc.)
-To relieve boredom

Because people could answer these from a 5-point scale ranging from strongly disagree to strongly agree, although we found these four factors, we saw that the first two reasons had pretty low means. Which means that more people DON’T play social network games to achieve common ground or engage in reciprocity.

So that is the bad news. People aren’t playing because they expect to get social outcomes. A isn’t playing Farmville with B in order to improve social relationships with B. A just wants to relieve boredom or play for his or her own enjoyment.

BUT that isn’t the end of the story. Just because you don’t expect something doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t get it. Our next step is to see if playing social network games actually generates some positive (or negative) social outcome. And we strongly believe that it does, because gift-giving and reciprocity are very strong elements of the game play. Even if people are only giving gifts because the game forces them to, they may get some unexpected social outcome. We have anecdotal cases that support this– in the coming months we will be trying to get some empirical evidence of whether or not this is true.

I will be presenting our preiminary findings of social network game motivation and uses at CHI next week. Stay tuned for more interesting research on social network games!

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