~ Archive for Games ~

Why people play social network games…

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(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!

The serious cr** of serious games

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I am all about games being used as an educational tool. I am all about games being used to increase awareness or instigate action. I am NOT about games that are designed for the sake of proving that games can be used for this purpose.

I see how it’s useful to prove that video games can have a positive effect, but I don’t see how it’s useful to spend a ton of money on developing a game that only tests hypotheses that could be tested using existing games. I especially look down on the games that have spent government grants developing games that have little potential of being adapted in a classroom environment. I disapprove of giving federal funds to people who want to test empirical questions that dismiss flaws that would surface once you take a look beyond a specific empirical result.

The fundamental problem of a lot of the serious games is that they point out a significant outcome in the experiments, but have no significance outside of an experiment situation. For instance, one study looks at how doing an activity during gameplay  (such as walking on a treadmill) was more helpful for obese people than lean people in terms of burning calories. You may think, ‘Wow!’ but then I would ask: How do you motivate an obese person to do the treadmill in a naturalistic setting? It’s like forcing a kid to clean his room. Once the room is clean, you could say ‘see? Cleaning the room made the room clean!’ Well yes, but that still doesn’t solve the problem of motivating the kid to clean the room in the first place. I’m sure there are situations in which someone could force people to play the games (schools or the military, perhaps?), but then we would expect to see that forced game-play has different effects compared to voluntary game-play.

I feel the biggest flaw in the design of serious games is that the people working on them are more interested in the positive effects of the game, rather than a design that would be fun to play. To a large extent, I believe that it comes down to education style and impacts of learning. For instance, I remember more about ancient Greeks in trying to put together a short video in 5th grade about the similarities and differences of Sparta and Athens. Taking a curtain to make a greek costume made me research how people dressed and taught me about climate, lifestyle, etc. that went beyond what was in the textbook.

I feel all of that could be implemented in a game. For instance, if we wanted to teach students about ancient Greece, a Civilization-type game would be excellent. The key would be, however, to add more details to the gameplay. For instance, when constructing a building, players could be given the choice to make the columns of the building ionian, doric or corinthian. Being able to choose one of the designs and looking at the results would be an interesting way of learning about ancient Greek architecture. I think serious games designers should look at popular existing games and think of how we could tweak those to have an educational/prosocial outcome.

Why should farm games mirror reality?

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Another example of a waste of bandwidth and memory is this blog post saying that farming in Farmville is different from reality; thus we need to do farming in real life instead of on a game.

I don’t know where to begin, wondering if this is worth refuting at all, because a response would indicate that this is worthy of response. But then, the world is made up of people with diverse ideas, so let me continue. Sigh.

First of all, games don’t mirror reality. Some do, but a lot don’t. You can’t say that games should mirror reality– it’s like saying that movies should reflect reality or novels should reflect reality. It becomes a problem when an entertainment media claims to be replicating reality, but otherwise, entertainment media should not be required to be “real.” Even so-called reality shows aren’t about reality, but seeing how hypothetical situations (that would otherwise not happen in reality) play out in reality.

I realize that this person is concerned that people playing Farmville will have a skewed idea of what farming is really like, but I don’t think people will think it’s the same. For instance, I’ve already pointed out that Farmville does not reflect butchering, but I still know about it. I don’t think Farmville players think that crops can actually be harvested in a matter of hours or that it is possible to maintain animals without feeding them. The list can go on and on… for instance, Farmville doesn’t have pests (maybe that’s something they could add in the future) nor does it ever rain. You can’t help other farmers harvest their crops, and you can give presents to your friends for free. Plants die, but trees don’t. Yup, not very realistic.

Also, even though elements in Farmville are not equivalent to those of real life, I think that people still learn something about farms. For instance, I thought pineapples grew on trees and when I saw them growing on the ground in Farmville, I was confused and did some research on pineapples. Also, you can’t slaughter animals, but the game makes you very aware of the fact that there are alternative “benefits” that you can harvest from animals, like truffles and pigs. Also, using the machines makes farming easy in the game; I think it has made me more appreciate of food that is grown by hand. And playing Farmville puts a face behind the food. You know that with everything you eat, there’s someone who was responsible for producing it. I’m not saying that’s not something I didn’t know before- but Farmville made me more cognizant of it.

But lets say that you’re not the type that takes away latent morals from games. That still is not a reason to say that the games should mirror reality. Yes, it’s important to make people aware of farming, but games shouldn’t be responsible for not taking on that responsibility.

The author also a distorted sense of causality. Just because Farmville taps into the hearts of people who have a desire for a more simple, pastoral life doesn’t mean that Farmville is making people yearn for farm life. And even if that were true, what is the harm in that? Anyone who starts farming after being inspired by Farmville will find on day one that reality is different.

It’s true that entertainment media of any kind influences how people think or feel– there are decades of studies on this. But before blaming games for not being realistic, we should think of more fundamental problems: if people are so gullible as to believe everything in games is true, it reflects a lack of ability to separate fiction from non-fiction to begin with. This inability to distinguish reality is a mental disorder, more influenced by environmental functions, a long laundry list that includes demographics, household environment, personality traits, genes, and so on and so forth.

The fun factor

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As complicated as games can get these days, I think developers sometimes forget a very important factor that makes games successful: fun. This post was triggered directly by this video, which shows an experiment where the stairs in a subway station were converted into piano keys. After the staircase piano was installed, about 60% of the people going up chose to walk instead of taking the escalator. The theme to this Volkswagen-funded experiment is “Fun changes behavior.”

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2lXh2n0aPyw]

The idea of making non-fun things fun is an old concept– perhaps even something that is unconscious. As a child, I tried to make a game out of cleaning my room, because I really hated doing it. Recent games, however, have tried to tap into incorporating fun with behavioral change– Wii fit, for example, tried to make exercising a fun thing to do. A lot of the educational games are also trying to use games to make otherwise non-fun activities more fun.

Unfortunately, when it is obvious that the game is being used as an effort to make a non-fun thing fun, it lacks the effect. I think this is because developers of so-called serious games are too intent on delivering the positive message that they overlook what people actually like. The Wii Fit, for example, could have been the perfect game for me: I love games, but loathe going to the fitness center. When I get to the fitness center, however, I will happily ride the elliptical for an hour if a fun television show is on. The Wii Fit, however, has me bored after five minutes. Even if I know it may be good for me, I won’t play.

That’s why I frown upon IQ-enhancing games and word games, because other than beating the clock, there really is very little fun involved. But if, for instance, someone made an RPG where I had to use my brain (unconsciously) to advance the level, I would be very happy. That’s why I love the old adventure games like Myst, although to what extent that game improved my problem-solving skills is questionable.

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