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Play on, player: A look inside the social gaming phenomenon


March 1, 2011

Gaming is becoming a cultural phenomenon thanks to social media — especially Facebook.  Social games allow people to connect and have fun with friends, family and others in a way that wasn’t possible with traditional video games.

As Facebook’s membership continues to rapidly grow (7.8 new members reportedly joined per second in 2010), the number of social gamers is also constantly increasing. Meanwhile, leading social game producer Zynga now uses Facebook as its primary platform.

According to game designer and researcher Jane McGonigal in a TED Talk, studies show that people spend 3 billion hours per week gaming online, and there are 500 million global gamers now who spend at least an hour per day playing.

And as the number of location-based services and smartphone users increase, social dynamics have started reshaping people’s relationships with these games and also made them more pervasive.

Social games can teach communicators lessons about practical applications as well as creative strategy, design and measurement. They also show how we interact with each other. 

Psychology of the gamer
But researchers say that social gaming is not a new idea.

“The psychology behind Avatars and role-play is greatly affected by having other real people in your world to show off to,” says Marc Dionne, creative director, senior vice president and partner at Fleishman-Hillard. “Who wouldn’t want to be a better version of themselves to millions of people?”

People want to play with other people to test their limits, and Facebook is connecting people across the world in real time.

Within a well-designed game, people are more likely to challenge themselves because of elements such as immediate feedback, imminent satisfaction, clear and attainable goals, empowerment. “With our campaigns and projects, we’re asking for the most precious resource any of us ever have — time,” Dionne says. “We’re using someone’s time and attention.  And we better have a damn good reason why.”

Jesse Schell, CEO of Schell Games and assistant professor of entertainment technology at Carnegie Mellon University, notes, “generally, anything that can be done, humans will make a game of.”  And for a game to be engaging, interesting or entertaining, “it has to fulfill some kind of fantasy, foster interesting social interaction and give some sense of meaningful progress or growth.”

Levels, powers and virtual goods
Zynga’s dominance is pushing other developers to be more innovative on mobile platforms. And these social games don’t mean anything if you don’t have the network.  Social games constantly add new features, listen and react in real time.

“FarmVille” is so popular that players buy more virtual tractors each day than the number of real tractors that people buy in the United States each year, according to SchoolCharts.org. Some players like the decorating and collecting aspect of buying virtual goods while some like to make this into a competition with their friends.  Whether it’s decorating their farm, city or frontier — or gifting to friends — it’s another way for people to connect and play with one another through Zynga’s games.

“Virtual goods are valuable because, ultimately, we spend our money on experiences,” Schell says. “As we spend more time in a virtual world of ideas and imagination, and less time in a world of atoms and molecules, virtual items will become more plentiful and more valuable than physical items.”

Through brand partnerships, Zynga offers exclusive virtual goods that can be surprising or exciting for players. The company has had positive responses to its promotions from both players and brands.

Zynga has found that ads that enhance game play are unobtrusive and can improve the overall user experience. (Zynga declined to provide official comment for this
article.)

One example is T-Mobile’s integration in “Treasure Isle” to showcase its 4G Network speed.

T-Mobile can add value to users’ game-play by providing a custom mission that will reward them with a “speed” related prize after completion (to finish future tasks faster).

“The main lesson is that people will spend time on things that feel fulfilling to them,” Schell surmises.

A quest for social good
Games can draw attention to causes, and it is also possible to help the world when you play some of them, Schell says. One example is Foldit, a multiplayer game where users can contribute to science by helping solve puzzles.
Games like the Points for Pakistan program asks players to donate to a cause at the end, while others promote sustainability in real life by tracking carbon footprints or informing people about social issues.

Also, Zynga has sold branded virtual goods in its games on behalf of the victims of the Haitian earthquake (Sweet Seeds for Haiti) and the Gulf Oil Spill. Players have also purchased social goods within games to benefit school lunch programs for children in Haiti.  Zynga players have raised more than $6 million for several international nonprofits since Zynga.org launched in October 2009.

“When we are in game worlds, I believe that many of us become the best version of ourselves,” McGonigal said. “The most likely to help at a moment’s notice — the most likely to stick with a problem as long as it takes, to get up after failure and try again. In real life, when we face failure, when we confront obstacles, we often don’t feel that way.”

This past year, Fleishman-Hillard created its own multimedia communications campaign, “AdMongo — Live the Adventure,” for the Federal Trade Commission to help children build advertising literacy skills.

The challenge for communicators
The important thing to remember, Dionne notes, is why people are playing the game. It’s about the content, what they want to get out of it, why they want to solve challenges and how each aspect of game play relates to a goal or objective.

Zynga’s mission is to connect the world through games by offering consumers meaningful experiences. Its strategy with brand partnerships is to deliver quality in-game brand experiences that enhance game play.  The company also believes that social games provide advertisers with an unprecedented opportunity to reach a highly engaged audience in significant ways.

“[Video games aren’t] different than any other medium we currently use,” Dionne says. “It comes down to whether or not the content is meaningful. If you build a video game with no clear purpose … then it’s just a digital toy.  You engage by creating something valuable through [a] story or some other aspect of the game.”

Games can develop spatial awareness, strengthen problem-solving skills and train people to work through frustration. Some can even strengthen the immune system, provide a new knowledge base or teach survival skills.

“The key here is the type of teaching: it’s not just memorization of facts,” Dionne adds. Everything you learn and use is applied.  You play with the ideas and concepts.  Trial and error is highly encouraged, even necessary.  You turn these concepts over and over, spend time with them, come to a better understanding of the implications and value of an idea — not just it’s definition.  And all that under the guise of play.”

Amy Jacques Amy Jacques is the managing editor of Tactics. She holds a master’s in arts journalism from Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.
Email: amy.jacques at prsa.org



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