Social games vs gambling

 Posted by (Visited 9916 times)  Game talk  Tagged with:
Jul 032013

A lot of people are still looking down their noses at social games, particularly now that Facebook is no longer the hot new games platform. This ignores the fact that there are millions of people happily playing social games every day, of course.

Many of the games seem like gambling to people now, what with small payments in order to make progress. Many of those who dislike the free-to-play model feel like “the game is rigged in favor of the house.” There’s also the fact that many of the social game companies have an eye on regulatory changes that may allow them to get into real-money gambling soon.

Which leads to people asking (on Quora), are social games the same as gambling? Are they really just like slot machines?

There are many senses in which we can answer this.

In the sense that people do both for fun, yes.

In the sense that social games make use of many of the same techniques as gambling games do in order to maximize financial spend and retention, yes. Examples would include frequent and excessive feedback for trivial success; exploitation of various “brain bugs” around probability estimation, loss aversion, etc; even bait and switch tactics, where a player is invited to complete a task only to find out too late that it cannot be done without spending money.

bogost-animalcrossing-fbIn the sense that gambling taps into variable feedback reward patterns using the fundamental deception that there is a pattern to be learned, when there isn’t… sometimes yes and sometimes no. Some social games make use of this sort of technique, and some don’t. Then again, so do many games — randomness is a pretty common design element, and there are often good reasons for it to exist in a game design.

Some social games do depend entirely on patternlessness, or on “rigged” patterns where the player is effectively tricked into thinking that they can win. But not most of them. I classify “gambling” as one of the four core mechanic clusters (the others being mathematical problems, social problems, and physical body mastery), and it’s a degenerate one that relies on hijacking the reward mechanism of fun without providing schema to master.

Some of the many ways in which social games do more than slot machines:

  • There usually are at least some problems to solve and therefore learning to do. For example, all social games involving return times (like, all the farming/tending activities) are forms of slow-motion  scheduling problems, which can be an NP-hard problem given sufficient  complexity.
  • Social games have a strong social component. Social obligation, connectedness, leaderboard competitiveness, etc, are a huge part of why social games work. Lack of a friend network is one of the strongest indicators of a player likely to quit.
  • Many social games are enablers of creative emergent behavior on the part of players, such as doing decorations, etc. Farmville was famous for this, but it’s hardly the only one.

Social games are still games, and all games teach cognitive strategies and patterns. Slot machines don’t teach you anything; they trigger the learning and curiosity pathways without actually giving you a benefit in return. The value exchange tends to flow entirely in one direction. In other words, they show contempt for the player.

It was sort of ironic to see this question at a time when Animal Crossing: New Leaf is taking over my social media feeds. Animal Crossing is structurally very much like a social game. It just has more charm, creativity, and respect for the player than the typical social game does. A lot of that can be chalked up to the revenue model.

It’s valuable to ask where social games dance close to the edge of contempt. But it’s also wrong to write off an entire industry segment that has not reached its potential. It would be fascinating to see what would happen to social games were the entire business landscape blown up and a single upfront fee became a viable business  model. I bet we would see an explosion of truly innovative gameplay.

  9 Responses to “Social games vs gambling”

  1. Hey Raph,
    I think some of what you are seeing is the inevitable push back against the ridiculous hype the social space was generating. The financial expectations were always way out of line with reality and companies like Zynga encouraged and fed those perceptions to ridiculously high IPO offerings.

    The fact of the matter is that squeezing blood from a stone is a very difficult way to make money, and it is unclear how well the pure social genre will do if it moves to a model with upfront and honest fees.

    Of course there is a sucker born every minute and two take him and the silly money is now off chasing mobile…

  2. Pay-to-win leads to lazy design. If your revenue stream is a few whales, you just have to keep them opening card packs or the equivilent. You don’t have to worry about churn in the other 99.9% of your player base; they’re just fodder, and they’re not paying off your new beemer.

    It may not be a straight skinner-box slot machine, but it’s as close as they can make it without losing the whales and potential whales.

    I noted the resemblance some year ago between Project Entropia and a casino. Since the advent of social gaming, I have to moderate the harshness of my remarks. At least with Entropia, there’s a faint possiblity you might be able to cash out.

  3. I think social features will soon be intergrated in all games, to there’ll be no war social games vs gambling – there’ll soon be just social gaming

  4. […] – Social Games vs. Gambling, by Raph Koster, discussing the similarities and differences of those two industry segments. […]

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