I recently read an interesting paper, “Putting the Fun Factor Into Gaming: The Influence of Social Contexts on Experiences of Playing Videogames”, by British scholars Linda Kaye and Jo Bryce. Although we often look at the fun factor in a game as a subjective measurement, this paper does a great job of showing objectively what makes a game fun.
According to Kay and Bryce, the key to creating a fun experience is “flow.” In flow theory, flow is characterized as a positive subjective state an individual experiences when they are undertaking an enjoyable activity, in which their capabilities match the high level of challenge required. This skill-challenge balance is integral to the player’s perceptions of the enjoyment derived from a game, and has been found to be associated with a range of positive indicators, including high levels of arousal, intrinsic motivation, positive effect and enjoyment. When experiencing flow, the individual is focused on the processes involved in the activity, rather than its potential consequences, and this is sufficiently rewarding to promote continued engagement. This intrinsic motivation is a key component of the flow experience, and the theory assumes that an individual undertakes an activity purely for its own sake.
From this explanation of flow, it is clear that when designing a social game it is crucial to optimize the challenge for the player so it is always at the appropriate balance. It is clear to me that many current social games (both mobile and on Facebook) do not create an appropriate challenge and thus do not encourage continued engagement. I have also found that even if the game is challenging initially, many social games fall into a routine in which “elder gameplay1” often devolves into robotic clicking. If you take away one tidbit from this post (and the underlying article), your social game must be —and remain—challenging for players.
A key part of creating fun for game players is through a game’s social components, which shows why social games are dominating the gaming space. Research shows that the sense of social belonging and companionship provided by group contexts can enhance the enjoyment and intrinsic rewards of an activity, in addition to the established flow components. In the paper, some players enjoyed playing as a result of involvement in a social community. Bryce and Kaye’s research suggests that feeling connected to others and recognizing the importance of online friends, are key motivational factors for playing. The appeal of social contact and competition against others motivates players.
Other great insights from the paper that are relevant to the social gaming community are:
- Players have more fun playing with real—not virtual—friends.
- Cooperative gaming tasks that required complementary participation resulted in enjoyable experiences. For example, players enjoy creating strategy together. The fun is particularly strong when the joint plan works. The lesson for social game companies is to provide people flexibility to determine a course of action with their friends, rather than giving the players a detailed roadmap of what they and their friends must do.
- Game players enjoy playing when their friends are physically present and also playing. Although this finding came from research with console gamers, it provides an interesting opportunity for social games, particularly mobile social, to encourage people to play jointly when they are physically in the same location.
- Some of the most powerful drivers of group flow, and thus fun, are collective competence, task-relevant knowledge/skills, interdependence, collaboration, coordination, shared task and complementary participation. These are all elements that social game companies should look at incorporating into their game design.
- Enjoyable experiences are associated with gaming tasks that require coordination, cooperation and interdependence. Social games should be built that necessitate players working together.
- Feedback from other players’ performance and the game itself were important for facilitating the experiences of flow. Thus, in a social game, a player will enjoy it more if they know how their friends are doing.
- The sense of being seen was apparent in social gaming context as the visibility of players’ gameplay performance to other players enhance the emotional investment in the activity.
- Gamers also enjoyed opportunities to engage in social networking during gaming sessions, regardless of whether or not the conversations were relevant to gameplay. Social game companies should look at ways to facilitate communication between friends beyond wall posts.
- Poor social dynamics ruin an experience. If people experience bullying, abusive speech (if there is chat), bad community behavior, abusive posts, etc., it ruins the fun.
It is very refreshing to see the underlying drivers of fun (a.k.a. flow) are already present to varying degrees in many social games. By focusing on these drivers, we can create an even more compelling form of entertainment.