First Monday

Social gaming for change: Facebook unleashed by Jennifer R. Whitson and Claire Dormann

The notion that we can positively change behaviours through games and play has long been accepted by social change game creators. In this paper, we argue that social change games should meet social gaming. Thus, we study the characteristics of Facebook style games and of the platform itself. We first discuss the positive traits of social gaming like the pro–social game mechanics, asynchronous multiplayer gameplay and the influence of the social infrastructure. Then, we consider how some of these factors can negatively impact social change games and show how these weaknesses can be addressed with careful forethought. Ultimately, we propose a novel strategy for the design of social change games and highlight how we can move forward to develop them.


Introduction: “Saving the world” through games
Background and method
Positive results: Social gaming for social change games
Criticism of Facebook: Negative findings
Discussion and conclusion: Toward social gaming for change



Introduction: “Saving the world” through games

One of the most recognized women in videogames, Jane McGonigal argues that we are abandoning reality for games. Instead of seeing games as an escape or addiction, McGonigal’s new book, Reality is broken (2011) argues that games, even violent ones such as Halo and World of Warcraft, can “save the world” by facilitating cooperation and collaboration at previously unimaginable scales and motivating players to stick with seemingly insurmountable challenges. Her thesis is that we can learn from games and game developers about how to leverage play in order to make reality better. To this extent, McGonigal is focused on creating new games that help us attack real world issues such as responding to climate change, preventing energy crises, curing cancer, and ending poverty. Instead of using games to escape reality, McGonigal argues that games can help us make stronger connections and bigger contributions to the world around us.

The idea that we can positively change real world behaviours through games and play has long been accepted by creators of social change games. By raising awareness of important social issues and delivering powerful statements, social change games (hereinafter referred to as SCG) hope to inspire new thinking and transform players’ views or attitudes as well as real–world behaviour (Schreiner, 2008). Alternatively labelled as social impact games, activist games, persuasive games, or even documentary games, the function of SCG is to create social awareness of a particular issue, educate and change the attitude and behaviour of players, and/or promote activism and social engagement. Similar to health games which promote healthy living, SCG are a subset of serious games. The definitions of both serious games and educational games are not universally agreed upon and thus still in development. Many of the arguments we make in this article might be applied to other serious games, especially health games that leverage individual social graphs to influence behavioural change, however that would require further study. Like McGonigal, we are specifically focused on using games to promote social and political change.

SCG address a range of topics, including contemporary geo–political events such as war, political instability and environmental disasters (EyeWitness, Tempest in Crescent City), as well as myriad socio–emotional and cultural issues, including human rights (Pictures for Truth), ethnic conflict (Darfur is Dying) and endemic poverty (Ayiti) as well as demonstrate the individual plights faced by marginalized groups such as the homeless (Homeless: It’s No Game) and asylum seekers (Escape from Woomera).

Despite McGonigal’s enthusiasm, the history of SCG has been one of struggle. Although the interest in SCG is steadily growing, they face substantial critique (see Bogost, 2007). While some SCG have achieved considerable success in terms of the number of downloads or attracting media attention (e.g., Darfur is Dying and September 12), other indicators of success, to our knowledge, are nonexistent. McGonigal’s much–lauded games attract a relatively small number of players, from 19,000 for the entrepreneurial game Evoke, to just over 250,000 for The Lost Ring Olympics game (McGonigal, 2011). If we desire to change the world through play, a much larger critical mass of players is needed.

Parallel to McGonigal’s quest to save the world though games, something new is happening: the rise of Facebook and the unanticipated popularity of games such as Farmville and CityVille. With over 800 million members, Facebook has introduced games to a globally distributed audience that is unprecedented in scale. Facebook games harness pre–existing social networks to market and disseminate the game among communities of players. Embedding these games within players’ social networks strongly motivates play. Players are also drawn to these games as they offer upbeat fictions/narratives, are easy to use and can be played for short periods of time (Juul, 2010).

If we add the unanticipated success of Facebook games to McGonigal’s thesis, we come to the question: Can we harness Facebook and design SCG to change the world around us? In this paper, we specifically ask two questions: Can Facebook help social change games reach unprecedented audiences? Can mechanics and techniques found in Facebook games benefit SCG to make them more engaging, more persuasive and, most importantly, more social?

We begin this paper by discussing our approach, situating social change games and their missions, and then introducing Facebook–style games. After presenting our methodology, we list the findings of our study, organized first by positive outcomes and then followed by potentially negative outcomes. In our discussion section we argue that while social change games have much to learn from Facebook games, what they take from Facebook and, indeed, whether they should use Facebook as a distribution platform at all, depends on the individual context of each social change game, and the particular goals that the game is designed to foster.



Background and method

In this section, we explain our approach and why social change games need social gaming, highlighting one major failing: the lack of social interaction within SCG. We argue that Facebook games, which are increasingly referred to as ‘social games’, have traits that address some of the limitations of SCG.

Social change games

Stokes, et al. (2010), exploring the potential of games for non–profit organizations, argued that games have the potential to build awareness, train, mobilize, and engage people in advancing positive social change. The power of SCG lies in the creation of vicarious emotional experiences from which players can learn, and spaces in which they can experiment and foster change (Zagal, 2009). For example, in Ayiti, players follow the day–to–day life of a developing world family struggling to provide food and acquire enough education to plan for a better future. Players are asked to resolve dilemmas and make important decisions relating to the welfare of characters, and thus are confronted with some of the disempowerment and hardships faced by real individuals. SCG dramatize everyday social problems.

As argued by McGonigal (2011), games offer significant potential as models for introducing players to new worldviews. Yet, SCG are often affectively flat. Characters express few emotions and players’ social interactions in these games rely on canned NPC dialogues. The games fail to embed mechanisms for realizing and experiencing social emotions such as trust or empathy (Dormann, et al., 2011). Despite being an important component of social change and social learning (Bandura, 2004), most existing SCG lack both social interaction and cooperative game mechanics.

More importantly, SCGs lack human interaction, as they are generally played alone. “People are inherently social creatures and, for this reason, people are constantly searching for others to share their interests, to solve their problems, to date, to meet people, to have an informal conversation, to ask an expert for some help, as well as other interests.” (Di Loreto and Gouaïch, 2010). As recognized by Lazzaro, (2004), the human dimension, People Fun, is an important reason why players engage and play. Similarly, Szentgyorgyi, et al. (2008), found that the presence of other players was an important gaming motivator for the DS, a handheld game console manufactured by Nintendo.

Despite defining itself as a viral videogame for change and embedding a “call to action”, Darfur is Dying as well as other SCG do not seem very good at creating a community of players. Games can provide a powerful–shared experience that transcends the bounds of the game toward the “real” world. Mutual play can be a starting point for debate and further social networking, a critical element for social activism.

We believe that adding a human dimension to SCG is thus the next step in their development. Adding the social and ‘people fun’ to SCG should make them more engaging and persuasive. Designing real social interaction into SCG could be used to foster the development of desirable socio–emotional traits such as caring, or of relationship and communication skills such as cooperation, reciprocity, and a willingness to seek and provide help. Thus, the use of social media such as Facebook in which many people engage might facilitate exchange and community building and potentially address the limitations of SCG that we have discussed.

Facebook games, a.k.a. social games

Before continuing, we must first include a brief caveat on the term ‘social games’ which we use throughout the rest of this paper to refer to Facebook games. In game studies, the term ‘social game’ typically refers to games “in which the play consists primarily of social interaction between participants” [1]. Historically, all games were social in that they were played with other people. It is only recently that single player games emerged and became the ‘norm’, at least in terms of computer games (Pearce and Artemesia, 2009).

But this definition is not what is meant when publishers, developers, players, and media outlets refer to social games. In fact, they are referring to something very different. The term ‘social games’, at least in the common usage, now refers to games that are accessed and played within social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace. In this context, ‘social games’ are shorthand for ‘games played using social networking platforms’ and most often refer to Facebook games. Accordingly, we wish to emphasize that, unlike the traditional game studies meaning of the term, with this new common usage term there is nothing inherently social about social games.

While other platforms (e.g., mobile games, app games, and handheld games) also leverage players’ pre–existing social networks in the game space, the examples used in this paper are primarily Facebook games because the success of social games on the Facebook platform has propelled the rise of social games as a whole. Social game design strategies and techniques originating on Facebook have migrated to other platforms and Facebook games such as Farmville have been ported to numerous other sites, thus contributing to a larger category of Facebook–style games that can be found beyond the Facebook platform itself.

Research on Facebook games

Given the recent origins of the platform and the games themselves, research on Facebook games is sparse but growing. In our analysis of the Facebook games literature, three general approaches were common. The first utilizes Facebook user surveys to determine who players are and why they play games. Di Loreto and Gouaïch (2010) argued that the basic motivation to play social games originates from the psychological needs of the users and the opportunities presented by the virtual environments of social games. For example, they discussed how affiliation, the need to be in the company of others (and cooperating, exchanging views, or being friendly) is realized in Facebook games. Wohn, et al. (2010) found that players use Facebook games to “create common ground, reciprocate, cope and pass time” [2]. They further argued that Facebook games are used to stimulate future social interactions rather than seeking direct social interaction in the game. Hou (2011) more recently found that the desire for social interaction motivates Facebook gamers.

A second approach to the study of Facebook games is to design, build, and deploy games, using them as test–bed to study elements of social games like social engagement and the use social graphs, but also ludic characteristics (Kirman, et al., 2010; Kirman, et al., 2009). For example, Kirman (2010) argued that experimentation and playfulness is an important criteria to make those games pleasurable.

The last approach builds off analyses of the games themselves. A common theme of this research relates to measuring how ‘social’ are social games and examining players’ social networks. Losh (2008) used case studies of popular games to highlight how players may violate social norms about aggression, proximity, and privacy in ways that sacrifice real–world friendships. Rossi (2009) also critiqued the ‘social’ in Facebook games, arguing that while games can serve a bonding function, the design of Facebook games encourages players to use their social networks as a strategic resource rather than increasing their social connectivity.

In contrast, Rao highlighted how casual games on Facebook encourage a ‘third space’ of socialization that gives a “feeling of community and participation without actual co–presence or interaction” [3]. These games aid in the creation of a platform–wide playful mood that encourages conversation and socialization, as well as the coexistence of fictional elements (i.e., games) and everyday elements (i.e., real identities). Building on Rao’s work, Järvinen (2009) used interaction design to show how games can be fruitfully designed for social networks. He highlighted principles and patterns that support the “inherent sociability, spontaneity, narrativity, and playfulness” at the heart of these games [4].

Due to the increasing popularity of social networking platforms, research on social games is forthcoming. Social games that are educational or address social change issues are slowly emerging. Free Rice, a game that combines educational word games with fundraising to stop hunger, was ported to Facebook. Oceanopolis, although not a very successful game, was designed to encourage recycling in the real world, and VocVille, modelled after Farmville, is an online browser game that helps players learn vocabulary (Jensen, 2007).

While this literature review is not exhaustive, it highlights some of the desired traits of social games but also the need for caution if we want to tackle world problems and sensitive human issues. Thus, for social gaming and social change games to meet successfully, we need to understand the characteristics of Facebook and Facebook–style games for our particular context.

After introducing our methodology, we organize our findings into two large sections. The first section describes the positive findings of our study and provides details on how Facebook games can improve SCG. The second section discusses the potential pitfalls associated with locating a SCG on Facebook, as well as cautions about using mechanics taken from Facebook and applying them elsewhere. We then rebut this criticism, showing that many of the negative traits associated with Facebook and social games in general can be overcome with foresight and planning on the part of the SCG developer or, in fact, are an artifact of early games and do not represent the current generation of games.


Our approach was framed by one of the author’s in–depth knowledge of SCG, including documenting, playing and designing SCG (Dormann, et al., 2011; Dormann, et al., 2006). In particular, we conducted affective walkthroughs to inspect SCG and to allow repeated observation and analysis (Dormann and Biddle, 2008). Subsequently, we identified SCG game design patterns and how SCG situate social issues through games and connect to the real world.

Following Rao (2008), Järvinen (2009), Losh (2008), and Rossi (2009), we took a case study approach to analyze the social interactions in Facebook games. While we played a variety of Facebook games, our examples are taken from Frontierville, which at the time was the newest offering from Facebook’s most popular game developer, Zynga. One author played Frontierville for 75 consecutive days, accompanied by formal analysis which included logs of playing notes and personal reflections as well as screenshots and short video recordings that captured important elements of play, both in the game itself and on the author’s Facebook profile page.

In terms of time commitment, there is nothing ‘casual’ about playing Facebook games. While a single play session may last 10 minutes, the structure of Facebook games encourage players to continually check back into the game as there is always something new to do. Generally, play averaged about an hour and a half each day. Ultimately, while the gameplay mechanics of Frontierville were relatively simple, there was considerable variety in the tasks and quests as well as different emergent challenges in terms of maintaining social relationships and earning ‘reputation’ points.

In addition to examining both SCG and Facebook games, we supplemented our case study data with a much wider analysis of game news sites, blogs, and developer conferences. The material gathered from these sites was used to triangulate our data, and helped us understand some of the critical reception of Facebook games despite their growing popularity among players.

Within the last year the policies and practices of Facebook have changed numerous times and game design has been constantly evolving along with these changes. Accordingly, it is important to note that Facebook games are a moving target and rather than a definitive analysis, this study is more of a snapshot of Facebook games in their current iteration. In contrast, SCG are a more established gaming genre with a longer history.



Positive results: How can social gaming enhance social change games?

We found that Facebook style games exhibit many positive traits that can alter, enhance and stimulate SCG if particular attention is paid to the context in which they are applied. These positive outcomes are organized into two categories (noting that the following list is not exhaustive due to the space constraints of this paper). The first category addresses why we would advocate locating SCG on large social networking platforms such as Facebook. These benefits centre on the use of built–in tools that collect user metrics, the leveraging of large pre–existing social graphs and viral distribution, and the ease of micro–transactions. The second category assesses whether Facebook games offer the kind of social engagement that SCG intend to foster. Ultimately we found that the inclusion of the social graph and playing with those you know, the asynchronous play that facilitates multiplayer interaction, and gameplay mechanics that are predicated on social skills such as sharing, gifting and reciprocity, all could be leveraged to improve SCG.

Why might we locate SCG on Facebook or similarly large commercialized platforms?

By locating a game on a pre–existing social networking platform such as Facebook developers of SCG can leverage benefits due to the platform itself. Each of the following subsections address structural elements of Facebook games, and lists the ways in which these elements can be used to sustain SCG.

Real identity and the social graph

Facebook games utilize the social graph, allowing players to exclusively interact and play with those people who are already in their social network (i.e., those who are listed as ‘friends’). Adding Facebook friends to the game as ‘neighbors’ turns a single player game into a multiplayer game and offers a much richer experience that is closely linked to one’s real world identity and social network.

Success in social games is contingent upon maintaining relationships with one’s real life social network. While games such as Frontierville offer simple diversions for solo players, the real game mechanics are centered on playing with friends and associates, importing social relationships from player’s real lives into the games they play, and using these games as a tool to foster and maintain social relationships. For example, while Frontierville can be played alone in the beginning stages of the game, without neighbors, players cannot purchase desirable virtual items and certain in–game quests and missions cannot be completed. Players soon learn that things are much easier to accomplish if they have a friend’s help. This acknowledgement has a powerful message if we apply it to SCG — that social change is not something that can be achieved alone, but is rather a co–operative effort.

By necessity, games played on social platforms are linked to players’ real identities. This makes it easy to see which friends, co–workers, and family members are playing a game, and joining in. Linking a game avatar to a player’s real–world identity aids in accountability and promotes good behaviour. Having a real–world identity encourages fair play, as players recognize that their in–game behaviours will be used to judge their real–world reputations. Accordingly, having identifiable avatars reduces antisocial behaviour, such as griefing and cheating (Whitson and Doyle, 2008). It also aids in real–world relationship building as in–game favors, gift–giving, cooperation and reciprocity may inspire their real–world counterparts.

The importance of social networks in inspiring real–world change should not be neglected by SCG designers. The accountability created by linking one’s real identity to SCG can promote real–world change, as the player’s social network is updated on the player’s individual goals and progress, thus holding the player accountable for lapses and applauding their successes. For example, engaging family members in a cooperative weight monitoring effort has been shown to lead to more enduring effects than those achieved through an individual’s own motivation (Lin, et al., 2006). We can easily see how a healthier living game located on Facebook could enrol a player’s social network in motivating the player to change their habits. As we discuss further on in the paper, integrating a social network into play also has important social and community–building functions that are ideal for SCG.

Viral spread

The virality of a game describes how existing players are encouraged to promote the game to others. While traditionally achieved through word–of–mouth referrals, virality in Facebook games most often leverages communication channels from the game to contact and recruit non–players. In other words, sharing the game is built into the gameplay itself. Successful games are quickly spread through a player’s social network in a virus–like manner.

Virality often takes the form of notifications that are posted on a player’s wall and Facebook newsfeed, but it is also directly built into the game mechanics itself, which provide in–game incentives for the players to recruit new players and share the game with their friends. While the use of notifications have been curtailed numerous times by Facebook in response to the irritation expressed by non–players who were bombarded with constant game updates and requests from their gamer friends, other modes of recruitment persist.

Embedded tools allow players to share the Facebook game with others. Since flash games (the prevailing format for Facebook games) do not require any downloading or installation, interested friends simply have to ‘accept’ the invitation in order to play. These simple mechanics can be easily leveraged for SCG as they also rely heavily on viral spread. Allowing players to search their contact list and share the game with a simple button click increases the reach of the game, and helps disseminate it to a much larger audience, including an audience who may not normally play games. These invitations act as word–of–mouth endorsements, letting the receiver know that someone they know personally is playing the game and recommending it specifically to them.

The economic model of Facebook games: Micro–transactions

Like SCG, Facebook games are free to play. Yet, unlike SCG, popular Facebook games generate considerable profits due to their dual economic structure, which relies on player micro–transactions as well as third–party advertising revenue. While SCG developers may not aim for profits, the economic structure of Facebook games provide intriguing opportunities that may be ideal for SCG that want to raise funds and bankroll real–world initiatives.

Social games generate advertising revenue by placing third–party ads and branded virtual items inside the game. Typical micro–transactions are generally under $2, a low cost suited to impulse buys on the part of the player. Only a fraction of players use microtransactions — an average of one–two percent for most games, and up to 10 percent for the most successful games (Young, 2010). While often critiqued as a nefarious scheme to force users to pay in order to access vital parts of the game, this minor expenditure is easily rationalized by players who otherwise may be spending $70 on an untested retail game. Moreover, the use of Facebook Credits as a universal payment method (i.e., underwritten by Facebook and used across all applications) means that the barriers to donating to a specific cause may be significantly lowered. The transaction is secure in that only Facebook (and not the game developers) has access to the player’s financial information. The relative ease of the transaction may increase donations as it just takes a single click if the player’s credit card is already on record with Facebook.

Micro–transactions have proven a successful method of fundraising in Facebook games. The now defunct Lil Green Patch attracted players not only by utilizing simple farming mechanics popularized by Farmville, but by promising players that if they play the game, a portion of the proceeds made through advertising will be donated to environmental organizations such as the Nature Conservancy. So far, the most financially successful fundraising efforts are achieved by linking a specific cause with an already popular commercial game. Zynga raised $1.5 million for Haiti disaster relief in just five days, partly with the sale of special ‘seeds’ in Farmville (Kohler, 2010). For each set players purchased, 50 cents were donated to the fund. In exchange for this donation, players received a rare object that benefited them in gameplay. More recently, the NGO Save the Children partnered with Zynga to raise funds for the Japan Earthquake Tsunami Children’s Fund. Accordingly, micro–transactions in SCG are a viable method for soliciting donations and raising funds to carry out real social change.


Metrics are automatically collected numerical data about a player’s interaction with the game. Metrics provide objective data on the interaction between players and games, as any action the player takes while playing can be recorded, measured, and analysed. The collection of metrics heavily influences the design of social games. Data collection is widespread, including the age and gender of players, how long they play and how often, their friends’ lists and transaction history. In response to these metrics, social games are remotely adjusted ‘on the fly’ in order to optimize monetization (measured by micro–transactions); retention of users; and, reach (a measure of how many players have been exposed to the game) (Young, 2010). Data collection and analysis tools are directly built into large platforms such as Facebook, streamlining the process and linking it to real–world information such as the player’s name, location, and birth date.

Metrics are a particularly useful tool for SCG. Not only do they allow designers to pinpoint and fix potential problems with gameplay, they also provide objective measures of a game’s success (e.g., the number of players and global reach of a game). Metrics can provide SCG developers with valuable data on the uptake of their game, providing details on the interactions between the player and the game, and interactions between players themselves, answering questions such as how long the players spent within the game, how long it took them to complete certain tasks, whether they played with friends, and whether they promoted and shared the game with their social network. These metrics may provide data needed to start assessing the success of SCG, whether that success is measured in terms of fundraising, the size of the player community, or measuring the growth of interactions between players.

What’s ‘social’ about social games?

While the previous sections addressed methods learned from Facebook games to increase a game’s reach, this section directly addresses the issue of how Facebook games can promote the social engagement and group commitment that SCG intend to foster. These methods are not explicitly tied to Facebook itself.

While the design of Facebook game mechanics may be relatively simple (e.g., click–to–harvest mechanics), the real complexity of the game is rooted in the player–to–player interactions. Following Juul, social game design “isn’t about creating a game that is strategically deep as much as it is about make sure the game, in turn, creates interesting interaction between players” [5].

Mulitplayer, asynchronous play

Social games are premised on persistent, asynchronous play, a relatively new form of interaction in digital games that is a large part of Facebook games’ success. Since it is difficult for many players to coordinate in order to play with their friends, asynchronous games allow gamers to play at their own pace and on their own schedule, similar to playing a game of chess through the mail, although much quicker. Whereas most multiplayer games are predicated upon the players playing simultaneously (e.g., a raiding guild in World of Warcraft), social games allow players to log in at their convenience, play for a few minutes and then log out. Interaction with friends is indirect, and is mediated through written messages, gift–giving, and requests for favours or aide on missions. Asynchronous play allows friends with conflicting schedules or time zones to feel like they are playing together. In this sense, asynchronous play means that SCG games can integrate multiplayer modes without requiring the players to all be online simultaneously.

Social infrastructures

McGonigal (2011) argues argues that games, even simple Facebook games such as Lexulous, foster stronger social connectivity, “The more time we spend interacting within our social networks the more likely we are to generate a subset of positive emotions known as ‘prosocial emotions’ such as love, compassion, admiration, and devotion” [6]. Playing with one’s social network facilitates the development of prosocial emotions, and strengthens community ties, both of which are useful tools for SCG that want to promote community building.

The social infrastructure of social games, (e.g., chat systems, content sharing systems, notification systems), make it easy for players to interact and to communicate, even when they are separated by vast geographical distances and time zones. Leveraging these sharing and chat systems, if properly employed, has the potential to highlight the ‘social’ in SCG as well and act as a route towards socio–emotional learning, making it easy to build human–to–human interactions into SCG. Reminders, praise, and positive reinforcement can be communicated to the player and successful behaviour change shared through the player’s network. The social infrastructure also provides tools that can be used for real–world engagement, sending updates about real–world events, and keeping players updated upon what is happening outside of SCG itself. For example, in the Facebook game A Better World, players are rewarded for good deeds done in the real world as well as in the virtual game space.

Social infrastructure is directly designed into Facebook games, but is not tied to the platform itself. In games such as Frontierville there are multiple ways that players can interact with each other, both verbally (e.g., sending messages) and non–verbally (e.g., sending gifts, visiting, etc.). Players can leave feedback for each other in–game, but they can also leave feedback out–of–game, such as posting messages and notifications to their wall. Many of the associated messages are scripted updates that are broadcast across one’s network of co–players (e.g., “Jane Dee needs your help to build a barn”), thus requiring little effort to keep in contact with one’s community of players, to supervise their progress, and to offer aid when needed. As argued by Kim (2009), these exchanges are essential for social media. The turn–taking, gift exchanges, trading, and conversations found in social games are a basic, primal form of social engagement. Again, this mechanism could be leveraged creatively to model different types of socio–emotional relations and actions that could be performed in the real world.

Importantly, the infrastructure of social games is explicitly geared towards encouraging co–operative behaviour via prioritizing exchanges, building, and mutual aid. For example, in Frontierville, the leaderboard comparing neighbors’ XP and reputation levels offers the only built–in opportunity for competitive play. In CivWorld, groups of players must work together to ensure their mutual success. This cooperative teamwork is relatively new for social games. Although we advocate cooperative behaviour in games, conflict can also be an important learning element in SCG, and thus the lack of conflict is a current limitation of Facebook style games that we might want to remediate.

Game mechanics foster social skills

Success in social games is directly related to how well a player maintains their social relationships, both in the game itself and on the platform the game is located on. Gameplay and rewards are predicated upon social skills such as communication, sharing, and gifting. For example, in Frontierville and all the other ’ville games, neighbors play an important role in the game. Players can visit and tend to their neighbors’ farms, earning rewards and reputation points for doing so. These social mechanics foster and reward real–world social skills such as co–operation, mutual assistance and reciprocity. The profile photos at the bottom of the game screen automatically allow players to track how well their players are doing — not only in terms of their skill level, but also in terms of their reputations. Neighbors can automatically track each others’ progress, both in terms of their points, and in terms of their reputation level. These reputation levels play an important role in the game, allowing players to note which neighbors are more helpful and sociable, thus initiating friendly competition over who is the ‘friendliest’ neighbour.

Importantly, these interactions are not forced. Players freely accept or decline to invite other players to the game, they decline or accept sending gifts and bonuses, and are never forced to request other players’ aide. The giving of gifts, in particular, is an implicit exchange. While not forced to give a gift, receiving such a gift engenders obligation, and thus the receiving player is likely to reciprocate. While many of these ‘social’ mechanics are directly rewarded (e.g., earning points by visiting others), they hold promise for SCG, as they are evidence that affective mechanics such as sharing, reciprocity, gift–giving, and community development are compelling and meaningful elements of play.

Liszkiewicz (2010) summarizes the real success of games such as Frontierville and Farmville accordingly:

The secret to Farmville’s popularity is neither gameplay nor aesthetics. Farmville is popular because it entangles users in a web of social obligations. When users log into Facebook, they are reminded that their neighbors have sent them gifts, posted bonuses on their walls, and helped with each others’ farms. In turn, they are obligated to return the courtesies. As the French sociologist Marcel Mauss tells us, gifts are never free: they bind the giver and receiver in a loop of reciprocity. It is rude to refuse a gift, and ruder still to not return the kindness. We play Farmville, then, because we are trying to be good to one another. We play Farmville because we are polite, cultivated people.

While Liszkiewicz finds these social obligations problematic, perhaps this is what is needed to increase the effectiveness of SCG. Social awareness, an important goal of SCG, entails the development of empathy and social emotions as well as the development of pro–social attitudes such as caring. If SCG currently lack modes to promote social engagement, the social obligations embedded in Facebook games offer the initial means to bring individuals together and thus help players develop social skills.



Criticism of Facebook: Negative findings

We believe that SCG can be improved by integrating traits from Facebook games, and, in some cases, locating SCG on the Facebook platform. However, we have to be cautious in our approach, especially in regards to the numerous critiques that question whether current social games are truly social, and the belief that popular Facebook games foster large impersonal networks and the resultant commodification of social relations (Deterding, 2010; Rossi, 2009). Other researchers have already responded to this criticism, arguing that while direct social interaction within social games is yet limited, these games create a common ground for future social interaction (Wohn, et al., 2010). We agree that the strengths of Facebook games, such as their virality and leveraging of the social graph, can become weaknesses if not applied in the proper context, but argue that these weaknesses can be addressed with careful forethought on the part of SCG designers.

In the following sections, we assess multiple critiques of Facebook games. There are two streams of criticism that conflict with our belief that Facebook can enhance SCG. The first stream directly relates to Facebook itself, highlighting the dangers in locating SCG on a platform that has been accused of data leaks and privacy violations. A second stream is levelled not at the platform, but rather the mechanics of Facebook games that are platform agnostic (meaning that they can be increasingly be found in social games, regardless of the operating platform).

Criticism related to locating a game on the Facebook platform: The economics

As we have argued in the previous section, there are numerous benefits associated with locating a game on Facebook, especially in regards to the ease of attracting much larger player populations for SCG and the social benefits that occur from integrating a player’s pre–existing social network into the SCG. However, Facebook games carry potentially negative affiliations with hyper–consumerism and poor game design that designers of SCG may want to avoid. Critics argue that incorporating the ‘social’ into these games is done in a manner that emphasizes bureaucratic measures like player retention rates, monetization levels and metric analysis rather than meaningful levels of player engagement. This relates to a larger concern that the design of Facebook games and social games as a whole are rooted in business concerns, subordinating the practice of making games to capitalism and leveraging the sociality of these games simply as a means to profit from players (Alexander, 2010; Johnson, 2010). The forms of social engagement and interaction built into these games, at heart, are aimed at enrolling more players into the game. Critics further argue that popular social games are money treadmills where players carry out unskilled, monotonous tasks and are compelled to spend their real money in order to advance within the game. While individual games may not exhibit these traits (especially SCG), the reputation of the platform itself may taint and negatively influence the reputation of individual games, no matter how well made.

Part of Facebook’s negative image is rooted in the collection and misuse of users’ personal data. Data mining plays an instrumental role in the economic structure of Facebook — right from the platform itself to third–party applications and social games. Some of this data collection is benign. Data about a player’s interactions with the game is gathered in the form of metrics that are used to iteratively improve the design of the game as well as to measure a game’s success in terms of reach and player retention.

Metrics are also collected in Facebook games for another purpose — advertising. Social games generally exhibit a dual economic structure. Player micro–transactions provide some funding, but more funding is collected by selling advertising space and, sometimes, access to a player’s personal information. Allowing third parties access to players’ personal information is a problematic issue for SCG. While financing the game through seemingly innocent ads may be alluring to SCG developers, there is the danger of inadvertently exposing information that players did not want to divulge, or simply irritating players with inappropriate ads. For example, a game built to improve the body image of young women would be undermined by banner advertising for weight loss programs, just as any SCG that promotes an anti–consumerist message would be countermanded by advertisements.

Beyond advertising, the poor reputation of Facebook’s privacy controls may detrimentally affect the success of SCG. Players may not want a record of the games they play linked to their real–world identities. The stakes are even higher for games that deal with controversial issues, as the collection and dissemination of even player’s names may put them at risk for embarrassment and/or harassment. For example many players may not want their friends, co–workers and family to know that they are playing Sex Quest, a game launched by the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada to promote sex education. Accordingly, SCG designers should carefully assess whether they want to support their game through third–party advertising, and can opt out if so desired.

As stated earlier, metrics provide a way for SCG designers to chart their games’ different forms of success. While metrics are often criticized as being subservient to business concerns (e.g., used to discover ways to make a game more profitable or addicting), there is no reason why SCG designers need to collect metrics or use them in ways that they deem ethically questionable.

Micro–transactions and crisis fatigue

While SCG struggle to create games that are educational yet fun, there are numerous successes in using Facebook games to raise awareness of and raise funds for world crises. While Zynga’s fundraising efforts detailed above and others like it are financially successful, there are implications of using techniques such as these in SCG. Games that are not focused on social change attract players because they are simply fun games. These games have more success in fundraising for social causes because they attract and maintain large pre–existing player populations. In Zynga’s case the charitable donations are a minor motivation for game play, and the actual awareness raised by the Haiti and Japan campaigns described above may be minimal.

While admirable, donations are a form of financial engagement, rather than the social engagement that SCGs seek to inspire. The ubiquity of donating for a cause creates a danger of complacency. By donating a dollar or two, players may feel satisfied that they have done their part, thus negating any further drive to respond to the matter. The micro–transaction is seen as the solution needed, rather than any deeper response or engagement with the issue. Additionally, players may face ‘compassion fatigue’, the desensitization or emotional burnout in response to social problems that receive extensive media attention, if these fundraising mechanics are overused (Kinnick, et al., 1996). Players may also become frustrated by constant solicitations for donations or, as occurred with the Zynga Haiti fundraising scheme, express scepticism that the money will ever reach the charitable destination (Harris, 2010).

The economic models underlying free–to–play Facebook games require SCG designers to weigh both benefits and costs. Traditionally, SCG developers have always relied on outside funding from charities, governments and not–for–profit organizations and thus could avoid the problems associated with the dual economic streams of Facebook revenue. Indeed, profiting from these games would come at a cost to SCG in terms of selling players’ data, opening players up to data breeches, or simply harassing players to commit to micro–transactions. However, to ensure long–term sustainability or fundraising, SCG designers with limited funding might have to explore these revenue streams, pragmatically balancing the ethical implications with the economical viability.

Development costs

The economic models of Facebook games bring us to another caution for SCG designers. While the first iteration of a game such as Farmville could be completed by an experienced team in a matter of weeks, the game itself requires constant improvements that are released on a weekly basis. Thus, initial development costs may be low, but maintenance and potential marketing costs are disproportionately high. Additionally, Facebook is an unstable platform that is constantly changing its rules. For example, privacy rules and the use of notifications in games have both changed numerous times in the past year. Development costs are further increased by needing to adapt games to meet the fluctuating requirements of the Facebook platform. This maintenance requires a long–term commitment in funding and manpower that may be beyond the scope of most SCG funding schemes (e.g., one–time grants and charitable donations). In addition, rising numbers of Facebook game developers have resulted in intense competition for players.

Social games can be created cheaply and quickly. But if the social game is going to compete with other, much better funded, games in the market, games that are beautifully polished and constantly updated, then much more investment is required — both in financial terms as well as in developer man–hours. Long–term investment is necessary in order to foster the long–term engagement we believe is essential in using SCG to foster real–world change. Industry reports suggest that the best strategy for smaller Facebook developers is not to spend millions of dollars competing with Facebook goliaths such as Zynga, but rather to focus on catering to a niche market and focus on creating unique quality content (Morrison, 2010; Nutt, 2010).

Contesting the ‘social’ in social games

To reiterate one of our main premises: one of the failings of SCG is that they lack social interaction. This lack of social interaction detrimentally impacts the fun of SCG, and accordingly, how many players play SCG and how much time they spend interacting with SCG. We believe that Facebook games provide ways to add social interaction to SCG. Yet, one of the largest criticisms of Facebook games and social games is that they really aren’t social at all. Other critiques argue that Facebook games are addictive. We address both of these issues in the following section.

Compulsion and addiction

Many Facebook games build a compulsion to play into their design, nudging the player to return again and again to the game and punishing them if they do not. For example, if a player fails to regularly return to Frontierville, their crops wilt. This creates a ‘harvest or die’ mentality. Many non–Facebook games, especially MMOs, use similar techniques to foster compulsive play, however critics argue that these MMOs offer a much richer gameplay experience whereas Facebook games seem to exist simply to “exploit human psychology” in order to be financially successful (Bogost, 2010).

Bogost (2010) argues that the compulsive nature of games demands many accumulated hours of our time, time that is effectively lost. But social games are even more insidious in that they “destroy the time we spend away from them” (Bogost, 2010), by using Facebook profile pages and notifications to seed obligation, worry, and dread over missed opportunities and constantly reminding players of what they have to lose if they don’t return to the game. Bogost’s criticism is significant. It is echoed by many other commentators on social games such as Kohler (2010) and Johnson (2010), and is supported by our own experiences playing Facebook games.

In terms of SCG, while we applaud sustained player engagement as a design driver of social games, too much of a good thing can have negative implications. SCG developers must be cognizant of the fact that designing a game that makes too many demands on a player’s attention may lead to accusations of fostering addiction. SCG must work to find a middle ground between creating games that players actually want to play for a sustained period of time, and creating games that players don’t do anything but play. Although returning to the game for a number of weeks could be beneficial, we still want to modify some of the cues and punishments that get the player to compulsively return to the game. For example, unhealthy play patterns can also be addressed by building fatigue systems into the game, providing steadily decreasing rewards after a set period of time playing [7]. Simply put, we should not assume that just because popular Facebook games contribute to compulsive play that SCG must follow these same practices.

Virality and the social graph

Because the social graph plays such an important role in social networking sites and social games themselves, a player’s popularity is often a key component of game play. Success in social games is dependent upon having a large network of co–players which, as we have argued above, presents numerous benefits to SCG designers. The viral mechanics of social games help quickly spread the game to a wide audience using mechanics that emphasize recruitment schemes and awarding players for sharing the game with their network.

The more friends a player has, the more quickly they can progress in the game. Players conceptualize neighbours as resources that can be used to their benefit, to help accumulate points and virtual goods. This mindset of instrumentalizing human relationships can be problematic, especially if used in SCG, as it may run counter to the messages SCG seek to impart and the desire to encourage deep social engagement and interaction. Furthermore, the commodification of social relations discriminates against those players who have smaller networks. As stated by Losh, “Without large numbers of social contacts to make play possible, those who are disenfranchised in social network sites are left trying to ‘bowl alone’” [8]. For example, in terms of SCG that are created for classroom settings, this may reinforce preexisting social hierarchies between the popular and unpopular students.

While there is some incentive for many gamers to dilute their friendship pool by adding strangers indiscriminately (Losh, 2008; Rossi, 2009), this may not be undesirable for all SCG designers. Broadening one’s social network even with the weak ties of near strangers, simply creates a social network that is rich with a variety of connections. Echoing real life, a social networking site includes links to close friends and family, to colleagues and school mates from years past, to complete strangers who share a common interest in playing a game together. Playing with non–friends still necessitates cooperation and collaboration, thus making weak or even non–existing ties stronger. Adding strangers for the sake of playing a SCG helps create a community of practice that provides a social support system that encourages discussion and local civic engagement, offering numerous possibilities for the player to move from the game to real–world activities. For example, America 2049, a game about social justice issues includes real–world group activities such as visits to Ellis Island and Tenement Museum to learn about the history of immigration in the United States.


While reciprocity and gifting are noted hallmarks of social games, this reciprocity is structured into the game mechanics (Wohn, et al., 2010) and motivated by a calculation: in order to progress in the game, players must practice reciprocity. Outwardly pro–social behaviours are rooted in materialistic needs and the desire for accumulation. As enumerated by Di Loreto and Gouaïch (2010), gifting, exchanging objects, sharing and requesting the aid of others in completing tasks are ultimately motivated by the desires for acquisition. The real reason for reciprocating and sharing in the game is the expectation that such behaviours will be rewarded through items and points (Di Loreto and Gouaïch, 2010; Wohn, et al., 2010; Losh, 2008). This leads us to question whether the constant rewards for social acts such as sharing in the games like A Better World are simply encouraging the creation of self–interested players who avoid doing good deeds unless sufficiently rewarded.

A number of studies show the more we help in games the more we help in real life. Gentile, et al. (2009) undertook three separate studies, one with middle school students in Singapore, one with Japanese children and adolescents, and one with American undergraduate students. In each study those who spent more time playing games in which they were required to help each other were significantly more likely to help friends, family, neighbors, and strangers in their real lives. Grietemeyer and Osswald (2010) conducted four experiments, finding that participants who played prosocial video games were more likely to help after a mishap, were more willing to offer their time and assist in further experiments, and intervened more often in harassment situations. Accordingly, exposure to prosocial video games activates the accessibility of prosocial thoughts, which in turn promotes prosocial behavior. These studies indicate that although the reciprocity in Facebook games may be fueled by self–interest, the games motivate altruistic behavior in the real world.

In Facebook games the instrumentalization and conceptualization of individuals as resources is rooted in the structured and consequently limited nature of social interactions. The social interactions in social games are tightly constrained both by the platforms they operate on and the game itself. While asynchronous play allows players with different schedules to play together, it also limits the ways in which they can interact. Players inhabit separate private game spaces (e.g., farms, cafes, and treasure islands) and interaction with other players is limited and highly structured by the system. Pre–determined messages serve an important function, they are clear and concise, limiting any untoward interactions by foreclosing any opportunities for profanity, harassment, or griefing. Yet, limiting social interactions to pre–recorded messages and making endless visits to empty farms results in a rather flat sociality. This is where Facebook games need more diversified exchange and social interaction mechanics to foster social change. Already, mainstream Facebook games such as Idle Worship are experimenting with synchronous, real–time player interaction.

More importantly, the relatively shallow interaction within the game contributes to social interactions that occur outside of the game. The game provides an incentive for social interaction and connecting with people that the player might not otherwise connect with, even if it’s just in terms of checking out a friend’s Facebook page to see what they’re up to. As McGonigal (2011) describes, Facebook games like Lexulous provide a means for interaction, especially between parents and their adult children who they may not see regularly. Playing the game together provides a way of being together while physically apart.



Discussion and conclusion: Toward social gaming for change

There is a growing belief that videogames can encourage social change and make the world a better place. Although some SCG are very carefully designed and critically acclaimed, they are not without problems; they often lack socio–emotional affordances and are too remote from a human context to foster social engagement. Thus, we examined how social gaming and more specifically, Facebook style games, can overcome some of these shortcomings, and assessed the potential of social gaming for change.

While Facebook games can teach us many things about how to improve the design of SCG, we need to be careful in applying these structural traits and design trends, as they may work at cross purposes to the intent of SCGs. Facebook games and social change games could been seen as having opposite aims and models: commercial gain versus activism, social fun versus social engagement. What SCG developers should take from Facebook style games and whether they should design and release games on these platforms is context dependent. Developers must prioritize their game’s objectives and measure the benefits and drawbacks accordingly.

If the objectives of the game are to raise funds for a specific context, then modelling the SCG after Facebook games is beneficial. Such SCG can be designed for social fun, and the light and stimulating fictions/narratives of Facebook games can be used creatively to financially appeal to Facebook users. Temporarily integrating with existing successful games for a specific awareness building or fundraising effort may be even more successful, as shown by Zynga’s achievements in raising charitable funds.

If the objective of the game is to create social awareness and to reach a large, diverse audience, then locating the game on a platform like Facebook comes with considerable benefits. Nazir, et al. (2008) show that the tight integration of a social graph with a game results in the greatest possibilities for viral growth. Social networks are a central component of many, and as a consequence the increasingly social nature of Facebook and other social games are their stickiest features. Wide scale social change such as discussed by McGonigal (2011) is best achieved through socially mediated pathways.

Thus SCG could benefit from being directly embedded into social networking platforms where it is easy to share the game with friends and discuss it via a public forum. If the intent of SCG is to open dialogue about issues such as genocide, poverty and terrorism, embedding real social interaction within the context of the games provides a first point of entry into the discussion about the messages these games impart. For example, while most SCG, such as Ayiti, are single player games, the strength of Facebook games is in social interaction with friends. We can imagine how a poverty awareness game, such as Ayiti, could look if integrated with one’s social network. In the original game players have to take care of the welfare of their character’s family in Haiti. The game could be re–designed to utilize one’s social network, allowing real life neighbours or relatives to take a role in the game; giving a helping hand with crops or sick children, as happens in real life. While the game already illustrates the complexity of poverty and the hardships in Haiti, a social game for change version of the game could provide a powerful lesson in cooperation and community values, as well as facilitate social play as a way to empower people.

Modelling SCG after the style of Facebook games to enhance social awareness could work exceedingly well but we should avoid some of its pitfalls. The emphasis on levelling up, constant accumulation and consumption, and the promotion of using friends as gameplay tokens and artefacts of social capital seems counter–intuitive to the messages that SCG seek to impart. While the ideological goals of a SCG, such as encouraging sympathy with those in crisis, or developing attitudes of community service and selfless giving may be pure, the fact is, the procedural rhetoric of the games may conflict with its ideological goals. However, these issues may be avoided by assessing whether the procedural rhetoric of a proposed SCG is in alignment with the SCG’s ideological goals — whether the game mechanics suit the game's message.

If the objective of the SCG is to encourage behaviour change, impart complex educational messages, or develop specific socio–cultural skills of players, then there are more severe challenges to adopt Facebook–style games or using Facebook as the platform. While Facebook–style games may not yet allow for deep social engagement within a game, this could be overcome by redesigning the social interaction inside and outside the game to foster richer interaction in the real world — creating the common ground for face–to–face interaction, action and collaborative discussion. Finally, social gaming for change might depend on more creative gameplay and multiplayer interactions that can be accomodated by Facebook style games and Facebook.

Where do we go from here?

In this paper, we proposed a novel strategy for the design of SCG, or social gaming for change, as well as ways of enhancing them. Stemming from our initial inquiry, we need to further explore conceptual issues regarding the design of such games. This includes investigating types of social networks (e.g., using social games in closed environments such as classrooms or rich and intimate networks rather than large networks) and, establishing a typology of learning and persuasive outcomes. From a design point of view, we are reviewing game patterns from SCG, social gaming, and those from videogames that relate to expression of affect and socio–cultural values to define and test effective game mechanics. Beyond metrics, we are studying ways of assessing the effectiveness of SCG and social gaming in terms of social fun, learning, engagement and activism.

Ultimately, we need to chart how social change can be practised first in social games for change. Human adaptation and change are rooted in social systems. People learn from trial and error and through human modelling (Bandura, 2004). Thus players could learn from role–playing socio–emotional situations, solving social issues within and without the game. Social patterns acquired through gameplay such as collaboration and cooperation could facilitate social change. In that case, we need to carefully design and model the game mechanics to foster behaviour change and social learning. We need to provide means for gamers to connect to others in their community or more globally, and chart steps to take to make changes to the real world. When people develop a strong attitude toward a community and a sense of belonging, they mobilize and are more willingly to act effectively.

To conclude, regardless of whether SCG designers want to use the Facebook platform or not, we believe that SCG can learn from how Facebook games facilitate social interaction and how they connect players together. Even if the social interaction is asynchronous and structured, it still is more social interaction than exists in current SCG games. Players should be encouraged to play closely together and support each other. Besides, it would enhance social presence as well as players’ motivation. Moreover, integrating human interaction between two or more players through a game would enable new procedures that facilitate social change and responsible decision–making. In terms of SCG, embedding player interaction into the game and fostering more long–term game play is an innovative strategy that may further the reach and impact of SCG as a whole. End of article


About the authors

Jennifer R. Whitson is a sociology Ph.D. candidate at Carleton University, and a researcher with the Hypertext and Hypermedia Lab. Her current research interests include social influences on game development processes, digital identity management, and governance in online domains. Some of her recent work includes an article on game development in the Fibreculture Journal (issue 16), a chapter on surveillance in virtual worlds in the 2010 edited collection, Surveillance and democracy, a feature article in the March/April 2009 issue of ACM’s Interactions magazine, and an article on identity theft, co–authored with Kevin Haggerty, in the November 2008 issue of Economy & Society.
E–mail: jwhitson [at] connect [dot] carleton [dot] ca

Claire Dormann is an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa. Her research is dedicated to investigating new technology for lifelong learning through the design of novel forms of play and learning. Current projects relate to affective learning and computer games, social change games as well as urban games and communities. Her more recent book contribution was for the Handbook of research on improving learning and motivation through educational games: Multidisciplinary approaches, and an ongoing project relates adventure games. Her expertise includes computer games, affective design, educational technology, and human–computer interaction.
E–mail: cdormann [at] uottawa [dot] ca



We would like to thank the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada under the Research Development Initiatives program for funding this research, and Robert Biddle for his comments on the project.



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Editorial history

Received 20 May 2011; revised 16 July 2011; accepted 18 July 2011.

Creative Commons License
“Social gaming for change: Facebook unleashed” by Jennifer R. Whitson and Claire Dormann is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution–NonCommercial–NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Social gaming for change: Facebook unleashed
by Jennifer R. Whitson and Claire Dormann.
First Monday, Volume 16, Number 10 - 3 October 2011