Applying Social Theory to Games

| by Justin

Social Games have been around a few years now. During that time, we’ve seen production value increase across the board, gameplay become more complex, and the clever use of behavioural psychology make its way into these games. However, while gameplay and production value has skyrocketed, the social mechanics behind these systems have not evolved. The “Social” in social games is still what it’s always been: a growth strategy for increasing discovery of the game by other potential users. Instead of creating a truly social experience, social mechanics are relegated to exploiting the social graph of other communities.

The problem with this is that Social can be so much more.

In this post, we’re going to lay down the foundation of what true social gameplay is, and why you would want to create a true social experience within your product.


Most games are systems that revolve around a single core action. All other mechanics either sprout from this core action, or are not initiated until the action is done. This action is repeated for the entirety of the game, and this action is endlessly entertaining. For example:

Checkers – movement of a checker. Other mechanics don’t happen unless you move a piece (you can’t “King” a unit if you don’t move it), and special movements are allowed when conditions are met (can jump more than one checker if you are able).
Chess – Movement of a piece. Different pieces have different ways of moving, but that’s all they ever do.
Angry Birds – Shoot an object. The object can be manipulated (yellow bird increasing speed when tapped), but not until it’s shot.
First Person Shooters – Movement and Shooting objects. Many variables affect these two actions, however all variables sprout from movement and shooting.

For each, the entire game relies on that core mechanic, and all other mechanics are dependent upon it. When building your game, you need to identify that single action and tailor it until it becomes endlessly entertaining.  You can have a collection of actions as core mechanics, however this tends to increase the complexity of the system. The more complex the system is, the less accessible it becomes (the concurrent tasks of RTS games makes it inaccessible to all but a relative minority of gamers)

Understanding this core action is the key to a fun and endlessly engaging game.


Most developers have become pretty good at understanding the theory and practice of game design. For the most part, we get it. However, we are slower to understand the theory and practice of  social theory.

What developers have noticed is that adding a social element to a game mechanic can act as force multiplier to that mechanic. It  increases the desire to continue using the mechanic, and to share the mechanic with other people. The reality has become that this social element usually translates to limiting gameplay to leverage a users social graph of an external network. The classic example is the “Get 5 friends on Facebook to click this and you get the item!” mechanic, or similar mechanics that have come to dominate Facebook games.

“Social” is much more important, and can be much more engaging, than a strategy to increase the acquisition of users. It can be the key to creating long-term retention and monetization of your product. But this key is in the application of social theory to gameplay.

So what is “Social”? The easiest way to think of it is channels of communication utilized by the user. People want to interact with each other, it’s how we are built. If they interact, they become invested with the thing they are interacting with- and in turn become more invested in your product. Have no doubt, players invested in a product will find ways to use a channel of communication at their disposal- be it a channel you directly control or not. As long as there are other players willing to utilize the same channel, they will be interacting.

The magic with these communication channels is that it makes other users content providers, the content being the things they do and say. Furthermore, this content generation is easy to create, highly dynamic, and second-nature for today’s audience. You don’t have to teach people how to chat with each other- if they can, they probably will.

And once you get them chatting, you offer users the ability to form real and lasting relationships with each other (if your channels allow it)- giving the user a reason to be interested long after the novelty of your game wears off.

Therefore, when building your product, you know exactly what you have to think about: What communication channels are available to the user, and do they have a reason to communicate?


Giving someone a reason to communicate is critical- what could be worse than a chat room with nobody chatting? More importantly, how do you incentivize users to communicate? If we establish that users interacting with each other is beneficial to your application, and you have made available the channels to do so, how can you directly incentivize them to utilize these channels?

Make the single action of your game a social action.

If the core game mechanic is affecting a plot of land, such as growing plants, make it so you are planting in someone else’s garden. Today’s social games are essentially single-player experiences with the ability to observe other users single-player experiences. We have seen a shift where users can effect other players experiences, such as FarmVilles visiting mechanic of spreading fertilizer on another users farm. However, this is a secondary game mechanic- a feature that requires the other user to be engaging in the core gameplay mechanic.

How much more powerful of an experience would it be if you were able to directly plant on another players farm, or more effectively, having a shared space where multiple users can affect an sandbox instance? This inherently incentivizes users to directly communicate with each other- they have to cooperate in order to be successful. This cooperation instills a sense of camaraderie, turning the collection of users into an self-identified group, each member of the group giving the other members a reason to re-engage. Done right, this turns a group of users into a community of players, all working towards a mutually beneficial goal.

Of course, this opens up the problem of players griefing each other, but such can also be beneficial- disagreements between users are endlessly engaging, especially if they are given mechanics to take direct action as a result of the disagreement. As much as people want to deny it, we love soap operas, especially when we are a part of it.


Gameplay whereby the core action is a social one, is one that will inspire communication between users. Communicating users invest time into each other, and therefore invest time into your product. Furthermore, by providing the means and reasons to disrupt or cooperate with other users, you have a system where users can create a community within the game.

Instead of exploiting a community from an external network, you give the users the ability to build an internal network. In short, your users build a social graph that you own, instead of you plugging into a 3rd party social graph like Facebook. The rewards of this allow you to build upon the emergent behaviour of this community, allowing you to modify and improve the very channels of communication that drives the success of your product.

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