The (Psychological) Development of “Social” Games

At GDC this year I saw a slide in a talk that referenced different developmental styles of play (my notes are sadly unclear as to whose talk this was — if you know, please let me know!).  This has had me thinking about the developmental stages of social games.  Not the software development, but the evolution of the styles of gameplay we put in them as we learn more about creating them.

It should be clear to anyone watching this space that game developers are learning as fast as they can about how to create new gameplay in online (putatively) social games; we know a lot less than we still don’t know.  As such, it’s very interesting to me how closely the emergence of types of gameplay in popular social games is following the path of individual psychological development of play — and what this may tell us about the future of the design of social games.  

In 1932, Mildred Parten published what has become a classic in the psychological literature, looking at the development of play in children.  Briefly stated, all children go through rough stages of how they play as they develop physically, cognitively, and socially.  Some of these include:

  • Solitary play: just playing by yourself, ignoring others around you
  • Onlooker play: noticing others around you, but not doing anything with them
  • Parallel play: implicitly recognizing the play of others around you, doing some of the same things and playing in the same cognitive space, without overt social interaction.  Think of two kids building sand castles near each other that resemble each other, even though they never said a word or joined together at all.
  • Associative play: light social interaction with others nearby, but without involving play as a topic or structure
  • Cooperative play: socially interacting and organizing using play as a structure on which to build these interactions.  Note that this implicitly includes competitive play, as the social structures involved necessarily require in-group (our team) and out-group (the other team) interactions.

How does this map to the evolution of social games?  Consider the same list but now recast in terms of online casual games:

  • Solitary play: playing by yourself without regard to others: Bejeweled, Bookworm, and most early casual games fit in this category.  Among other things, it’s simply easier and faster to design for a single-player solitary experience than anything more expansive.
  • Onlooker play: Same as above, but now with leaderboards and the like.  You’re not playing with others, but you have some interest in their play.
  • Parallel play: this encompasses most of the current social games such as Farmville where you may have “neighbors” but your focus is still entirely on your farm, island, fishtank, etc.  Even the X-Wars games (Mafia Wars, etc.) fit primarily in at this level; while you’re making your “gang” socially, in terms of the gameplay you’re almost entirely working on your own.  These games do however start to edge up into Associative play.
  • Associative play: some social games are moving in this direction, with people chatting as they play (see the active chat channels on sites like Kongregate for example), talking about the game with others (in person or via Facebook channels), etc.
  • Cooperative play: despite their name, very few social games are in this truly social territory (yet).  This is common ground for MMOGs, online FPS and strategy games, where people form teams for the purpose of playing a game — and significantly, where these interactions enable the formation of communities that keep people around as active users for much longer than the gameplay itself.  Some of the highlights of this include complementary roles — tank/healer/dps or point guard/center/power forward — as well as shared goals and complex in-group/out-group interactions.  This is where games really become social.

I think we can expect to see more evidence of associative and cooperative play emerging in social games over the next year or so (or sooner — this area is evolving very rapidly).  This is also where a lot of people are looking to MMOGs for valuable lessons in social play and community building, and why I see social games evolving to occupy some of the same niches MMOGs and virtual worlds have held thus far — I don’t believe virtual worlds are over as Daniel Terdiman wondered, but as I’ve recently posted I do think we’re emerging from a harsh winter of old design tropes into a new spring of fast-spreading designs of growing social complexity.

Social games have the opportunity to grow into this space with an audience in the hundreds of millions, not hundreds of thousands as with old-guard MMOGs.  This growth will result in more satisfying games (games that match most people’s own post-adolescent level of developmental play) where people stick around for longer — if we can learn to develop in terms of our designs as we have in our own social psychology.

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8 Comments on “The (Psychological) Development of “Social” Games”

  1. […] social game design article from Mike Sellers and his blog, Online Alchemy, and I thought I’d share the link with you.  Sellers’ blog post examines the close relationship between the emergence of […]


  2. […] social game design article from Mike Sellers and his blog, Online Alchemy, and I thought I’d share the link with […]


  3. […] original: The (Psychological) Development of Social GamesTradução: Bruno […]


  4. […] 社交游戏设计师能不能从孩子的玩耍中取经呢?各人自有凭断。我从Mike Sellers的博客 “Online Alchemy”中读到一篇有趣的社交游戏设计文,如果你有兴趣,不妨链接一下。他的博文分析了游戏性表现在流行的社交游戏和个人在游戏过程中的心理发展轨迹之间的密切关系。从游戏设计和商业的角度来说明,非常有趣。 […]


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  7. […] The (Psychological) Development of “Social” Games … – This has had me thinking about the developmental stages of social games. Not the software development, … where people stick around for longer — if we can learn to develop in terms of our designs as we have in our own social psychology. […]


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