March 22, 2010

Facebook’s Games: Emerging Sociality

Category: Edtech
painting of butterflies

Raquel Recuero is a professor of linguistics and communication in Brazil, and a researcher in social media and Internet culture in South America. The content of this post is based on her recent research about Facebook’s role-playing games.

Social networking games are typically regarded as “casual” in the sense that they don’t require players to become so addicted to them, or to invest a lot of time in order to be enjoyed. Game mechanisms are simpler, allowing users, in many cases, just to point-and-click and the rules aren’t complex. Thus, one would doubt that RPGs (role playing games), usually marked by complex plots and detailed character sketches, would ever blossom on social networking sites. But that doesn’t seem to be the case at all. In the past several months I’ve been studying RPGs and especially, Mafia Wars on Facebook, a game about creating a character and improving it through jobs and missions. The game relies strongly on story, allowing players to direct their character’s actions, interact with other players and customize their characters in the “Mafia World,” thus creating different narratives, which is typical for most RPGs. Mafia Wars, a game created by Zynga, has become a huge force on Facebook since its creation, amassing over 25 million players all over the world. Although the game mechanics are simple and the interactive options are rather poor, the game has managed to draw millions of passionate, engaged users. How did this happen?

Mafia Wars
Mafia Wars’ success is not only about the game itself. Rather, it is also about the game beyond the game, or the social practices that have emerged through communities of players.

Players have organized themselves in “families” outside the game, with their own family Facebook pages, “honor” codes, hierarchy, jobs and wars. Many of these “families” are secret and one has to be invited to become a part of them.

Inside these groups, which use all sorts of other social tools to interact and organize themselves (such as webpages, mail lists, etc.) the game extends beyond mere “role playing.” You can, for example, be commissioned as an officer, and serve your mafia through specific jobs. You can become a spy and infiltrate other families to steal their secrets. Your family may engage in a vendetta against another family.

Some individual families have thousands of players.

Because of the high level of engagement and enthusiasm for the game, there is a lot of information about the game available for newbies. Wiki pages, how-tos and etc. can be found all over the Internet.

One male player said: “It is so much fun to see 2,000 guys declaring war on some other clan and then see all their properties broken.”

The families also coordinate efforts to help their members’ characters grow and improve, providing them with more interesting rewards than the ones they’d get if they were playing by themselves.

They have a strongly defined economy of trading items and giving energy packs (essential for survival in the game), and also clear hierarchies comprised of  godfathers (the leaders), officers (the coordinators), squads (the ones who lead the attacks), and recruiters (users who engage in selecting new family members).

Trust and reputation also emerge as important values for these users. 

It is also common for these groups to employ codes, such as words or characters in an avatar’s name, in order to identify themselves.

Social Network Effects
The social practices in the game have spillover effects on Facebook’s social networks.

Facebook only allows users to connect inside the games with people that are part of their Facebook connections. But, users have devised ways to get around this limitation. For example, users who are very engaged in Mafia families usually have two separate social networks – one for the game and another for their “real” Facebook profile. Some create elaborate, separate profiles for the game, while others simply add their entire family as Facebook friends.

Still others will “delete the friendship” but keep others as connection in the game since, once you add someone in the game, the person remains connected to you in the game, even if you delete them as a Facebook friend.

Since having a large family is an important part of the game, users frequently engage in great efforts to invite other players and add them to their social network.

Players will make virtual deals with others on Facebook to help them attract new family members. One male player said: “I exchanged an item for a user to put a link to my profile in the first page of (their) community for 24 hours (and) got like 900 additions.”

Social Practices in Other RPGs
Observing similar games on Facebook, it is becoming common to see parallel behavior patterns and social practices emerging. Yakuza Lords and Diva Life, for example, both from Lolapps, also rely on the family model and coordinated group interaction. Mob Wars works similarly. Although none of these are organized as strongly around family and collective action as Mafia Wars, it is intriguing to see that players endeavor to improve the game experience and take it to new levels even outside the game itself. They are creating new practices to improve social interaction, competition, and cooperation and, by doing so, they influence the adoption rate and faciliate the spread of the game.

Image Credit: Yureiko