Social gaming is used for short periods of relaxation and distraction. Social games should provide: simple and repetitive tasks; tutorials; social interaction; support for interrupted gameplay; visibility of other players’ activity.
Market for social gaming
Social gaming is becoming an ever more popular online pastime. It has been estimated that the value of the social gaming market will grow from $2.1bn in 2010 to $4.8bn in 2016. A large driver in this increase is predicted to be social gaming’s popularity on mobile devices, with social games becoming the most popular type of mobile gaming download . As such, it is little wonder that usability professionals are becoming increasingly interested in understanding social gaming’s dynamics.
Defining social gaming
Social gaming is still a relatively new concept within the online world and we do not yet have any universally-agreed definition. There are, however, some general factors which most sources agree can be taken to characterise ‘social gaming’:
- Multi-player: Social games are played by multiple players at the same time. These players can either co-operate with, or compete against, each other.
- Social platforms: Social games are based on a platform that facilitates social interactions. Social games can ‘piggy back’ on existing social platforms (thereby allowing players to leverage existing social relationships) or be based on new, bespoke platforms.
- Awareness & interaction: Within a social game, an individual player is aware of other players’ presence, actions and accomplishments. Social game players are also able to interact with each other.
As social gaming matures, its definition will no doubt become more rigorous. At the moment, however, the above-mentioned factors are a good guide in helping us to understand the general nature of social gaming.
Users of social gaming
Research suggests that approximately 20% of the UK’s online audience have played social games. Of these players, there are slightly more female players (20%) than male players (18%).
The age distribution of the UK’s social gaming audience appears weighted towards the young. In one online survey, 28% of 16-30 year-olds said they had played online social games, whereas only 16% of 35-54 year olds and 8% of those aged 55 or over responded that they had played online social games. 
Although it is often assumed that social games are not played by the so-called ‘hardcore gaming’ audience (i.e. people who regularly play console games), research seems to contradict this. A recent survey, for example, reported that 67% of US-based social gamers also play console games. 
Usage patterns of social gaming
At the moment, most social game players do not appear to be engaging in long, intense periods of social gaming. Instead, research suggests that social game players are using social games for short periods of low-intensity relaxation and/or distraction. A recent publication, for example, suggested that social gamers seek a ” ‘pleasant boredom’ through repetitive activity with low suspense, low cognitive load and low emotional intensity”. 
Another key consideration within social gaming is the encouragement and facilitation of players’ social interactions. In order to achieve this, an understanding of players’ different types of social gaming interactions is particularly valuable. The two main types of social interaction we have observed most often within social games are:
- Action-based: Players talk to one another about an ongoing game in order to facilitate their in-game goals (for example: relationship building, team-based cooperation, etc).
- Discussion-based: These interactions can be on any other topic – such as general discussions about the social game, for example.
Of course, social game players’ behaviours are likely to evolve over time as their familiarity with – and the design of – social games evolves. However, we believe that the issues identified above are valuable in informing the way in which usability professionals might approach social gaming.
Usability considerations within social gaming
Our understanding of the usability of social gaming is still developing. But there are nonetheless certain aspects of social game service design which have proven to be particularly popular with audiences. We would suggest that usability professionals involved in designing social games consider the following issues:
- Easy, repetitive tasks: As mentioned above, most online social game players appear to want social games to provide short periods of relaxation and/or distraction. As such, it has been suggested that social games should have easy, casual gameplay with low barriers of entry whilst focusing on everyday themes and delivering ‘easy fun’. 
- Step-by-step tutorials: Players should be gradually introduced to the dynamics of a social game through a tutorial-like function. This function should ideally address a single aspect of the social game at a time. It should explain and demonstrate an element of gameplay, before asking the player to perform a relevant ‘task’ themselves. Successful completion of such a ‘task’ should then be accompanied with positive feedback and an in-game reward. 
- Social interactions: A social game should find ways to encourage and facilitate the two main types of social interactions (action-based and discussion-based, see above) in order to keep players engaged.
- Allow interruptions: In order to support players who want to engage with social gaming for short periods, a social game’s design should allow players to easily interrupt and resume gameplay at any time. 
- Player statistics and scores: A sense of engagement and competition can be fostered by making (at least some) player statistics and scores viewable by other players within the social game. This can help players to orientate themselves within the social game and provide them with goals.
The above-mentioned usability recommendations can not, of course, be used in isolation to guarantee a successful social game. An understanding of these usability recommendations can, however, help social game designers to make sure that they are giving themselves the best chance of success.
Social games are played for short periods as a low-intensity relaxation and/or distraction activity. As such, our usability recommendations include that social game designers should focus on: simple and repetitive tasks; step-by-step tutorials; opportunities for social interaction; supporting interrupted gameplay; visibility of other players’ statistics and scores.
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