Casual Games maintaining Less-Meaningful Ties on Facebook


One of the fun things that I get to do while working at Nokia Research is play Farmville! Apparently Farmville has more players than twitter users - that is craaazy!  And now you can buy crops that are sponsored by advertisers!

I started thinking that something else is going on in Farmville other than the fertilizing and planting of crops. And the good thing is that my colleague Liz Bales was thinking the same thing! And when we both mentioned it to Jofish Kaye  we found out that he too was stumped by Farmville’s success and was particularly interested in all the gifting of Spring eggs and chickens in Farmville. Naturally we all decided that we just had to do some fun research on all this plowing and harvesting.

After playing Farmville for some time, I was telling Liz that I honestly am more comfortable fertilizing the crops of an old friend from high school who I haven’t spoken to in 15 years than commenting on her wall. 

So after we discussed this, Liz and I are hypothesizing that Farmville is being used to manage less meaningful ties on facebook. I think we’re onto something here because when most people speak of social gaming often we think of MMORPGS as a place where “real” gaming interaction takes place - such as the organizing of guilds in WoW and collective cooperation required to level up. Joi Ito said that playing WoW was a great way for him to interact with friends that he night not have enough time to see in person and was an excellent training for leadership skills. But in light-weight games that demand minimal skills and interaction, we don’t always think of them as places of “serious” social interaction or the development of complex real life qualities. 

The thing is that facebook is increasingly less about personal networks - there are tons of contacts on facebook that I simply just don’t interact with on a day-to-day basis or even more personal basis. It’s not that my contacts aren’t meaningful, it’s just that some of them are less-meaningful. Neverthelss those are ties that I want still want to maintain and check in on in a low-stake and low-engagement way. I think a lot of people are using facebook as a way to manage any social contact that one wants to maintain. 

And now as the most successful game to built on top of facebook to date, Zynga is changing the way we virtually manage our ties. So what danah boyd’s been saying for a long time about myspace and faceook as a place for youth to manage their social ties can be applied to Farmville.

We’re proposing that Farmville helps people manage their social ties and  furthermore Farmville is particularly useful and successful in managing less-meaningful ties. 

Ties obligate, but depending on the weight of them, they obligate people in different ways.  A lot of research has been done on people using complex games and MMORPs to reinforce strong ties and loose ties. But we know less about casual online gaming as a way to maintain loose ties. We think it’s interesting to look at how people make choices in who they engage with and how in FarmVille. Could these be new forms of light-weigh management of light-weight ties? 

We’ll have to see what the data says - so we’re looking for people to interview on the phone. If you play Farmville or know of anyone who does - can you ask them to fill out this initial survey?

 With Liz and my interests in casual games as management of social ties and Jofish’s interests in gifting I think we’re going to produce some interesting research and have something to contribute to the role of causal gaming the everyday life. 

So how does this relate to my research in less-evenly developed communities?  I am more interested in casual games as a source of leisure than complex games like WoW. I think a lot times  research in less resource intense areas can be so serious - such as focusing totally on indicators of social mobility or “practical” solutions for water purification or something.

But look - even people who are economically poor wanna have fun! Just because someone is poor doesn’t mean that they are socially poor. Many of the places and communities that I research simply don’t have the technological architecture to handle the bandwidth required by MMORPGS. Also many people don’t have disposable time to dedicate themselves to complex games. 

In China, people are quiet adept to using virtual platforms for relationship management.  QQ is the largest virtual economy in China - so large that the Chinese government was concerned about QQ money disrupting the RMB.I think as low-income areas start getting more access to the internet and higher-end mobile phones, we’re going to see an explosion in casual games. So this will definitely be area I should pay close attention to my dissertation fieldwork in China.


update 5/15 A. J. Patrick Liszkiewicz has written an excellent post about Farmville. He is much more critical of Farmville, “Farmville is not a good game. While Caillois tells us that games offer a break from responsibility and routine, Farmville is defined by responsibility and routine.”  ”The secret to Farmville’s popularity is neither gameplay nor aesthetics. Farmville is popular because in entangles users in a web of social obligations. “  Liszkiewiczs critique is that Farmville is less about fun and more about obligations. I love how he links game playing on Farmville to citizenship.