Social Games, Behaviour Spreading and Game Design

09/22/2010
To start, I’d like to say thank you to all the Gamasutra bloggers/readers who generate a lot of buzz with their provocative questions to my posts. I always try to offer relevant game design tips and insights, and it’s great to get some feedback from the intelligent and insightful crowd at Gamasutra.

Think about the power that our social graphs hold: Simply knowing that someone in your social circle is part of your daily online actions or even simply observing your activities online can be a powerful influence in our behaviour. In Healthseeker, for example, we’ve observed that a player who has accepted at least one challenge to another player (inviting them to complete the healthy action together) has on average two times the number of completed healthy actions, and a player who has sent a challenge has nearly three times as many. I’m not claiming a direct causal link between sending challenges and engagement in healthier behaviour, necessarily, but we have observed a significant correlation.

Which is no surprise, really. In one study from Newcastle University, researchers taped either a photo of a set of eyes from real faces or a photo of flowers above a company cafeteria “honesty box”. Staff could either pay–or not after they helped themselves to coffee. As you may have guessed, for the weeks with eyes displayed, staff paid 2.76 times as much for their drinks as in weeks with flowers displayed. ( Worth a mention is also perhaps the most famous illustration of this phenomenon –although increasingly being called more of a placebo–is the Hawthorne experiment whereby subjects changed their performance in response to being observed.)

I bring this is up because I came across an article in Wired that examines the role of behaviour spreading in two types of online health communities: ones with close social ties and ones with more distant ties. The gist of the article is that information and behaviour, despite earlier thinking, don’t appear to spread the same way throughout a social graph. In the study, behaviour spreading was more likely in online communities where there were lower numbers of tightly clustered relationships, as opposed to larger numbers of more distant connections. From a game design point of view, knowing that people who are more recognizable to us are more influential on our behaviour lets us focus the social features of our games on quality, rather than quantity of relationships.What are your thoughts about behaviour spreading? Email me at michael[at]ayogo[dot]com or leave a comment.