Broken Social Game Scene: Why Gifting is Broken

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This Broken Social Game Scene series tries to look at why most current social games break usual social norms and suggests a few things we can do to fix it!

In the previous post, I talked about the distinction between Social Network games and ‘social’ games — the former being a game that is accessible through a social network service such as Facebook, the latter being a game that attempts to use elements of social interaction to motivate the player’s decisions and actions in the game. 

The next few posts will examine the purportedly ‘social’ features of most Social Network games that fail to produce meaningful social interactions, offer some examples of games that are culprits, some counterexamples of games that are doing it right!, and some general thoughts on how maybe we can fix the social gaming scene on social networks (because really, there’s so much more to be done with the social graph than has been!)

So, gifting.

Gifting on Facebook originated way before games ever became popular on the platform. I like to think that the inspiration those later games used originated somewhere between Slide Inc.’s SuperPoke! app (friends would ‘throw sheep’, ‘high-five’ or otherwise send free GIFs/JPGs with cute sayings to their social network) and Facebook’s own monetized Gifts app (pay $1.00 to send a virtual gift to your friend’s wall with a message). 

Though extremely viral, neither of those things really scratch the surface of what we mean in real-life when we give another person a gift. 

In real-life, intrinsic motivators are the basis for much of our gift-giving.* We gift for a lot of reasons, to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, promotions, other life-changing accomplishments etc, but the mechanics behind meaningful gifts are usually the same… (generalized here, of course)

The cost of the gift to us, the givers, is some monetary value, but more importantly, it also requires thought and reflection on the relationship we have to the receiver. We give something that we think will be useful, that the item is something you’ll remember us for later. The gesture doesn’t explicitly state that reciprocity is required — we’re not giving you a gift so that you’ll get us something nice next time we have a birthday. It’s to show appreciation or congratulations, and to the receiver, it should signify kinship.

However, when we look at gifting systems in most social games on Facebook, it’s clear that different mechanics are in play.

On Facebook games, the cost to give a gift is very low – the effort it takes is selecting an item on a grid, and rather indiscriminately at that (when was the last time you thought about which item you were going to send someone?). Not only that, but a lot of the time, these gifts are being sent en masse, to 20 of your friends at the same time.

The messages attached to these gifts is even more shocking — “Here’s an X for you. Would you please help me by sending something back?” In terms of real-life social interaction, this would be completely unacceptable. Implied reciprocity is okay (although tacky). Plainly stated requests to ‘give me something back,’ not so much. And not only that, the reason we are sending gifts all over the place to one another is because we’re prompted to through the game — rarely because that friend has accomplished something great, or is celebrating.

Pretty much every game is a culprit here; it seems that gifting is less about what that term refers to in real life and more like offering ‘gateway drugs’. Games use gifts not necessarily to remind a friend of how much we care or think of them, and more as a hook to introduce them to a game, or bribe them to return to a game.

Off of the top of my head, I don’t remember having played a game that uses the ‘gifting’ terminology to indicate a function closer to how we gift in real-life, save for games in the Pet Society genre where, alongside free gifts, you can also ‘buy’ shop items and send them to friends. If you have examples, please please link them in the comments — I’m sure they exist but I haven’t found them yet.

So what are some ways gifting in social games could work better?

– Prompt users to send gifts to friends when they have leveled up, NOT the other way around. “Robin just leveled up, collect coins!” could easily be “Robin just completed X Quest – send a gift to congratulate her!”

– Introduce the notion of scarcity in gifting. Possibly limit the number of gifts a user can send each day. Remember how valuable Gmail beta invites were?

– Make the user have to ‘give up’ something in order to send a gift. Instead of making gifts free to send, maybe the user receives the ability to send a particular gift only after completing a task specific to gaining that gift (versus completing a quest for personal gain and sending out ‘free gifts’ as an afterthought).

Next time, why your neighbors’ calls for help are fake and Helping is broken. 🙂

What are your thoughts on making gifting more evocative in social games?

Broken Social Game Scene Series:

* See Strategic Synergy’s great, and in-depth post for more about this. “Why Both Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivators Matter in Gamification.”

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