Playful networks: measuring, analysing and understanding the social effects of game design

Kirman, Ben (2011) Playful networks: measuring, analysing and understanding the social effects of game design. PhD thesis, University of Lincoln.

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Item Type:Thesis (PhD)
Item Status:Live Archive


Games are fundamentally a social activity. The effects of this foundation can be felt at every level - from the social negotiation of rules, through cooperation and collaboration between players during the game, to the effects of relationships and social status on play. Social effects can change the way the game is played, but the mechanics of games can also affect the patterns of social behaviours of the players. The arrangement of game mechanics and interfaces together defines a ``social architecture". This architecture is not limited to directly social mechanics such as trading and messaging - the game design itself has a holistic effect on social activity.

This dissertation frames games around these social aspects, and focuses on analysis of the patterns that emerge from these playful interactions. Firstly, a model is defined to understand games based on the social effects of play, and these effects explored based on the varying impact they have on the play experience. Mischief and deviance is also investigated as forces that challenge these social effects in and around games. Based on interaction data gathered from server logs of experimental social games, social network analysis is used as a tool to uncover the macroscopic social architectures formed by each design. This allows the use of quantitative methods to understand the nature of the relationship between game design and the social patterns that emerge around games in play.

Key findings confirm that social activity follows a heavy-tailed distribution - a small number of ``hardcore" players are responsible for a disproportionately large number of interactions in the community of the game. Further than this, the connections between active hardcore and the rest of the player base show that without the hardcore users, the community of games as ``small worlds" would collapse, with large numbers of players being separated from the society within a game. The emergence of grouping behaviour is investigated based on the effect of social feedback. Following findings of social psychology in non-game environments, evidence is provided that highlights the effect of socio-contextual feedback on players forming strongly bound tribal groups within games.

The communities formed through the play of games can be described in terms of network graphs - webs of interactions flowing around a network of players. Social network analyses of social games show the emergence of patterns of reciprocity, clustering and tribal behaviours among the players. The evidence also shows that the collections of game mechanics, or social architectures, of games have a predictable effect on the wider social patterns of the players. As such, this suggests games can be specifically engineered for social effects based on changes in the patterns of interactions, and issues around mechanical or interface elements can be identified based on anomalies observed in the network graph of player interactions.

Together, this dissertation provides a link between the theoretical ideas around social play to the measurable effects of social behaviours of players within games. It proves that game designs, as mechanical systems, have a demonstrable effect on the social patterns of play, and that these patterns can be examined and used to engineer better game designs for the benefit of social experience.

Keywords:Computer games, Social Gaming, social network analysis, game design
Subjects:G Mathematical and Computer Sciences > G440 Human-computer Interaction
Divisions:College of Science > School of Computer Science
ID Code:15079
Deposited On:28 Sep 2014 12:40

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