The coming launch of Zynga’s CastleVille is spurring new debate over whether social games are truly fun.
One side — let’s call them the Intrinsics — says the ceaseless clicking that social games require is ultimately shallow. The opposite camp — the Extrinsics — says millions of people who play social games every day wouldn’t be doing it if they weren’t having fun.
Who’s right? We asked Nicole Lazzaro, a psychologist and an expert on what makes games fun to play. Lazzaro, who has spent years dissecting all manner of bestselling games to discover the essence of fun, boiled it down to four ingredients.
Put simply, fun games engage players’ curiosity, allow players to socialize with friends, challenge players to overcome obstacles to achieve goals and somehow relate to people’s lives in a meaningful way. In her opinion, the vast majority of top games have three, if not four, of these elements.
So how do social games, including Zynga’s FarmVille, CityVille and soon CastleVille, score on Lazarro’s fun meter?
On the first factor — engaging players — social games aced the test.
“These games are highly engaging,” Lazzaro said. “They do this by providing over-the-top rewards.”
To see what Lazzaro means, try clicking on anything in CityVille, a game played by about 12 million people a day. Coins and stars explode onto the screen, and the game spews out a tintinnabulation of victory bells. Zynga has a term for these bits of digital confetti — “doobers.” And they serve to trigger endorphins in the same way that slot machines reinforce player behavior.
The games also “delight and surprise” (game design jargon for doing something players didn’t expect) through a trick used in the casino business that psychologists call the intermittent response loop.
Sometimes, players get a bonus item, along with the coins and stars, that can be used elsewhere in the game — an extra bit of energy, a piece of Halloween candy that can be traded for a haunted house, and so on.
“Not every click produces this reward,” Lazzaro said. “It encourages people to click even more in order to get to that jackpot.”
Social games also score high on the friend front. For some, the engagement is minimal: I send a gift to you, and you send it back to me. The end. Most of the time, players aren’t even playing at the same time and the interactions are delayed. Mark Skaggs, a Zynga senior vice president who produced FarmVille and CityVille, calls social games the “TiVo for relationships.”
For others like Lana Sumpter, the game is a vehicle for people to gather, kibitz about their lives over headsets on Skype and form strong friendships.
Social games don’t do so well creating enough of an interesting challenge, the third element of fun, Lazzaro said. Because they need to appeal to a wider population, most of whom don’t see themselves as gamers, social games have to be easy, at least initially.
“A lot of people start a social game and leave because there’s not enough of a challenge to keep them there,” Lazzaro said. “The achievements are so quick and shallow that players don’t even have time to reflect on how trivial the activity was.”
Ouch! We’ll take that assessment as a “Has Room for Improvement” grade.
Finally, in what Lazzaro calls “intrinsic fun,” most social games fail almost completely. Intrinsic fun relies on players wanting to do something for the sheer fun in doing it.
Extrinsic fun is tied to rewards. Like Pavlovian pigeons, players perform tasks primarily to get the rewards. Some game designers, including Chris Hecker, believe game mechanics that rely too much on extrinsic rewards run the risk of becoming a grind.
“Extrinsic fun relies on collecting points and badges,” she said. “Intrinsic fun, what I call hard fun or serious fun, relies on engagement beyond just rewarding players to click.”
Some examples of games that deliver on serious fun, according to Lazzaro, are Dance Dance Revolution, which has helped a number of players lose weight as they scramble to match patterns on a dance mat. Another is Striiv, a key-chain pedometer that lets users translate steps into progress in a game as well as donations to clean water, polio vaccinations or preserving rain forests.
Jason Brown, vice president of player insights for Zynga, says the company routinely asks players why they play. It’s a valid question, because more than 200 million people fire up a social game at least once a month, even as entertainment options proliferate.
“It turns out, our games tap into some fundamental drivers of human happiness,” Brown said. According to theories put out by psychologists such as Jonathan Haidt and others, humans are happiest when they a) sense they have control over their environment; b) are connecting with friends; or c) feel they are challenged but making progress toward a goal.
Social games help people feel all three, Brown contends. “They’re free. They’re great entertainment. And they’re a way to stay in touch with their friends.”
The upshot? Fun is ultimately in the mind of the player.
— Alex Pham