SMWNYC 2011 – Social Gaming: How Social Dynamics are Reshaping Games

Description from the Social Media Week New York schedule event listing:

Social games are here to stay. This panel will bring together a variety of experts from the gaming industry (casual, hardcore and cross-platform) to talk about how social dynamics are reshaping games of all types and making them more pervasive across all walks of life.


  • Moderator: Nick Parish, North American Editor, Contagious Magazine
  • Josh Shabtai, Emerging Media Strategist, JWT
  • Keith Katz, VP of Marketing, Open Feint
  • Bill Clifford, VP, Global Ad Sales, Wild Tangent
  • Manny Anekal, Director of Brand Advertising, Zynga Games

Event Recap:

Toby Daniels introduced Nick Parish and his panel to build upon points that David Eastman made in his keynote regarding social gaming.  Parish asked who in the audience had recently played games recently, and it demonstrated that gaming in general (and Angry Birds in particular) is fairly ubiquitous.

Anekal discussed the recent success that Zynga has had in implementing advertising and marketing within their social games.  Shabtai introduced his interest in the area of social gaming, both in his role at JWT as well as his side gaming concern and foray into Augmented Reality (AR) gaming.  Katz described the evolving “bridge” between social and mobile games.

Katz explained that social gaming differs from traditional gaming not only in that it involves interactions with a second player, but that it involves interactions with a community (that is, the player’s social graph).  Shabtai doesn’t believe that social gaming is a new thing, but the social media channels have added new connections by breaking down barriers of time and space between players.  Zynga’s games are built around “coopetition”, leveraging a player’s social graph to help them compete and succeed.

Clifford notes the difficulty that brands have finding contextual relevancy in social gaming.  It’s difficult for a brand to build their own game that reaches the audience that games like Farmville already enjoy.  They must be careful to advertise in a way to reach consumers in an organic fashion, so that they don’t create a backlash.  Anekal agrees, and believes that Zynga’s success, especially in terms of in-game brand advertising, is based on its networking effects and integration of branded content into the game content.

Katz offered a user’s desire for self-expression as something unique to social gaming (he noted that you don’t customize an avatar when playing Risk.)  Games are about creating addiction cycles, according to Shabtai.  He is impressed by Zynga’s success as creating a “compulsion cycle” and their improved social dynamics in their recent offerings.  The panelists agree that a leader board or a badge isn’t enough to succeed in terms of gamification; the games must drive social interaction.

Social gaming has expanded the gaming pie beyond the scope of just traditional console games.  We’re all gamers now.  Just like we don’t ask who is a movie-watcher (we all are), according to Anekal, we shouldn’t have to ask who is a gamer.  While he hasn’t had success getting his mother to play Call of Duty with him (citing it’s complexity), the learning curve for Zynga’s games is much less steep (“anyone who can use a mouse can play.”)

Clifford sees social gaming evolve from simple point-and-click puzzles to more real-time simulation.  He believes that social games need to become more truly social, where they are utilizing interactions instead of just data points from he players’ social graphs.  Shabtai compares social gaming today to living in New York: even if you aren’t making use of all the opportunities around you, you want to know that they’re there if you want to take advantage of them!

Parish noted that social gaming development is much faster than console gaming (four weeks vs. four years).  Why then, he asks, are we not seeing more risk-taking and innovation in social gaming?  A major bottleneck is that the social gaming space is still developing, and our understanding of how consumers play in that space devlops with it.  Katz sees games moving from platforms like Facebook into the mobile space, but success is going to require developers to understand how consumers want to interact with others in the mobile space (vs. how they behave online.)  Zynga is looking to leverage experience with developers in other mobile activities to translate their games to the mobile space.

Advertisers and media buyers are looking for a mix in social gaming just as they do in other channels.  Brands like Coke, for example, have uses for both product placement and commercial (with different goals and KPIs for each part of the mix), Anekal explained.  Clifford built on this point, describing how brands who are succeeding in this channel are not satisfied just being in the social gaming space; they must be able to encourage interactions.  Shabtai worries that simple branded interactions (like jigsaw and spot-the-difference puzzles) can be seen as “punishments” by consumers instead of adding to their enjoyment of the game.  People want to give their time to the games they play, Anekal explained, but most don’t want to pay to do so.  This means that consumers are open to advertising in games, but these ads have to be done well.

Unique rewards have been successful in driving participation in social gaming.  Gamers are “completionists,” and they will go out of their way to acquire these items.  Virtual goods and digital currencies require a complex infrastructure.  Additionally, there are limits on a number of platforms (e.g., iOS forbids cross-game currencies whereas Facebook requires a game to use Facebook credits).  Katz foresees continued evolution of this part of the social gaming channel but notes that Facebook’s size and level of control over its game offerings will have a large effect on the market.

Because social gaming requires a level of trust, the ethics of the brands involved are critical.  Both Anekal and Clifford noted that developers are not afraid to turn away brands who aren’t ethical.  Of course, Shabtai, Parish, and Clifford noted, games are not always saintly; just like casinos hide clocks to make gamblers lose track of time, social games are designed to keep people involved the clicking as long as possible.  If you use all the seven deadly sins in your game (even in terms of just giving you trophies to show off to your friends), then your game will be addictive enough to keep your gamers involved.

An audience member asked what the big mistakes that the panel has seen in game mechanics and social gaming.  Shabtai believes that games must celebrate the humanity of its users instead of just treating them like online bits of information.  Anekal sees that the less successful games by Zynga are the ones that didn’t integrate social tools.  Katz warns developers to let their gamers ease into the experience, rather than, for example, showing off the product placement in the first sixty seconds of a game.  Give them time, they’ll get there!

Analysis and Commentary:

Social gaming is an excellent example of the social media space evolving to mirror our offline behaviors instead of trying to change who we are.  Games have been a part of culture since the earliest days of civilization (and I’m not talking about the Sid Meier franchise here), and game mechanics are a part of almost everything we do online and offline.

It’s fitting that Zynga is playing to the concept of “coopetition”, a strategy that’s studied in the aptly named field of game theory.  It will be interesting to see where social gaming evolves as their platforms do.  Several panels and events on gaming at Social Media Week are sure to further explore this field.

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