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As with any entertainment media, it’s self-evident that social games have a cultural and social impact. They are enjoyed by hundreds of millions of people daily and have brought game play to the pockets of anyone with a smart phone.

Like any new form of mass entertainment, especially one that has grown so rapidly, social games have generated much discussion. This discussion has been based on anecdote, experience, assumption and hypothesis largely due to a lack of research.

Last October, the ISGA decided to fill the research gap by commissioning a comprehensive and independent study aimed squarely at the evolution, use and impact of social games. Our aim was to bring a new perspective on social games and add more of an evidence base to the debate surrounding key issues of concern.

Harvest Research, an Australian based consulting and research firm specializing in the areas of public policy and consumer behaviour, undertook the project. Dr Rohan Miller, senior lecturer in marketing at the University of Sydney, led the social games team, with the assistance of a team of internationally recognized academics including the London Business School.

Released last month, the final report reviews both existing academic literature and data surrounding social games and conducts a survey of consumer behaviour and perceptions from thousands of respondents across three continents – Australia, the UK, France and the US.

The following is a just a brief overview of some of the report’s detailed findings and conclusions. Please visit i-sga.org/research to see the report in full.

The natural evolution of games

In their 1959 cross-cultural classic “Games in Culture”, the anthropologists John Roberts, Malcolm Arthur and Robert Bush (1959) delineated a three-tier classification for games based on physical skill, strategy and chance as a way of studying the role of gameplay across different societies and cultures.

Using their model as an analytical framework, Dr Miller demonstrates how those three tiers remain at the core of games played on tablet and mobile devices. In other words, he shows us that there is a continuing link between the ancient chance and strategy games like Tarot and Macal and the video games of today.

The report’s observation is that much of the extensive academic study of gameplay has been left out of the discussion on social games and their impact. Understanding that social games are simply a natural continuation in a long history can surely help prevent kneejerk or sensationalised responses to the industry.

The shift towards free-to-play

From the arcades of the 70s to the early PC games of the 80s, technological change has driven video game development. The rise of the internet in the 90s paved the way for games like Doom, which pioneered the first online communities of gamers. The continuing expansions of mobile technology and social networks have been the core drivers of social games.

The free-to-play or “freemium” pricing model is itself inherently intertwined with these changes in mobile and internet technology. The ease of online digital distribution, the reluctance of users to pay for content (as well as piracy) and the demand for more flexible mobile gaming experiences are all reasons why it dominates today’s app stores.

As a hot topic, the freemium model has been discussed extensively in relation to in-app purchases. Yet as Harvest observes, there has been little or no consideration by the media and regulators of the underlying forces behind it.

Gambling and social games  – no evidence of a connection

It’s fair to say that the assumption that casino-style social games are a form or cause of gambling, or at the very least linked to gambling, has been fairly widespread among regulators and gambling studies researchers.

However, the report’s review of the academic analysis highlights the absence of evidence that social casino games are converting people to real-money gamblers.

Despite the absence of conversion evidence, the allegation that free-to-play games, social casino or otherwise, could be an active cause of gambling has had some currency. Yet as Harvest point out, it is striking that the prolific rise of the social games industry has actually coincided with a decline in problem gambling rates in both the UK and Australia.

Some gambling studies academics have attempted to frame them as a “gambling like” activity – for Dr Miller that is a dangerously imprecise basis up which to formulate policy.

Money, and particularly winning money, is integral to any definition of gambling. Social casino games do not enable people to win money and most players do not pay to play. Categorisation as a form of gambling is simply inaccurate.

Gambling conceptual frameworks, Dr Miller argues, are simply not helpful when trying to analyse the impact of the social games, which are played or and paid for differently. Social games are being played for fundamentally different reasons such as relationship building across social networks, competition and simply hanging out friends.

This analysis is backed up by Harvest’s consumer behaviour survey. Consumers were asked the extent to which they could differentiate between social games and gambling – figures were consistently high for understanding the difference.

Getting a good deal

The consumer behaviour survey consistently indicates that people are getting a good deal from free-to-play social games. Less than one in 10 players spent money on a social game on their last playing occasion.

Out of those that do pay, expenditure on the last purchase occasion is typically less than one unit of local currency: 87% of French transactions were less than €1.00, 90% of UK transactions were less than £1.00, 91% of Australian transactions were less than A$1.00 and 86% of US transactions were less than US$1.00.

Even the more advanced upgrading features within game playing are on average priced competitively with other forms of entertainment, such as renting or buying a movie. Only between 1% and 3% of in-game expenditure exceeds $13.

Benefiting the mind

Another interesting section of the report is its review of a wealth of psychological studies. Many show the positive potential of playing video games – a counter to clichés of disconnected and anti-social gamers.

Benefits range across the spectrum from mood management, helping the development of memory and attention skills to the capacity of social games to function as a positive vehicle for social interaction.

The ability of games to motivate, allow for creativity and enable collaborative learning mean they are a growing feature of education curricula.

A platform for further engagement  

The place of social games in the digital economy is increasingly prolific. Social games are projected to reach $7bn in revenue by 2015 and it is expected that 34% of the total Internet population will be playing social games.

As the cultural and social relevance of social games continues to grow, we hope that our report will function as a resource to help educate and inform policy makers and the public alike.

At the same time, we believe strongly that our research should not be a one-off endeavor. Though we can’t say we have another project quite as wide-ranging and ambitious in the pipeline, we are commissioning a new study focused specifically on issues of concern surrounding younger users. This is where the debate is heading.

We are also working on a second version of the Best Practice Principles that we released last October. These reflect an increase in knowledge about social games thanks to our research alongside on-going regulatory developments from around the world.

It is imperative that we keep developing our understanding of the impact and reception of our industry. The reason is straightforward. An evidence-based approach allows makes for better policy from industry and policy makers alike.

This article was originally published in Social Casino Intelligence.