Social Games Do Psychology the Best

The following is a guest post by Vancouver’s Michael Fergusson, CEO of Ayogo Games. This post is part of an ongoing series – originally posted on Ayogo’s blog – that discusses the business side of casual social games.

In our last post, we discussed how engaging game design might be able to motivate the frequency and the amount of microtransactions that take place in social games. As we explained, building game mechanics like compulsion-loops can encourage microtransactions to take place (more than 60% are non-cash transactions), because they keep players motivated. Since we were on this topic, we thought we’d take a closer at look at the game mechanic or feature of collecting (and achievement sharing) in social games and on a few other popular sites. We wanted to discuss why this game mechanic is so powerful and to show how businesses and game designers can use this feature to engage their audience in more meaningful gameplay.

The Psychology of Item-Collecting

Whether it’s bookmarking your favourite links, filing old newspaper clippings or racking up points in a game, everybody collects something. As we’ve discussed in previous posts, like many motivations behind gameplay, the motivations behind item-collecting can also be traced back to evolutionary psychology. Although today collecting things doesn’t have much consequence for our survival, it’s still a very powerful trigger because it is a deeply rooted psychological need. For our purposes, understanding this desire and how does this urge to collect items and *complete* sets motivates certain behaviour in games can have huge implications.

Just One More Bite of That Cookie

As Kris Graft pointed out in a great article he wrote for Gamasutra, completing sets or collecting things are great features to motivate behaviour in games for many reasons. One of the reasons is that the act of item-collecting is often associated with positive emotions such as pleasure and excitement. As psychologist Jamie Madigan, Ph.D. explains, an entire body of research by psychologists supports the notion that pleasure and excitement of many kinds can influence our rational decision-making mechanisms of players. Among others, he cites Dan Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational (one of my favorites), and uses the analogy of how sexual arousal effects decision-making processes. He points out that rush of completing a set in gameplay could produce the same type of intense emotional feelings, which could also influence a player’s decision-making process during this time. (This concept can be particularly useful when we think about non-cash transactions and micro-payments.)

Another reason why the urge to collect and complete sets is so powerful as a game feature is that it can be tied, simply, to allowing the player bragging rights. Ultimately these achievements will be shown off to other players and spectators. Now, if you consider that these achievements are publicly displayed signs of superiority then we can see its importance to facilitate motivating players to action. To go a step further, think about this happening on a platform that is connected to a community of millions, like Facebook, you can see why social games are great at feeding a player’s sense of fulfillment.

These collections are only abstract representations of in-game merit, but intertwined with a meaningful gameplay experience become powerful and engaging game design tools. Not only do players keep collecting items, completing sets, and staying engaged in the game that way, but they’re also broadcasting their achievements (and your game) to their friends and acquaintances. Even sites that aren’t set up as games, like Linkedin, Facebook and Myspace, can and do utilize the feature of collecting to keep users engaged in this emotional loop. Users have to add (collect) as many friends and contacts as the system can handle, and then these achievements are displayed and shared with the community. Game designers can tap into the heart of the gameplay process, by leveraging this powerful emotional lever (and should want to).

PS: We’ve only touched on a very specific area of how the feature of collecting things in games could be used to engage players in more meaningful ways. There are other features that are also very sticky and effective at keeping players engaged…but more about those features later. For now, we’d love to hear your thoughts about this latest post so give us a shout or leave a comment below.