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Game Design and the Reciprocity Effect in Social Games

The power of giving and the reciprocity effect. Both can become powerful game mechanics when used properly by game designers. What do you think? (This post is part of a blog series on Michael Fergusson's social game design blog.)

Over the past few months, I’ve tried to discuss elements of game design that can help make really sticky, viral and engaging games. We care a lot about our players’ game play experiences and try to use our expertise in cognitive psychology, together with our technological expertise as automation engineers, to maximize engagement with the games we build.

I think it’s beneficial for anybody thinking about game design (or thinking of hiring someone to does) to understand how evolutionary psychology disciplines our thinking and how we can use this knowledge to design better games.

The Reciprocity Effect

One game mechanic that we can build into our games to make more meaningful, viral and engaging is the Reciprocity Effect. We can utilize the power of giving and receiving and the social norms associated with this concept as the trigger for players to do things in games. Reciprocity is a deeply rooted instinct. 

Some experts would even argue that reciprocity may have helped the emergence of human societies and that indirect reciprocity (a variant in this concept) may have provided the selective challenge to help our cerebral expansion during human evolution. As (I hope) you’ll see, this can be a powerful game mechanic to use to drive players to action.

The reason the concept of reciprocity can be so effective in social games is because it’s an easily recognized behaviour, and a powerful social trigger. In most social situations, there is an expectation that people will respond to each other in similar ways, so when someone gives you a gift, you not only feel a sense of obligation give a gift back to that person, but your opinion of that person is raised; they seem a “good” (or at least, useful) individual.

Following the predictable pattern seems safe and helpful, while breaking the norm is seems threatening, or at least confusing. (This is also why it’s called a social norm.) Intriguingly, when playing social games, players might reciprocate more for the social implications of it, rather then because it benefits them directly (humans not only feel strongly about interactions that involve them directly, they also judge the actions between others not directly involved).

In this case, long-term self-interest is best served by promoting an image both to others and yourself that encourages reciprocity. the expectation that a player’s action is being observed or judged is crucial for this cycle to be effective.

As an example, indirect reciprocity (a concept we’ll go into later on where A gives to B, and as a result C gives to A) stresses the importance of monitoring not only partners in continuing interactions, but also all individuals within the social network.

This is interesting because…

Why should this interest you as a game designer (or business that relies on social networks for marketing)? The reciprocity effect encourages a cycle of social obligation that adds a viral, sticky and engaging element to the game.

How, though, can we create this symmetrical expectation of reciprocity? The key is to establish for the players a clear sequence of game actions that establish the expectation of reciprocity: “Send your friend a gift, and ask them to send one in return!”

To give you an example from one of our games: in NFS-Nitro on Facebook, the first screen you see when arriving at the game is the gifting page, encouraging you to send gifts of power-ups and limited-edition race cars to your friends.

Accepting the gift takes the recipient directly to the gifting page to return the favour. These types of loops and incentives can be used to encourage longer and more meaningful the social game play. Because it creates a compelling sense of obligation on the part of the recipient, it can also be intensely irritating.

As author Jamie Madigan (he’s a PH.D. and authors a brilliant blog on the psychology behind game design) says: “thanks for the Sheep, guy I used to know in high school”. Using the reciprocity effect is a two edged sword that needs to be used with skill and care.

As always, feel free to email me: [email protected] if you have any questions or just want to start a conversation.

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