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Psychology of Play, Social Games and Game Design

Is game design just child's play? Well, sort of. Read this post about certain stages of developmental play in children that are similar to how we play video and casual games. This post is originally part of a series on Ayogo's Social Game Design blog.

Michael Fergusson, Blogger

November 25, 2010

3 Min Read

Can social game designers learn something from child’s play? You be the judge. I came across an interesting social game design article from Mike Sellers and his blog, Online Alchemy, and I thought I’d share the link with you. 

Sellers’ blog post examines the close relationship between the emergence of gameplay in popular social games and the path of individual psychological development of play.  Why is this so interesting from a game design and business perspective?

If you’ve been following my blog, then you know how interested I am in the meaning of play and its fundamental role in human behavior. It’s not just for fun, but it’s a biologically based, evolutionary contribution to human survival and development, a crucial vehicle forcultural learning and cultural transmission.

Sellers' blog post discusses a 1930′s study published by Mildred Parten looking at the development of play in children. Simply put, there are 6 stages of play that correspond to a child’s physical, cognitive and social development. Here are some the developmental stages of individual play:

Solitary play: Playing by yourself (ignoring others around you)

Onlooker play: Noticing others around you, but not playing with them

Parallel play: Implicitly recognizing the play of others around you, doing some of the same things and playing in the same cognitive space, without open social interaction. (Think of two kids building sand castles near each other that resemble each other, even though they never said a word or joined together at all.)

Associative play: Light social interaction with others nearby, but without involving play as a topic or structure

Cooperative play: socially interacting and organizing using play as a structure on which to build these interactions.  Note that this implicitly includes competitive play, as the social structures involved necessarily require in-group (our team) and out-group (the other team) interactions.

According to Parten, as we develop as humans our forms of play become more social and common. We tend to play less alone and want to cooperate and compete during gameplay. As Sellers points out, if we examine the emergence of social games, we can see similarities in this regard:

Solitary play: Bejeweled, tower defense, most early casual games. The game design and moving parts were simple and easy.

Onlooker play: the addition of leaderboards, “who’s playing now”, and other features that, while they don’t give you the opportunity to be “playing” with others, or even observing their actual gameplay, at least give you some indication that there are other people out there playing at the same time.

Parallel play: current social games such as Farmville, Pet Pupz and Mob Wars, where you may have “neighbors” but the game play is largely solitary. While you’re able to associate with other people and even observe their play, in terms of the gameplay you’re almost entirely working on your own.  These games do however start to edge up into Associative play.

Associative play: your play involves interacting with other people directly, and their play is one of several factors that effects yours. Foursquare would be an example, as well as higher levels in Mob Wars and Farmville.

Cooperative play: think of people forming teams for the purpose of playing the game and these interactions enabling the formation of communities. Think of games where complementary roles —as well as shared goals and complex in-group/out-group interactions are part of gameplay.

As you can see, there’s plenty here for game designers to consider! What about games where the play within the game evolves through the various levels of sociality as you progress? What about games where individual players can decide independently how deeply they want other players to effect their play? What are your thoughts? Email me at michael [at] ayogo [dot] com.






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Michael Fergusson


Michael is the Chief Executive Officer and founder of Ayogo Games Inc., and is dedicated to the idea that playing is one of the most productive things we can do. He's been an entrepreneur and innovator on the Web for over 15 years, and the games he has developed have been played by millions on computers and Smartphones all over the world. This year, Michael has been invited to speak on game design at SXSW, Vancouver's F5 Expo, Games and Health -- Vid Week, Banff Television Festival and NextMedia in Toronto, and has been featured by Fast Company, MIT Technology Review, CBC, and the Globe and Mail. Michael lives in Vancouver with his beautiful wife and four amazing children.

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