Last month, A-ya Chiu of Taiwan had more than 4500 friends on Facebook. Most of these friends were added for Pet Society
, the Playfish game revolving around cartoonish pets. Because of her vast network, Chiu is the most popular girl in Pet Society
, and her alter-ego "IceLashes" enjoys a fabulous lifestyle in the virtual world.
On her Facebook profile, Chiu, who is 24, shows pictures of herself playing up for the camera, sticking out her tongue and exposing her legs. She looks more like a booth girl than a gamer. But a gamer is exactly what she is.
Currently unemployed, Chiu plays games on Facebook for more than eight hours a day. Pet Society
takes up most of that time. In three months, IceLashes has advanced to level 38 (out of a maximum 47) and her virtual house is stuffed with the latest must-have items that are released each week.
Friends Are Money
In comparison, Karen Bedford of England, who has been playing the game for about a year for one to two hours a day is five levels below Chiu, and her house, while nicely decorated, is smaller.
Such differences are caused by the fact that friends equal money in Pet Society
. Each day you visit a friend’s pet, you earn up to 30 virtual coins. The more friends you have, the more money you can make and the more things you can buy.
Other online games, such as Zynga's Yoville
, also reward players for interacting with friends. During a discussion panel at July's Casual Connect conference in Seattle, Sebastien de Halleux, COO of Playfish said that connecting with friends is an immediate objective of social games.
For example, see the amusing Pet Society trailer
the company released on August 26. "There needs to be a benefit for users to invite others into the game," he said. He emphasized that Restaurant City
, another Playfish product, is less about restaurant management than about employing one's friends as cooks or servers.
But How Many Are 'Real'?
Problem is, while these games have millions of users, many people have only a handful of real-life friends who play them. Entering Pet Society
for the first time is a little like being gay or Asian in Oklahoma. You know there are others like you, but you are often alone in your immediate circle. Hence, players flock to forums and blogs to find one another. "Add me. My pet needs more friends," is a familiar plea.
Sarah Gordon Weathersby, a retired IT professional in Raleigh, North Carolina, jokes that such forums feel like the "red light district," but other gamers can't resist clicking the add button. Many items in Pet Society
cost thousands of coins, and buying them would take weeks of playing (or real money) if you don't have many friends. Even a moderate player like Ulrika Ruston, an English teacher in Sweden, has added 41 complete strangers.
While A-ya Chiu is an extreme example of a gamer gone add-happy, many others are following suit and significantly changing their experience of Facebook. There's even a mass-add application
designed to centralize your contacts and build your alliances in over 90 games.
The Consequences For The Platform
When gamers triple or quadruple their network, Facebook loses some of its usefulness as a way to communicate with friends. It becomes less of a social platform than a gaming platform. MiYon Richardson, a mother of two and a digital scrapbooker in Texas, says that after her network ballooned for Zynga's Mafia Wars
, her news feed and E-mail box became cluttered with game-related messages. "I get so much spam now," she says. "I very rarely see an update from my real friends."
Richardson alleviates some of the spamming problem by separating her friends into different groups. This allows her to filter her news feed and prevent certain people from seeing all of her information. But many other users, including Chiu, don't take advantage of such features, and compromise the integrity of their friends' list.
Then again, the definition of friends has always been muddled on Facebook. Anyone, whether she is your co-worker, girlfriend, mother, or just another member of your mafia, is given the uniform title of "friend."
Knowing Who Your Friends Are
The most popular girl in Pet Society
likes to share her information with everyone. Chiu has uploaded over 2,000 images, mostly of IceLashes. When she makes a status update, it's usual to see several hundred people "like" it.
However, Chiu has become a bit judicious recently. In the past several weeks, she has been de-friending about a thousand people, initially because her bloated network was causing Pet Society
to load slowly. But she also removed connections if they begged for items or had multiple aliases. Her wall posts started displaying sycophantic notes such as, "You're so pretty and nice. I'm so lucky to be your friend!"
While she's on a trimming cycle, Chiu says that she would like to add more Taiwanese gamers. Though she seems to have gotten more selective, Chiu's Facebook habits may have made a lasting impact, blurring the lines between gaming and friendship. Communicating several times by E-mail, she promptly answered all my questions until I asked her how many of her real friends played Pet Society
Chiu replied, "I don't know what you mean by 'real friend.' If you mean real friend besides me, then the answer is about 20. But if you mean real friends in the game, about 500 chat with me and send me gifts."
I clarified my question. "When I said 'real friend,' I meant someone you know through school, work, parties. Someone you meet in 'real' life, not just through the Internet."
This time, when Chiu replied, she halved her initial estimate. "I have about 10 friends in this game...lol."
[Soyon Im is a Seattle-based journalist and writer of Pet Society Anonymous. She grew up in the South and knows what it's like to be Asian in Oklahoma.