Every time a new digital device or platform is released, one of the first things people tend to do with it is try to play games. Social networking sites like Facebook are no exception. Early Facebook games were simple affairs, mostly limited to wall posts. These days Facebook games can be quite complex, with sound and graphics and mouse clicking galore. They are also extremely popular. In fact, it could be argued that Facebook’s popularity and success is now somewhat dependent on the popularity and success of its games.
According to Facebook’s own statistics, over 750 million people actively use Facebook. Zynga, the company that makes the most popular games on Facebook, claims 230 million people are playing their games every month. That’s over 1/4 of all Facebook users! Facebook is currently valued at around $70 billion; Zynga, between $15 and $20 billion. Again, about 1/4 the value of Facebook as a whole, and that’s just one company; there are several other companies making games that attract players in the 10s of millions.
Facebook and social media games rely on two different revenue streams, but both depend on attracting as many people as possible to their services. Facebook, like its web 2.0 brethren and indeed much of the public internet, relies on advertisements. Facebook games use advertisements as well, but a bulk of their money comes from microtransactions. The games are free to play, but players can spend money to acquire items, bypassing the often large amounts of time and effort necessary to earn them for free. Facebook wants a piece of that action, which is why it introduced Facebook Credits; as of July this year all social game developers have to use Facebook credits for all in-game monetary transactions, allowing Facebook to snatch 30% of their revenue.
The irony of all of this is that the games aren’t really social. They’re mostly asynchronous, which means people aren’t playing directly with other people (unlike, say, playing board games with friends). They also don’t really encourage meaningful communication between players; instead, they push players (overtly or not) to convince as many friends as possible to join in the “game”. At one point this resulted in a lot of Facebook Wall spam, which non-players found quite annoying. Facebook locked down games’ ability to post to the wall, forcing developers to find other ways to make their games as viral as possible. Some players, realizing how annoying this could be to their friends, have created separate Facebook accounts solely to play games, amassing “friends” lists in the 100s or 1000s made up of complete strangers, solely for the in-game advantages such “friends” have to offer.
Just because these social networking games are part of social media sites, these games do not necessarily lead to positive social behaviour.