April 2012

Hou, J. (2011). Uses and gratifications of social games: Blending social networking and game play. First Monday, 16(7).


The Hou (2011) article is data heavy and presents a brief introduction to Uses and Gratifications theory. This paper uses the uses and gratifications theory to make a connection to casual games and social games as filling specific user needs.

Uses and gratifications theory (Katz, 1959) is interested in why individuals seek out particular mass communication channels for certain uses in order to gratify certain needs. It is concerned with what people do with media as opposed to what media do to people. The great thing about this theory is that it is a lot like Minecraft ( or Terraria?) because you can dig out your own research niche.

One of the criticisms of this theory is that it is too individualistic and should not be used to make generalizations. Another criticism of this theory is that it does not explain the media use and should not be used to predict future patterns, however, the researchers get around this obstacle through the investigation of prospective gratifications or the “expectancy-value models of media uses and gratifications.”

Very interesting…There is a passing mention of “mind-reading” as a social gratification but no further explanation. Upon further investigation this reference was made to support the idea that “increased friendship and closeness (friends vs. strangers) generally lead to an expansion of cooperative acts (Majolo, et al., 2006), mutual support and toleration (Cords, 1997), and greater accuracy of social judgments.” The actual study that Hou is citing investigates the “mind-reading” capabilities (can you tell what the other person is thinking) of strangers, close friends and/or intimate partners.

Social games

  • Key components, which differentiate social games from other computer games, are: (1) social platform–based; (2) multiplayer; (3) real identity; and, (4) casual gaming.
  • Most social games are found on social networking sites and are browser based
  • The game world is persistent much like an MMO, however, the fact that social gamers play mostly with real-life friends may make it different than an MMO whose players may have never met in real life.
  • People represent themselves since most social networking sites require real name registration. However, this statement assumes that people are honest in signing up to begin with. Anecdotal evidence may indicate that some social gamers actually create dual identities on these social networking sites so that they can essentially play with themselves.
  • Do we agree with Hou’s definition of social games? What about asynchronisity? Freemium (i.e. free to play until you pay to pay)? Rewards? Customization? Virtual Goods? Quests/Goals?

Casual games

  • According to Hou, being casual means that a social game is easy to pick up as opposed to an intense and complex hardcore game.
  • According to Michelle, a casual game is one which I do not have a meaningful investment in nor a salient connection to. Games which can be played on a mobile device while standing in line at your local coffee shop.
  • Casual game design commonly features excessive positive feedback for every successful action the player performs
  • See also Juul

SNS Gratifications (Afterall, this is the typical platform…)

  • Urista et al. (2009) – 1) efficient communication, 2) convenient communication, 3) curiosity about others, 4) popularity to become a popular figure among friends, and 5) relationship formation and reinforcement
  • Joinson (2008) – 1) social connection to keep in touch with friends and maintain relationships, 2) shared identities to join friends’ groups to avoid being left out, 3) content, 4) social investigation to see what friends do and to make new friends, 5) social network surfing, and 6) status updating [or self-expression] to update one’s status or to let friends know your news.

Video Game Gratifications

  • Lucas and Sherry (2004) in the order of importance – 1) diversion to pass time or to stop boredom; 2) social interaction to interact with friends through the game; 3) challenge to attempt to beat the game; 4) competition to compete with other players in the game; 5) fantasy to do things that are impossible in real life; and 6) arousal to play the game because it is exciting. Diversion and social interaction were the most important predictors of the total number of hours they spent playing during a typical week
  • Sun, et al. (2006) in the order of importance – 1) diversion, 2) competition, 3) interaction, 4) meeting strangers, and 5) self–expression.


  • SNS based – Expected gratifications for social connection (a), social investigation (b), shared identity (c), popularity (d), and self–expression (e) from social games will be positively related to the (frequency, duration and engagement) of game play and/or game activities.
  • Video game based – Expected gratifications for competition (a), challenge (b), social interaction (c), diversion (d), fantasy (e), and arousal (f) from social games will be positively related to the (frequency, duration and engagement) of game play and/or game activities.


  • Self-administered online questionnaires of Happy Farm players recruited through snowball sample. 93 usable questionnaires investigated with 66.2% female and 33.8% male. Mean age was 25.65 (ranged from 20-37).
  • Facebook imported Happy Farm in April 2009. The game peaked with over two million monthly active players within that year and brought in 30 to 40 percent of Facebook’s monthly revenue.

Consider this: It takes anywhere from $100k to $300k to make the game. Approximately 3-5% of the players actually pay to play. Farmville has over 80 million players and a reported 31 million daily active players. If each of these daily active players paid a penny per day that would be $3.65/person/year. Now take that $3.65 and multiply that across the 31 million people and you get about $113 million/year that Farmville makes. Not bad from a $100-$300k investment…(More)

Results & Discussion

  • The findings indicated that respondents played social games more frequently and became more engaged in different kinds of game activities for the purpose of diversion.
  • Neither challenge nor competition were significant motives for playing social games. It is possible that social gamers do not necessarily enjoy the challenge of “beating the game,” or beating friends. Thus, social games do not enforce winning or competing, rather they accommodate more flexible playing styles.
    Is it still a game if no one can “win”?
  • Social interaction predicted both frequency and duration of game playing, while diversion predicted only frequency.
  • Negative relationship between the fantasy factor and game play intensity. That is, the more fantasy the less intense the play is. How could this affect graphics?
  • Should social games be described as social media rather than as just one category of online computer games?
  • Are social games a “unique venue for socialization in a playful manner”?
  • Do social games provide a new “third place” for social structures? (neutral ground, leveler, regulars, conversation, etc…)

Game Examples

Note: The above were discussion points regarding Hou (2011) for an in-class presentation on the casual game revolution. As a side note, the author is currently working on her PhD at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and is interested in social and cognitive psychology of mediated communication. http://www-scf.usc.edu/~jinghuih/Home.html

Readings – The casual game revolution

In their article “The Depiction of Illness and Related Matters in Two Top-Ranked Primetime Network Medical Drama in the United States”, Ye and Ward (2010) were interested in investigating the diseases, injuries and patient demographics portrayed in Grey’s Anatomy and ER. The authors were very descriptive in their sample selection starting with how and why the programs chosen were selected. Using the recently available DVD seasons for each show was a novel way to investigate the content. However, as a result of this self-imposed sample limitation to only DVDs which are available, one study limitation that the authors mention is the asynchronous nature of the shows studied. That is, the researchers did not study the shows during the initial air dates. The characters, content and plot line of the show do not change because you watch it on DVD and are not (to my knowledge) affected by the asynchronous or synchronous nature of the viewing so why mention it? Perhaps I am thinking about it with 2012 eyes and with knowledge that time shifting is on the rise. Would using Hulu (with a one day turnaround from air date) make any difference in this disclosure?

Ye and Ward provide great detail to the operational definitions of their variables. The categorization of the type of illnesses to be coded is not only helpful in replicating the study but is also helpful in establishing a general categorization of these illnesses for future research.

In the results section, Ye and Ward state that “461 injuries, illnesses and diseases were identified” (P. 562) but it is not known whether this number represents 461 unique illnesses or a running tabulation of all illnesses (where duplication can occur). If it is the former then that is a ton of illnesses but if it is the latter then that could mislead one to think that a ton of illnesses are represented in these educational entertainment shows.

In the discussion section, Ye and Ward suggest that “more attention to chronic diseases is needed” and support this claim by providing evidence from their current research indicating that “fewer than 10 diabetes cases were identified.” (P. 565)  Ye and Ward then go on to suggest ideas for further research to examine other medical shows such as House, Scrubs and Nip/Tuck. This brings up an interesting point. House frequently uses Multiple Sclerosis and/or Lupus as a first diagnosis but it never ends up “sticking” and the patient always comes out with something else in the end. Putting these two ideas together, it would be interesting to see what chronic diseases are frequently found in entertainment education media and specifically what context they are used (diagnosis vs. misdiagnosis). It is such a pervasive parody on House that there is even a (unofficial) T-shirt about it…

Here is a link to two (of many) lamentations regarding the way House treats MS and chronic diseases in general  – http://www.medhelp.org/posts/Multiple-Sclerosis/Dr-House-and-reality/show/1046522 & http://lupusandhumor.blogspot.com/2011/05/its-never-lupus-may-10-is-world-lupus.html.

The House MD social game also pokes fun at the misdiagnosis of Lupis.

What does Multiple Sclerosis look like in the media? 

Who constantly misdiagnoses MS (& Lupus and other autoimmune diseases):

  • Season 1, Episode 2 (Paternity) – Sexual abuse is the first misdiagnosis then the team decides it is Multiple Sclerosis. It turns out to be measles.
  • Season 4, Episode 6 (Whatever It Takes) – Heat stroke is the first misdiagnosis then Miller Fisher Inflammation and finally MS or Lupus. In the end the patient is sick from eating too many Brazil nuts.
  • Season 4, Episode 10 (It’s a Wonderful Lie) – Breast cancer is the first diagnosis but the MRI of the chest comes up negative. House then orders an MRI for MS. It turns out to be Breast Cancer in the patient’s leg.

Law & Order: Special Victims Unit

  • Season 11, Episode 17 (Disabled) – Black female victim has multiple sclerosis and is quadriplegic. Disturbing scenes of caretaker violence against the woman by her caretaker sister.
  • Season 3, Episode 8 (Inheritance) – Benson and Stabler visit a person of interest with primary progressive MS. He is an older black male shown in a wheelchair and ostensibly housed in a group home.
  • Season 4, Episode 9 (Juvenile) – Benson and Stabler visit a person of interest who is a part of a medicinal marijuana club/co-op in the city. She is a young, professional white woman who states that “The only thing that controls my tremors from MS is smoking once in a while.”
  • Season 13, Episode 17 (Justice Denied) – Benson finds out that the officer who logged a scarf into evidence was color blind due to early onset Multiple Sclerosis. A false conviction of a serial rapist occurred due to the officer’s claim that the scarf was green (instead of red).


  • The Talk  (18 June 2012) announced Jack Osbourne’s recent multiple sclerosis diagnosis. Sharon Osbourne was visually upset through the announcement and was hesitant to speak.
  • Accused (6 December 2010); Season 1, Episode 4 (Liam’s Story) – The accused Taxi driver’s (Liam’s) wife suffers from “progressive” multiple sclerosis. Liam mentions this to the woman whom he is stalking and from whom he has burgled. The wife is shown in a wheelchair and in a consistently depressed state.
  • West Wing – The president has multiple sclerosis but does everything he can to hide it.
  • Cold Case (2006); Season 3, Episode 16 (One Night) – Terrible misrepresentation of MS including mention of it as a “terminal” illness. Most individuals with MS live regular life spans…just stuck inside a body that does not want to cooperate. In this episode, the serial killer has MS but this is not disclosed until the police visit his wife. His (estranged) wife tells the police that the husband called recently to tell her that the tremors came back. This, to the husband now serial killer, indicates that he is “dying.” In other words, a relapse triggers the man to kill young boys because “they don’t realize what life is worth” at that age.
  • Annette Funicello – Actress (Mickey Mouse Club) and singer
  • Richard Pryor – Actor (See No Evil, Hear No Evil), comedian and writer
  • Montel Williams – Talk show host and MS champion
  • David “Squiggy” Lander – Actor (Laverne and Shirley), comedian and musician
  • Jack Osbourne – Actor (The Osbournes) and media personality
  • Jonathan Katz – Writer (Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist), comedian, actor
  • Alan Osmond – Singer (Osmond Brothers)
  • Teri Garr – Actress (Young Frankenstein)
  • Betty Cuthbert – Athlete (Australia)
  • Lena Horne – Singer (Stormy Weather and other Jazz favorites) and actress
  • Clive Burr – Musician (Iron Maiden)
  • William Hartnell – Actor (Doctor Who)

Ye, Y. and Ward, K.E. (2010). The Depiction of Illness and Related Matters in Two Top-Ranked Primetime Network Medical Drama in the United States. A Content Analysis, Journal of Health Communication, 15(1): 555-570.

At the heart of the following lists are the generalizability and applicability of any research findings based on data collected from these worlds. In order to make general statements any researcher must consider the situated environment of the research sample and population. Although it may be easier to access cowboys in Texas, one does not go to a rodeo in order to study the fine art hanging on the wall. That is to say, researchers who take the reality of these worlds out of context and attempt to place them in the grounded reality of “the real world” might find data which is easy to collect but which comes with so many stipulations that it becomes unusable in any other environment. That is where studying games for games sake or virtual worlds “sui generis” comes into effect without attempting to draw any parallels to grounded reality environments.

Pitfalls of using virtual worlds for research

  • Identity is ever changing and fragmented. Identity online may not necessarily correlate to identity off-line. “Some contemporary cognitive scientists are skeptical of scholarly conceptions of self, finding them to be ore like literary metaphors distilled form the surrounding folk culture than like rigorously measurable scientific concepts.” (Bainbridge, pg. 475)
  • Individuals may not be their “real selves” when online (But how do you know your “real self”? Is that even possible? Isn’t our sense of self defined by our perceived social reality in relation to others?)
  • The indigenous culture may be influenced by the rules of the world (“game laws”) and may influence the observations which can be made of the group
  • Game variables may have an impact on user behaviors
  • Williams (2008) “mapping principle” which questions whether the way an individual behaves and thinks in a virtual environment can truly be mapped and validated in grounded reality.
  •  Where does grounded reality stop and the virtual world start? How do you tease (or can you tease) out the effect of the virtual world from the general personality traits and behaviors an individual may have regardless of the environment.
  • Data may be skewed due to the demographics of the members in the virtual worlds.

Praise for using virtual worlds for research

  • Experiments can be “scaled up” from a few to hundreds of subjects and data points
  • Research in virtual worlds can cross sociocultural boundaries and provide data for underrepresented groups.
  • Virtual worlds can offer opportunities for longitudinal research investigating processes over weeks or months that may naturally take weeks or months to develop
  • The abundance of potential research subjects at a low cost
  • Experimental methods are best suited in virtual worlds which allow the researcher to create virtual laboratories.
  • Noninstrusive methods such as content analysis and analysis of information collected by the players, game developers and/or publishers offers a treasure trove of data
  • One might be able to compare the results from virtual worlds like you would compare different nations in grounded reality.

WeTopia is a browser game on a popular social networking site that allows players to use their ties with friends to build a virtual city and accumulate “Joy” points which can be spent on donations to charity in order to “make a real world difference.”

These real world differences include donations of food and clothing to various needful areas of the world like Haiti and soon in Africa. WeTopia is a social game developed by Sojo Studios which a  privately-held company that generates revenue from advertisers or from the sale of virtual goods. According to the About section of the developer’s Facebook page, the WeTopia game was launched in May 2010 and released for public beta in November 2011.