“Everything that the human race has done and thought is concerned with the satisfaction of deeply felt needs …”
-Einstein (Theory of Cosmic Religion)

Introduction

The WeTopia game (https://www.facebook.com/WeTopiaOfficial) on Facebook provides a novel environment for the examination of the uses and gratifications (U&G) theory in an emerging new media context. The purpose of this study is to investigate the motivations at the intersection of social games and “social good networks” (Branston & Bush, 2010). The following literature review presents a list of gratifications which may be satisfied through the emerging medium of a social game unusually situated within a social good network. The paper concludes with a proposed set of questions developed for a future survey of the WeTopia game players and community members.

The theoretical background for this research is associated with the humanistic U&G theory which presupposes that individuals are motivated to actively choose media to gratify certain needs. The survey data will be used to determine the individual needs and expected versus actual gratifications received from playing this social game for social good. In offering members with a combination of informative, social and/or entertaining methods of engagement, the WeTopia game may satisfy multiple needs at once through a unique combination of passive awareness and active participation provided through both game play and game community.


About WeTopia

WeTopia is a social game playable through an internet browser and currently only available on the Facebook platform. The WeTopia game was launched in May 2010 and released for beta on November 30, 2011. In the game, players build a virtual city and use their Facebook connections to hire city staff members and construct special items. Players also harvest crops and collect goodwill through houses and shops located in their game community. This goodwill is the currency of WeTopia and allows players to purchase additional in-game market items (e.g. houses, shops, playgrounds or “joygrounds”, decorations, etc…). Through building and harvesting their virtual city, players accumulate “joy points” which can be spent on donations to real-world charities in order to make a real world difference. These real world differences are actual donations of food and clothing (Hernandez, 2012) to various needful areas in the United States, Haiti and Africa.

The aesthetic style of the game is ‘chibi’ sweet using characters with oversized heads and vibrant colors to create an adorable Utopian village. The upper portion of the game screen has various gauges and heads-up displays which indicate the player’s current levels and meters. Above the gauges and meters are seven tabs which provide the player with links to engage, communicate or find additional information about the game and the community. The “real impact” tab takes players to a Google map which not only highlights the areas of the world that have been positively affected by WeTopia but also provides an on-going tally of the donations which have been given to these areas on behalf of all the WeTopia players. Four of the remaining tabs are social in nature and allow the player to send gifts, invite friends, access the community message boards and review requests for assistance from other friends. The lower portion of the game screen displays all of the player’s neighbors (or friends in their social network) as well as links to perform additional actions such as visiting a neighbor’s WeTopia community. Easy access buttons are located on the bottom right of the screen. These buttons give players access to edit their community layout, donate joy, buy things at the market or recall items from storage. The left side of the screen lists all of the available quests which can be completed for more joy, items and/or experience points. Finally, the right side of the screen is used to highlight specific campaigns and limited time offers currently available to all game players.

Both experience and joy have attainable levels associated with them. Experience levels are based on the tasks performed in the game (harvesting and collecting) while joy levels are associated with the amount of joy given to charitable projects. Each level of joy is associated with a positive nickname (e.g. caregiver, joy, champion, etc…) and a reward for attaining that level. Currently, the highest level of joy attainable is level 50  but players may continue to give joy to charitable projects after reaching this level.

To encourage frequent and continued giving, WeTopia also offers special project buildings for each milestone a player meets (1k, 5k, 10k, 25k and 50k) in donating joy points to a single organization. The player can track his/her joy points through their joy meter which not only displays the amount of joy currently accumulated but also the amount of joy the player has donated over time. Joy points are donated virtually through the game interface by each player after they have selected which charity(s) to support. Energy is also tracked through a meter at the top of the screen and one energy point (used to perform the action of harvesting and collecting goodwill from buildings and crops) is freely given to the player every five minutes. Players may add more goodwill (increasing game currency) or energy points (extending game play) by purchasing these items in the market using Facebook credits. Facebook credits can be purchased with real money through Facebook or, less frequently, earned by watching video advertisements.

Throughout the game, players are encouraged to recruit others to join and learn more about the causes and charities which WeTopia supports. A highlight video for each active charity is also available at the in-game theater. Each video includes the option to share this information with others in one’s Facebook network which enables players to become active stewards of the social causes. Additional posts from the WeTopia Facebook page regarding social good achievements, news and game information may also show up in a community member’s Facebook news feed.

All of this works together to tell a compelling story of the good that has been or will be achieved through playing the game and donating joy or purchasing items in WeTopia. Interestingly, the developers of WeTopia have disclosed their preference for projects which are especially good at storytelling.

“We seek charitable partners that excel at telling their story through photos, videos, and social media.” –Sojo Studios

WeTopia is developed by Sojo Studios which is a for-profit, privately-held company that generates revenue from advertisers and the sale of virtual goods within the game. However, all of the causes and campaigns in the game are ostensibly linked to not-for-profit organizations helping children. The altruistic lure of helping children by playing a game is apparently appealing to humanitarian celebrities (and their publicists) as well. Both Ellen DeGeneres (Heinz, 2011) and Justin Bieber (JustinBeiber, 2011) publicly support WeTopia. Ellen DeGeneres has even offered to become virtual friends with other WeTopia players. In connection with the support provided by Ellen, limited-time, in-game items have been created with special “Ellen” branding and/or meaning.

Social games and Facebook

The Facebook platform could arguably be considered the largest social network on the internet. With a reported 901 million users (De La Merced, 2012), the Facebook network is larger than the population of North America (World Bank, 2010). Considering this membership statistic and Facebook’s inherent news and information posting system, the possibility of Facebook to influence social change could be compared to the power and influence the populace and media of a large country might have. If that is not enough to warrant investigation, Facebook is also an important network in the daily lives of these members as indicated by the 52 percent of its users who engage with their Facebook network every day (Hampton, Goulet, Rainie, & Purcell, 2011).  A survey commissioned for PopCap games also uncovered a large percentage of social game players who form long term attachments with their games. This survey by the Information Solutions Group (2010) found that 56 percent of the respondents in both the United States and the United Kingdom have played a social game on a social network for at least one year. Almost all (95 percent) of those same social gamers play these games multiple times a week with 34 percent stating that they are passionate enough to play several times a day (Information Solutions Group, 2010).

Unlike traditional video games, the expected gratifications for social games are considered less competitive and much more social or cooperative (Hou, 2011). The social nature of the games makes them inherently different from more traditional video games where competition is the predominant driving motivation. Posting requests for assistance and recruiting other players serves to develop cooperative relationships and foster community. Importantly and exciting for the game community which has frequently longed for ways to target women, females represent 55 percent of the social game players in the United States (Information Solutions Group, 2010) and account for 58 percent (Hampton et al., 2011) of social networking site users as well. It would not be surprising then to find that females may make up the majority of social game players for social good.

WeTopia is not the first or the only game for social good. Other social games with real-world philanthropic impacts include Food Force (http://www.wfp.org/how-to-help/individuals/food-force) and Raise the Village (http://www.raisethevillage.com/). A larger “Games For Change” movement encompasses these games for social good all of which support the hope that games, gamers and game communities can make positive differences in society. Researchers like Jane McGonigal believe that games can save the world (McGonigal, 2011) and others such as Ian Bogost believe in the persuasive nature of games to change the rhetoric of the players’ experience both inside and outside of the game environment (Bogost, 2007). The “Games For Change” movement strives to breakdown the ideological frame in the popular media of games as only entertainment machines by highlighting games for good including games which have been used to understand infectious disease control (Plenda, 2011) and ones used to restructure civic participation (Kahne, Middaugh, & Evans, 2006).

Social good networks

An appeal of playing a social game through Facebook can arguably be the availability of one’s pre-existing social network to help in progressing through the game. Branston and Bush (2010) coined the term “social good networks” to describe those social networks created to share information and ideas in the hopes of calling to action in the name of social good. Given the previous data in this literature review, it may come as no surprise that females also comprise the majority of social good network users. According to Branston and Bush (2010) the average social good network user is “female, white, well-educated and global.” Additionally, social good network users are engaged with their network, as evidenced by the 68 percent of the social good network users who stay regularly involved on at least a weekly basis (Branston & Bush, 2010).

However, not everyone is enthusiastic about ePhilanthropy and online activism. To some, e-activists perform these digital acts in order to make themselves feel important but, in reality, have little to zero social impact. Morozov (2009) is one such person who claims that the problem with contemporary digital activism (or “slacktivism” as Morozov coins it) is that the granularity of the act makes it too easy to gratify simple altruistic needs. That is, “you can donate a penny where you may otherwise donate a dollar” (Morozov, 2009). Eller (2008) looked at the early cousin of social good networks by examining solidarity websites which allow a user to click a button in order to donate online. An example of a solidarity website would be The Hunger Site (www.thehungersite.com) which is similar in principle to WeTopia but lacks the interaction and reward system which the game so uniquely provides.

Exploring the intersection of social games and social good networks online

With little research on the impact of social games and related social good networks, little is known regarding their potential as immersive, online stewards of relationship building for offline cause marketing. Although the non-profit organizations aligning themselves with social game networks are not under analysis, information and data hypothesized in this research can be used to justify the use of social games as a non-traditional (but possibly lucrative and engaging) marketing channel. Additionally, the following data can be used to identify ways in which players may be influenced to actively participate by volunteering time, social resources and monetary donations. Hart (2001) began to drive home this point in an article on the early stirrings of the ePhilanthropy revolution by stating “non-profits can not only use the internet as a tool to raise money but also as a channel to create and improve relationships.”

However, Branston and Bush (2010) found that the least popular action on a social good network is in using it to find a volunteer opportunities or donate money. As WeTopia seemingly allows players to donate time through playing which, in turn, is used to fund real-world goods, it may be the case that WeTopia players and community members believe their playing is equivalent to volunteering and donating. Further investigation into specific uses and gratifications at the intersection of social games and social good networks are explored below.

Uses and Gratifications

U&G theory posits that individuals seek out particular media channels for certain uses in order to gratify certain needs. It has been used to explore the intent and consequences of media selection. It is a theory that expects the media consumer to actively engage in their media selection and, after thoughtfully considering alternatives, choose a particular media channel to gratify some purposeful need. In other words, it is a theory which supports the general free will of the audience. The historical trail of this theory has identified concepts and needs such as learning, surveillance, habit, companionship, escape from boredom, identification, arousal & relaxation (Hou, 2011; Joinson, 2008; Katz, 1959; Katz, Blumler, & Gurevitch, 1974).

U&G theory provides operational definitions for the reasons why individuals use a particular media or medium. Specifically, this study is interested in the following motivations which WeTopia players may attribute to their game play:

The first motivation is information seeking.  Facebook has been considered a busy and opaque social-information system (Baresch, Knight, Harp, & Yaschur, 2011). According to a Pew Internet and American Life Project poll (Purcell, Rainie, Mitchell, Rosenstiel, & Olmstead, 2010), “75 percent [of the respondents surveyed] get news forwarded through email or posts on social networking sites and 52% share links to news with others via those means.”  These emergent news consumption strategies allow users to read and share information they feel is relevant, valuable, entertaining and insightful. In the new media landscape, a Facebook user has access to an anytime, anywhere, personalized news alert system. Thus the WeTopia game and its Facebook community can serve as a de facto news service for their community members. In the case of the WeTopia game, players may choose to play the game in order to stay abreast of news and information regarding causes for social good thus satisfying the gratification of information seeking.

A second motivation is entertainment. According to Hou (2011) “respondents played social games more frequently and became more engaged in different kinds of game activities for the purpose of diversion.” Diversion also predicted frequency of game play in the Hou (2011) study but was not a good indicator of duration of game play. This indicates that an individual may play the WeTopia game as a form of entertainment, relaxation or escape from boredom. Entertainment as motivation for media use is as old as the U&G theory itself (Katz, 1959) and seems an especially appropriate gratification to attribute to game play. Taking the results from Hou (2011) into consideration this research will hypothesize that the frequency of game play will be positively correlated to a psychological need to play games for entertainment. If the game were not fun then players would likely not return to the game even if returning meant an increase in social good.

A third motivation is for social purposes. This motivation involves social interaction, community building and the development of support systems. An individual may play the WeTopia game in order to increase their social network. This need and gratification was investigated in the Hou (2011) study which found that “social interaction predicted both frequency and duration of game playing.” Putnam (2000) points out that both bridging and bonding social capital has been found as a use and benefit of increasing the size of one’s interpersonal social network. Branston and Bush (2010) also found evidence that users are motivated to entice others to join their community. Eighty-six percent of the respondents in the Branston and Bush (2010) survey indicated agreement or strong agreement that social good networks makes them “feel that they are part of a larger effort to influence positive social change.” This exchange relationship is part of a larger communal relationship which is kept active and engaging through the development of social capital. In playing the WeTopia game, players may be using an unconventional media channel to increase their social network, social capital and social support system.

A fourth motivation is altruism. This motivation focuses on those players who play WeTopia in order to satisfy a humanitarian need to help those less fortunate. One could also argue that the enjoyment gained from playing the WeTopia game may be attributed to a motivation to entertain oneself but this research considers any act of altruism on its face. Ram (2002) interviewed users of a solidarity website (The Hunger Site) and found that they were motivated to click on these solidarity sites for altruistic purposes. “Clickers essentially donate for free, participating in a unique form of reciprocal altruism” (Ram, 2002). The altruistic nature the WeTopia game makes  findings for this measure of motivation especially interesting.


Based on this literature the following research questions and hypothesis will be investigated:

  • RQ1: Do WeTopia players receive a high level of gratification for each of the expected motivations?
  • RQ2: Do WeTopia players feel as if they have (a) volunteered or (b) donated to these social good causes through playing the game?
  • H1: Duration of game play is positively correlated to an ideological need to help the world (i.e. altruism).
  • H2: Frequency of game play is positively correlated to a psychological need to play games (i.e. entertainment).
  • H3: The majority of social game players for social good will be female.

Methodology

The results of this study may be generalizable to a population of social games and their networks for social good on Facebook. The selective sample of WeTopia players and community members was chosen due both its popularity and its representativeness of a social game for social good. The WeTopia membership population (i.e. number of page likes) as of April 22, 2012 is 128,913.

The proposed research is part of a larger project on the WeTopia community. Together, these projects will use a mixed methods research design comprised of both a survey of WeTopia community members as well as a content analysis of data collected through an application developed using Facebook’s application programming interface (API). The survey will be conducted using the Qualtrics online survey design tool. The content analysis will collect general information from the participants profile data (e.g. game play frequency, game play duration, sex, age, education, relationship status, work status, state of health, frequency of Facebook use, religion, etc…) to build upon the survey responses and provide a depth of actual versus reported data. A link posted on the WeTopia Facebook page will solicit responses from the WeTopia community. Logic will be built into the survey in order to accommodate a variety of player and non-player types and to reduce the time needed to complete the survey. A free virtual good useable in the WeTopia game will also be offered to all participants and respondents.


Each research question and hypothesis will be investigated using the following survey questions and corroborated with the content analysis data. Please note that some wording has been adapted from Blumler (1979).

General Questions

  1. On a scale of 1-7 (very unsatisfied – very satisfied), how much does the WeTopia game satisfy your need for information about social good causes?
  2. On a scale of 1-7 (very boring – very entertaining), how much does the WeTopia game entertain you?
  3. On a scale of 1-7 (very alone – very supported), how much does the WeTopia game satisfy your need for social support and community?
  4. On a scale of 1-7 (very similar – very different), how similar or different do you feel to the average WeTopia player?
  5. Using the sliding scale, indicate how frequently you make point-of-purchase charitable donations while checking out at a store or restaurant.
  6. Using the sliding scale, indicate how satisfied you are with the participation from other WeTopia community members in the game.
  7. Using the sliding scale, indicate how many new social ties and friends have you gained from the WeTopia page.
  8. Using the sliding scale, indicate how likely you are to recruit others to join the WeTopia game? Have you already recruited others to play WeTopia?
  9. Using the sliding scale, indicate how often you “share” or post content to your wall for others to see regarding WeTopia or its affiliated causes?
  10. Do you believe that playing WeTopia is the same as volunteering? (Yes/No) Open-ended question, please explain.
  11. Do you believe that playing WeTopia is the same as donating money or goods to a charitable organization? (Yes/No) Open-ended question, please explain.
  12. Have you purchased virtual goods in order to support a cause for social good in WeTopia? (Yes/No)
  13. Would you donate to a WeTopia cause for social good if there were no in-game items given as a reward? (Yes/No/Maybe) Open-ended question, please explain.
  14. Do you play social games other than WeTopia on Facebook? (Yes/No) Do you play WeTopia more or less often than those other games? (More/Less)
  15. Are you more likely to purchase a virtual good from WeTopia than you are from another social game? (Yes/No/Maybe)

Motivation Specific Questions
(scale of 1-7 from strongly disagree to strongly agree and n/a)

Motivation 1- Information seeking

  1. I play the WeTopia game because it provides me with information I am looking for.
  2. I rely on the WeTopia game to send me information about social good campaigns and causes.
  3. I share posts and news through the WeTopia game with others in my social network.
  4. I can use the information from the WeTopia game to show me what society is like nowadays.
  5. Playing WeTopia makes me want to learn more about things.
  6. Playing WeTopia helps me to understand what is going on in the country and the world.

Motivation 2 – Entertainment

  1. I play WeTopia because it entertains me.
  2. I give more of my time and energy to non-profit organizations because of my involvement with the WeTopia game.
  3. Playing the WeTopia game gives me enjoyment.
  4. Playing the WeTopia game helps me to get away from everyday worries.
  5. Playing the WeTopia game helps me to relax.
  6. Playing the WeTopia game is a good way of passing the time when I don’t feel like doing anything else.

Motivation 3 – Social Interaction

  1. I play the WeTopia game because it increases my social ties and community.
  2. I feel supported by other WeTopia players.
  3. I play the WeTopia game because I identify with (or relate to) other WeTopia players.
  4. Playing the WeTopia game gives me support for my ideas.
  5. People who play WeTopia are like me.
  6. WeTopia community members are members of my group.

Motivation 4 – Altruism

  1. As a WeTopia player, I feel part of a larger effort to influence positive social change.
  2. I give more money to non-profit organizations because of my involvement with the WeTopia game.
  3. I volunteer more time to causes for social good due to my involvement with the WeTopia game.
  4. I am more active in my local community due to my involvement with the WeTopia game.
  5. Playing WeTopia allows me to volunteer my time to a worthy cause.
  6. Playing WeTopia reinforces my belief in helping the needy.

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