Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

How social games get you to do their marketing for them

Facebook games are targeted towards a broad demographic, with them being designed for the ‘everyday player’. This provides marketers and advertisers with a big avenue for profit and a chance to gain loyal brand followers. One way this has been achieved is through the use of making players feel good in order to increase the likelihood that they’ll give back.

An example is the farming simulation game, Farmville. From early on players are encouraged to grow their farms, initially this process is quite easy and fun as rewards (coins) are given often for doing so. These rewards can then be used to maintain and expand your farm through doing things such as repairing dying crops. However, just like with many games, there comes a point where the reward giving slows down and the game gets harder, where instant gratification is felt less often if you are only doing the same actions as before.

The game is purposely designed this way so that you are encouraged to use other routes to get your rewards. This is done so that you don’t stop playing and more importantly get other people to play and stick to the game, which is the ultimate goal of the developers.

There comes a point where you are given the chance to send a gift to one of your Facebook friends. The chosen friends receive a notification about this and accept the gift. It is here where the reciprocity principle, comes into play. The one receiving the gift then feels obliged to return the favour, so they log in and send a gift back (e.g. fruit or livestock) which will help the initial gift giver grow their farm.

Notification from Farmville on Facebook


The reciprocity principle states people give back to those who have helped them, a norm that is considered universal [1]. Therefore, if we receive a gift, in the future we feel like we should give a gift back partially due to the feeling of obligation and indebtedness [2].  A study that explains this was conducted by Regan in 1971 [3] . There were two conditions to the experiment based on the idea that the participant and confederate rated the quality of paintings. In one condition, the confederate left the room and came back with a drink for themselves and the participant, without asking the participant if they wanted one. This was an unsolicited favour. In the other condition, the confederate only got a drink for themselves. After rating the paintings, the confederate asked the participant for a small favour: if could they buy raffle tickets for 25 cents each because if the confederate sold most of the tickets, they would win a $50 prize. If was found that if the confederate had done a favour for the participant earlier i.e gotten them a drink without asking, the participant was more likely to buy raffle tickets. This shows that reciprocity can be used for profitability.  

This idea can be seen with Farmville. The reciprocity effect ensures you send a gift back, this creates a cycle of reciprocating gifts (plants and fruit etc). If you don’t return the favour, you feel bad so you continue to give back. The Facebook notification itself states you need to log back in, so if you do, why not play for a bit anyways? This encourages both players to constantly log back in and engage in using in game currency (coins) to buy more gifts for your friend. Farmville has the option of sending gifts to someone who doesn’t even play Farmville, however the reciprocity principle is still applicable here. This is because the receiver feels like the giver put in the effort to ‘buy’ them a gift, therefore, surely they should give back? Of course, the only way they can do this is signing up to play the game, and given that it doesn’t take much effort, it’s not a problem. In turn, the game gets one new customer and each player profits as they receive gifts.

Overall, it’s a great marketing tactic, because you get existing players to get new players through giving them gifts that can be used by the new player to start off their game. Friends are essentially 'selling' the game to each other, using word of mouth and the reciprocity principle without even realising it.

[1] Gouldner, A. W. (1960). The norm of reciprocity: A preliminary statement. American Sociological Review, 25, 161-178.

[2] Cialdini, B. R. (1984). Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. (3rd Ed.) New York: HarperCollins Publishers

[3] Regan, D. T. (1971). Effects of a favour and liking on compliance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 7, 627-639.

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