What is all this gift giving for?

By June 1, 2011Ideas

A guest post by Shehani Kay, Ayogo Writer.

Image by Cláudia*~Assad

Sheep, pigs and flowers, we’ve all gotten these ‘gifts’ from our earnest Facebook friends at some point. Some of us have accepted these virtual gifts, installed and joined up, while others have instead become fans of Facebook groups like, “I don’t care about your farm, or your fish, or your park, or your mafia.”
The “gifting” feature as implemented in many popular social games like Cityville and Farmville has been called an “evil spam engine” by some. But the fact is, this relatively simple game mechanic is a powerful way for players to interact around the game – “gifting” acts as a jumping point for players to engage in and around the game. It is also a great viral marketing tactic that has the capacity to enrich the game experience and boost player retention.
That many social games exploit innate social psychological principles of gifting and reciprocity is obvious. Does this necessarily create games that annoy some as they entertain others? I don’t think so (although being annoying doesn’t say that it’s not useful). It depends on the goals and intentions of the game designer, of course, and like any other element of game design these game mechanics can be wielded with more or less skill.
Let’s begin with the why we give gifts and how reciprocity works.
Why we give
Gift giving is a complex and important part of human interaction. It helps to define relationships and it strengthens bonds with family and friends. Psychologists, like Harvard psychology professor, Ellen J. Langer, say that it is often the giver rather than the receiver who reaps the biggest psychological rewards from a gift. Giving to others reinforces our feelings for them and makes us feel effective and caring. And attending to someone else’s needs leads also to affection for the person attended to.
There may also be deeply ingrained evolutionary forces at work. For example, evolutionarily speaking, males who were generous may have had more reproductive success than those who were stingy (perhaps they still do). Women who were skilled at giving, which would help sustain the provider and their offspring, may also be more likely to be reproductively successful.
Results of a recent meta-analysis of all grooming in primates published in Ecology Letters suggests that reciprocity plays a more profound role in contributing to fitness than previously thought. According to evolutionary biologist, Filippo Aureli, primates exchange grooming for things, such as food, protection and sex, and these cooperative exchanges may promote an individual’s fitness, or their chance of survival and reproductive success. Aureli of Liverpool John Moores University in Liverpool, UK, and Gabriele Schino of the Italian National Research Council’s Institute of Cognitive Sciences and Technologies in Rome, combed through dozens of previous studies to quantify how often primates groomed relatives and non-relatives, and how often the favour was returned. They found that, contrary to the prevailing view, primates were more likely to groom others that had groomed them, regardless of their relatedness. The researchers reported that reciprocity alone explained about 20% of the variability in grooming behaviour in 14 different species of primates, whereas kinship alone explained only 3%.
Reciprocity or getting back as good as we give
In social psychology, reciprocity refers to responding to a positive action with another positive action, and responding to a negative action with another negative one. It’s the Tit for Tat response, which differs from both altruism and social gift giving since there’s no expectation of future positive responses.
In cultural anthropology and sociology, reciprocity is a way of defining people’s informal exchange of goods and labour, establishing value and local exchange rates.
According to Marshall Sahlins, a well-known American cultural anthropologist and author of Stone Age Economics, there are three kinds of reciprocity:

  1. Generalized reciprocity (most often seen with families, friends, neighbours and coworkers) is the exchange of goods and services without keeping track of their exact value, but often with the expectation that their value will balance out over time.
  2. Balanced or Symmetrical reciprocity is an exchange that occurs when someone gives to someone else, expecting a fair and tangible return – at a specified amount, time, and place. Balanced reciprocity is a direct, less personal exchange with a precise reckoning. There is more likely to be a similarity in type and value of objects and defined expectations about giving and receiving.
  3. Negative reciprocity is the exchange of goods and services where each party intends to profit from the exchange, often at the expense of the other. It also includes what economists call barter. Negative reciprocity can involve a minimum amount of trust and a maximum social distance; indeed, it can take place among strangers. Negative reciprocity was a prevalent form of exchange in establishing friendly relations in nonindustrial societies between different groups.

Criticism of social games
Gifting of virtual items is a way for a game to harness social norms in reciprocity – to take advantage of the expectation that people will respond to each other in similar ways – that gifts will beget gifts.
Tadhg Kelly, a Social Game Consultant, believes that the goal of the gift economy in games like Cityville is to make players appreciate just how much faster they can actually progress in the game if they, at no cost, give as many gifts to each other as possible. “An economy-of-favours emerges, and everyone wins.”
According to Kelly, the truth about social games like Cityville is that it’s selfishly social and all incentive-driven.

“One of the ironies around social games is that they aren’t particularly social. They don’t encourage deep social interaction because such interaction is useless to the developer. Social games are not trying to be connections or meaningful experiences for players. That is a wholly different kind of game, and not one that they can easily become given the environment in which these games are played.

Instead, they are built as amusements. Socialising in amusements is more akin to having spare Poker chips at the table that you give to someone else, and maybe they’ll give you some back later. It is reciprocal trade, assistance for incentive, not charity. While this does not preclude the possibility that some players will engage in acts of charity for personal reasons, the social dynamics are not created with that in mind. They are built to work with self-interest.”

This assessment resonates with what Marcel Mauss, French sociologist and author of The Gift called the behaviour of gift giving that is superficially presented as spontaneous generosity but is actually carefully staged, seen as an obligation and has a foundation in economic self-interest.
And it also ties in with what John Davis, a British anthropologist and Professor of Social Anthropology in the University of Oxford saw as the market economy disguising itself as the gift economy to reap the benefits of the norms of having to give, not being able to refuse a gift and having to repay. Think Hallmark greeting cards.
Gifting virtual gifts, then, becomes not about giving so much as it is about getting needed items back. It’s about perpetuating game play for self- interest and not about caring for your friends.
Can gifting be redeemed?
These are some reasons why the “gifting” game mechanic, which exploits both our drive for self-interest and for reciprocity, is so potent. It taps into a part of us that’s primal, selfish and quite beyond reason.
Cityville cleverly pulls in and retains players through more than this one game mechanic, of course. Zynga, Cityville’s creators, are masters at using social gaming hooks to entertain the masses.
Still, I think gifting can also be used to similar effect for a different purpose – to change behaviour and promote health, for example.
HealthSeeker, uses ‘kudos’ as its gifting mechanic. Kudos differs from Cityville gifts in two crucial ways – it doesn’t function as a spam engine and the motivation for giving isn’t driven by self-interest. Kudos are given to other players of HealthSeeker to congratulate and encourage healthy behavior. There’s a fostering of cooperation in this social exchange – you’re not in this alone – you have a community who is behind you every step of the way. At the end of the day, it’s not your farm or city you’re building but your health, which I think is rather more important.
So what’s all this gifting for? I think its roots lie in the poignantly human desire to connect and belong to a community. We yearn to interact, to be social. We also feel the social obligation to stay engaged in the game when we are connected to friends and our actions are regularly acknowledged. Casual Social Games allow us to stay connected however tenuously to others. Gifting in games mimics our real desire to solidify our bonds with others, our need to reach out and “poke” someone, our longing to give and to say, “I’m thinking of you”.
Harnessing this urge and channelling it for positive change is how games can become a force for good in this world. Serious Games that promote health and wellness can make gifting redeeming and not simply redeemable.
For more information about how games can be used to promote healthier behaviour, or about Ayogo’s GoodLife engine, please contact Michael Fergusson: michael (at) ayogo.com.