GDC Monday: Raph Koster – 40 Social Mechanics for Social Games

I realize that I am a day or two behind with my coverage, but I want to provide some real though on the implications of what is going on here so hopefully you all don't mind waiting a little while for me to, at least attempt to, generate some substantive thought.

In the late afternoon on Monday Raph Koster presented a talk that examined 40 different social mechanics that have yet to be applied in social games. What is important to remember is that many of these mechanics have been applied and featured in MMOs and other games. When those at GDC say social games they are simply referring to games that are played on a social network platform – for the American market this is almost always means Facebook. Raph's talk was actually presented as part of a larger Social Games Summit.

Raph's talk consisted of about 190 slides, and 40 mechanics – derived from Politics, Art, Science, Sociology, and Economics – that he believes will allow us to engage and motivate players more effectively. I think perhaps the best way to discuss his talk is by listing the 40 ideas and discussing the literature and theory behind them.

What follows is part 1 of 2 of Raph's talk. I'll post the 2nd part in the next couple days.

I have presented Raph's ideas as a list. Beneath each item I will include my own thoughts on the scientific theory behind them. I'll also suggest some deeper reading (mainly in behavioral economics and psychology) on each of the topics. If anyone would like to bring other theoretical perspectives to the table please feel free to leave commentary.

1 v Self/System


I have talked a little bit about helping, altruism, and reciprocal transactions on the site before in my post on The Need to Belong. From a theoretical perspective helping behavior is motivating because in human evolutionary history it was to our advantage to cooperate and form coalitions a human being that didn't have friends or allies would not have been as successful as those who did.

Related literature:

D.S. Wilson and Elliot Sober - Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior - Amazon - Raph actually mentions this book in his talk in a quote, if not by name. It will be mentioned again when we cover multilevel selection later.

1 v 1 Parallel

Status/Races, Leader Boards, & Tournaments

Raph discussed comparing the scores of players in parallel symmetric (e.g., golf, Crazy Taxi, or The Bassmaster Classic) and parallel asymmetric games.

In motivational theory these points tie back to status, and being skillful. The desire for status in human is also one of those typically generalizable conditions across human beings. Status plays an important role in resource collection, coalition formation, and mate selection. Players in multiplayer games typically enjoy acquiring means to broadcast their status (Hats in TF2, rare items in MMOs, etc.). Status also plays a role in reputation having certain status symbols that can broadcast your reputation is useful in reciprocal transactions.

Related Literature:

John Cartwright - Evolution and Human Behavior - Amazon - This book has its flaws, but the section on the role of status in human evolution provides a good summary of why we are motivated by status.

1 v 1 Opposed

Flower Picking, Dot Eating, Tug of War, Handicapping & Secrets

The concepts of rivalrous and non-rivalrous goods comes from economics. Flower picking is when you have a non-rivalrous good a good where my use doesn't exclude your use. Dot eating involves rivalrous goods. These are goods where the use by one person excludes the use by others.

There is actually quite a bit to say about these type of good when thinking about game design. Non-rivalrous goods can, depending on game design, suffer from problems of traffic and congestion. Meaning that enough individuals are trying to access them it can interfere with use. Traffic jams are an example of this. If you examine game theory zero and non-zero sum games can be thought of from this perspective. In a non-zero sum game score/winning is to a degree non-rivalrous, while in zero sum games winning is actually a rivalrous good as your winning precludes mine. From my own observations modern multiplayer games are featuring hybrid versions of these type of games. A zero-sum game like Modern Warfare also has a non-zero sum multiplayer component in the form of experience points.

Secrets take the form of imperfect information. What this means is that an individual doesn't know some information about the environment. In games against nature (a system) this can take the form of stochastic element. In games against others it means we don't know the choice or strategy that the other individual will make. In games where players suffer from imperfection information backwards induction can be used to predict the Nash equilibrium. However, there are problems with this approach in that the rational model of economics doesn't always predict behavior. Game designers who use game theory to inform design should also use psychology to inform their payout matrices and incentive structures. Bounded rationality provides a possible substitute for pure classical rationality in these situations, but doesn't provide the elegance of classical rationality.

Recommended Literature:

Elinor Ostrom - Understanding Institutional Diversity - Amazon - For those who want to learn more about more complex issues with rivalrous and non-rivalrous goods. Dr. Elinor Ostrom was a recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics last year for her work with common pool resources. Her work is also heavily inspired by her husband Vincent's work with public goods.

Dixit & Nalebuff - Thinking Strategically - Amazon - For those interested in zerosum and non-zero sum games.

Thomas Schelling - The Strategy of Conflict - Amazon - Also a Nobel Laureate whom I will mention again later covers game theory, zero and non-zero sum games. Highly recommended. Also try Game Theory Evolving by Herbert Gintis for a modern treatment of game theory.

Peter Todd & Gert Gigerinzer - Simple Hueristics that Make us Smart - Amazon - Herbert Simon coined the idea of bounded rationality, but Gigerinzer and Todd cover his theory and add a substantive amount with insights from moder psychology.

1v 1 v 1 v 1...

Last Man Standing, Bidding, Deception and Bluffing, 3rd Party Betting, Prisoner's Dilemma, Game Master

These are similar in theory to the 1v 1 opposed columns. Here we have multiplayer games that can be described using game theory. Auctions and voting fall into this category.

Deception and bluffing are covered in a wide variety of social sciences. The ability of cheaters to deceive and bluff related directly to the reputation that a player builds. This is a product of multiple factors that have been studied in depth by behavioral economist and social psychologists. Reputation depends on the level of persistence that a player carries. In other words can a player actually build a reputation or are they able to discard their identity and reputation along with it? In most social games players have their reputation directly tied to their Facebook account. Since there is (generally) a reasonable cost for switching to a new Facebook profile social games feature high reputational persistence. Another factor that comes into play when dealing with reputation is the probability of meeting the same player in the future. If there is a high probability of interacting again then reputation will be more important than if there is a low probability. In games probability of interaction is based on the design of the game and the size of the player base. Finally, it is also important to consider the communication channels can players talk to one another about deceptive players are there other markers of deception. In the real world deception is often though of as a bad thing, in games (poker for example) deception plays a large role and cheater detection is actually a mechanic of the game that players enjoy.

Recommended Literature:

Gintis, Bowles, Boyd, and Fehr - Moral Sentiments and Material Interests: The Foundations of Cooperation in Economic Life. - Amazon - Covers reputation and the contextual factors that impact reputation and deception.

Jon Elster - Explaining Social Behavior: More Nuts and Bolts for the social sciences - Amazon - Covers more than reputation, this is a great summary of social science in general.



GDC Monday: Raph Koster – 40 Social Mechanics for Social Games by Travis Ross, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

One Response to “GDC Monday: Raph Koster – 40 Social Mechanics for Social Games”

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  1. Raph's Website » Press from Social Mechanics talk - [...] Motivate. Play. [...]

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