Social network games even help grown-ups with their relationships

A recent MSU study found that many adults are playing games such as Facebook's "Farmville" to help initiate, develop and maintain relationships.

February 28, 2011

MSU AgBioResearch, Cliff LampeThink social network games are just for kids? A recent Michigan State University study found that many adults are playing games such as Facebook's "Farmville" to help initiate, develop and maintain relationships.

The MSU team of researchers, including AgBioResearch telecommunications scientist Cliff Lampe, interviewed a number of Facebook users between the ages of 25 and 55.

"People have often used games as social facilitators," Lampe said. "Bridge clubs, poker groups and shuffle-board leagues are making way for people who build online farms and cities together. The designers of these games are making them in such a way that it's necessary to play them socially in order to succeed in them."

"The interesting thing is that we were asking people how they use Facebook to manage their relationships," said Yvette Wohn, a doctoral student in the Department of Telecommunication, Information Studies and Media (TISM), who led the study. "Surprisingly, all but one person talked about playing games as one of their relationship management strategies."

The researchers found that participants had three potential outcomes of their social -game use on their relationships: maintaining, initiating and enhancing relationships.

"We're not saying that playing games on Facebook necessarily leads to better relationships," Wohn said. "But in some cases it could be beneficial, and that's what we were seeing."

The study found that people were initiating relationships with strangers because having more "friends" makes it easier to advance to a higher level. But some people were actually using the games to maintain relationships with existing friends, and, in some cases, people found that interacting through the game allowed them to build on relationships that otherwise would have gone stale.

Some players described activities within the game, such as exchanging gifts, as a type of nonverbal communication. Many people expressed playing together as "communicating" even though no verbal messages were exchanged.

The authors explained that the relatively low communication costs associated with game play made the games attractive as a relationship maintenance tool.

The study was part of a greater project on collaborative activities in social network sites funded by the National Science Foundation.

Other members of the research team were Nicole Ellison and Rick Wash, faculty members in TISM, and Jessica Vitak, a TISM doctoral student.

Photo: MSU AgBioResearch scientist, Cliff Lampe

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