They are everywhere: people in cafés or supermarket queues, staring at their smartphones with determined concentration, occasionally shuffling yellow tiles of letters to use all of them in a killer move. Or, like actor Alec Baldwin, trying to make a move before a plane takes off (he didn’t and got thrown off the plane for not switching off his phone). Even if this isn’t you, chances are you still know someone who uses their phone to play Words With Friends.
Words With Friends is an addictive word game based on the popular board version, Scrabble. Unlike Scrabble, it can only be played by two people but is part of a broader phenomenom of Social Gaming – online games that are played with others or allow interactions and sharing with others, usually through a social networking site such as Facebook.
According to social games metrics site AppData.com, Words With Friends has 20.3m Monthly Average Users (MAU), although this is also likely to be an underestimate because AppData.com measures the number of users that log in using Facebook. With the mobile version, it’s possible to login and bypass Facebook altogether.
If you’re more of a visual person – as it seems a younger demographic are – a new social game called Draw Something may be more your style. With 31.1m monthly average users, Draw Something has eclipsed the popularity of Words With Friends.
Based on the game Pictionary, players use drawings to depict words that their opponents try to guess. Draw Something was downloaded 35m times in its first month alone. It also reached 1m users in nine days, something Facebook took nine months to achieve.
A survey of UK and US social gamers found the average age was 43, and 55% of gamers were female. Only 6% of all social gamers were 21 or younger.
Reasons to be cheerful
Regarding the reasons why people play these games, a separate survey showed connecting with others was actually not the most important reason. “Fun and excitement” (53%) was the greatest motivation, followed by “stress relief” (45%), “competitive spirit” (43%), “mental workout” (32%) and finally “connecting with others” (24%).
Anecdotally, however, in the New York Times, Seth Schiesel describes his relationship with a neighbour whose only contact with friends was through the chat function of Words With Friends.
The woman in question had disconnected her phone and only used the iPhone through its Wi-Fi connection. Eventually she reconnected with an old classmate, flirted through Words With Friends and finally met in person.
Social gamers view the their online activities as being important in initiating, maintaining and enhancing their relationships both online and offline.
Initiating relationships is as much about having someone to play a game with as actually starting a new friendship. In some games, advancement in the game is faster the more people you have in your network as “neighbours” and this is part of the motivation.
For other players, meeting new people is an important factor. Some 38% of people playing Words with Friends said that they would be more willing to “hook up” with someone if they were good at the game.
Of more importance is the ability of social games to maintain and enhance relationships. Staying in touch with distant friends and relatives even if there is no communication other than playing the game is an important feature. Women are more likely to play social games with a relative, which follows from their interest in maintaining relationships.
Following on from maintaining a relationship is enhancing relationships. This is mainly perceived as taking an acquaintance to “the next level” through interactions in social gaming. Of course, this is only going to happen if there’s the ability to actually chat in the game. Draw Something, for example, doesn’t have this facility, possibly a reason why it’s favoured by a younger group of players.
The dark side
The interaction between social games and Facebook is interesting. Game companies such as Zynga, which owns Words With Friends and Draw Something, could essentially create their own social network platform based around these games. But their dependency on Facebook for new users and payment, rewards and sharing aspects outweigh any benefits they would get from being independent.
Of course, not everything about social games is positive. While the majority of people playing social games report the games make them feel “more connected”, playing games can also lead to increased stress and anxiety.
One person posting on a social anxiety support site complained about playing with two players, one a non-native English speaker and another who “can’t spell that good”, and still consistently getting beaten. As someone with low self-esteem, this seemed too much for him to handle. He couldn’t improve, no matter what tactics he applied.
Another niggle is that sharing updates about games with people who don’t play can be extremely frustrating for those that are not participating – an argument against the so-called “frictionless” sharing of everything in our lives.
Of course, a game such as Words With Friends is as much about tactics as it is about the luck of getting the right letters. There’s also the possibility of “cheating” by using software to recommend the optimal solution. The approach you take is actually as much about the person you are playing with and the relationship you have with that person.
Play too aggressively or defensively and the game can be frustrating for a beginner. Some 35% of Words With Friends players admit to “letting” others win.
Like all social interactions, those in social games are multilayered and complex. After all, is the choice of words used in a Words With Friends game completely random, or are you sending subliminal messages to your partner?