One day while logging in to Facebook to see the the latest bout of inappropriate sharing and image macros, this status update from a friend jumped out at me:
Attention Facebook friends: Please for the love of God stop sending me gifts and invites for Farmville, Mafia Wars, Vampires, and whatever other crappy THING you've been playing. DO NOT WANT. Just ...STOP.
Anyone who has played SimCity Social on Facebook can probably sympathize. The game has gotten quite the reputation for spamming the bajeezus out of your Facebook wall and friends lists in an attempt to grow its numbers like a particularly nasty virus. I recently checked the game out and was quickly inundated with notifications that other players had sent me free energy, lumber, goats, squiggly things, and other flotsam. THANKS, I guess I should click on that link.
Indeed, the SimCity Social developers seem to have gone to extraordinary lengths to make “gifting” of imaginary stuff a core element of gameplay. One player can give another player various different resources and other perks, and the game immediately prompts the recipient to return the favor by saying something ungrammatical like “Zachary has helped you out. Send them a gift!” Players even get rewards simply for accepting gifts from other players. The gift-giving mechanism is EVERYWHERE in SimCity Social; you can’t really play the game without it.
Why does this work so well at getting existing players to keep grinding and getting new players to sign up?
The answer has to do with one of the most powerful habits in social psychology: the reciprocity effect. When people give you something, you feel the need to give something back; it's that simple. Or maybe if you're like my friend quoted above you yell at them, but usually you want to reciprocate. Some evolutionary psychologists think that this is an evolutionary advantage in that it encourages societies to form—and enforce—mutually beneficial norms. Adhering to the norm is seen as a good deed, and others want to return that deed; breaking the norm is an attack, and will earn you a misdeed in return, like shunning or a punch to the neck.
The reciprocity effect is put to use by marketers and savvy businesspeople all the time. Every year the March of Dimes charity sends me a lovely set of return address labels for use with my Christmas cards (Tip: If you try to use them with email greeting cards, it gets your monitor all sticky). The labels are a free gift, but not coincidentally, they come in the same envelope as a plea to donate. The message is clear: "Dude, we totally just gave you some free stuff. You should return the favor with a donation." Psychologist Robert Cialdini explained in a 2001 article in Scientific American how the Disabled American Veterans organization used this same trick to increase the success rate of their appeals for donations from 18 to 35 percent.
The same technique is used by supermarkets giving you free samples of new cheese crackers, or the video game developer who gives out free tee shirts to the press or buyers during a trade show. I'm not saying that you'll be mind controlled and compelled to return the favor by buying the crackers or giving a favorable writeup, but you'll at least think about it more than you would have otherwise. Many employers even invoke "no gifts" codes of conduct to guard against things like the reciprocity effect.
But what about SimCity Social? That's a free game, right? And most of the gifts are free, too, right? For the most part, but Playfish, the makers of SimCity Social and other social games, nevertheless want new players to come in and existing players to stick around. The gifts in these games are useful to their recipients within the game, so seeing a notification that you've gotten one encourages you to log into the game and put it to use. And actually just clicking on the link will start you down the path to installing and playing the game, which increases its numbers. Then the reciprocity effect then encourages you to return the favor by sending a gift back, which creates a cycle of reciprocating Simoleons, Dunkin’ Donuts and duck ponds flying back and forth. Even worse is when you realize that if you DON'T perpetuate the gifting loop, you'll hurt your friends. You. Heartless. Cretin. You.
This is also an effective mechanism for getting people to perpetually log back in to SimCity Social instead of moving on to other games. There's the notification telling you that you need to log in to reciprocate the gift, and while you're there you might as well play for a while. You can even send gifts to people who don't play the game yet, encouraging them to pay you back by starting up a game as your neighbor or teammate. Toy factories and Minigolf Parks everywhere in an unholy amalgamation of psychology and city planning!
So, enjoy your free sample. Just don’t let it get the better of you.
Cialdini, R. (2001). The Science of Persuasion. Scientific American. February 2001