Social play or social cheating? Another face of sociability in social network games
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Social play or social cheating? Another face of sociability in social network games by Suen de Andrade e Silva

This paper explores ideas of cheating and cooperative play in social network games. Despite being criticised for their supposed simplistic and exploitative nature, social network games have created a new game phenomenon, and have demanded a rethinking in the very meaning of social play. Through both empirical analysis of the Facebook game The Sims Social and participant observation of communities of players in Facebook, this paper discusses how social interactions performed within and around the game transform play in a complex articulation of cooperative and transgressive practices, and what implications it might have for the business model underlying social network games at large.


1. Introduction
2. Tasks, tasks, and more tasks
3. Asking for help
4. Social play or transgression?
5. Conclusions



1. Introduction

Social network games have raised debates between those who either condemn their supposed simplistic and exploitative nature (Alexander, 2011; Bogost, 2010), or welcome their ability to engage a vast audience that does not fall into the conventional stereotype attributed to gamers (Meyer, 2011; Patatas, 2011). Besides game design and players’ engagement, another source of controversy lies in the very label social attributed to this type of play. Whereas some authors argue that social network games are not social (Deterding, 2010), others have already demonstrated the multiple ways through which sociability permeates play experience (Meurs, 2011; Tyni, et al., 2011; Wohn, et al., 2011). Yet, in those and other studies, social play has been largely conceived in terms of game mechanics, and the ways by which game play itself fosters and supports peer–to–peer interactions (Consalvo, 2011; Järvinen, 2010). However, that is not the only form of social play that arises from those games.

This paper explores a different dimension of sociability that has emerged from social network games. I turn attention to the way players engage in a type of cooperative play that transcends the game environment, and that serves not only to enhance social bonds among players, but also to circumvent the hurdles strategically imposed by game designers.

The Facebook game The Sims Social is used as a case study. By analysing both the relationships players create around the game, and the potential threats they pose to game developers, I discuss whether this alternative social play can be considered transgressive behaviour, and what implications it might have for the free–to–play model in which social network games are based.

I start by outlining how the design and mechanics of The Sims Social create a conflicting relation between the challenges offered by the game and the dependence placed upon co–players.



2. Tasks, tasks, and more tasks

Players of social network games need to invest much time and effort if they want to receive all the rewards and prizes those games have to offer. The assumption that social network games are easy to play is called into question when we consider the number of missions and tasks assigned to players. Although game play evolves from specific time–based mechanics, there are dozens of parallel activities not tied to time, and some of them even help to overcome that restriction [1]. As Tyni, et al. (2011) have already explained, the rhythmic design of social network games is essential for maintaining engagement and interest. However, the continual demand for player activity ends up turning such games from casual into hardcore play experiences due to the high time commitment required.

The game The Sims Social illustrates that shift. Launched on Facebook in August 2011, this game is a free–to–play adaptation of the popular videogame series The Sims. Similarly to the previous Sims games, The Sims Social is a life simulation in which players create a personalised avatar (Sim) and his or her home, and perform all the activities required to maintain their Sim happy and healthy. Differently from the original game, players of The Sims Social create just one Sim, and socialise only with those of their Facebook friends [2]. This limitation is used to stimulate interaction among numerous players, reflecting one of the main social dynamics employed in most social network games.

The core mechanics of The Sims Social are very similar to those in other social network games in the simulation genre [3]. Once the avatar is customised and the basic game play is introduced, players are assigned the first missions. As tasks are accomplished, new quests and new activities are unlocked. Most activities render collectable items that are required in further missions and tasks. In summary, The Sims Social offers endless actions to be executed in the same play session, and it is possible to continue playing this game for several hours at a time.

Other important elements in The Sims Social are the temporary missions and seasonal goods. Such time–based content is important for maintaining players active and engaged, since it “keep[s] the game endlessly changing and evolving” (Tyni, et al., 2011). Although neither completing quests nor purchasing goods is mandatory, the rewards and benefits offered are highly appealing. Furthermore, such special items function as a form of classification, distinguishing highly active and dedicated players from casual ones (Rebs, 2011).

The accomplishment of missions in time, however, poses a double challenge for the great majority of players. First, it demands daily game sessions — often more than one session per day. Second, the quests require high numbers of different items that are collected mainly through the help of friends. It means that, besides making a significant time commitment, players also depend on the continual and responsive support from their co–players — or neighbours. This situation is worsened by the fact that players can send limited daily request to the same friend. Whenever friends do not play regularly, or whenever players have just a few neighbours, it becomes almost impossible to succeed without paying real money.

Both time limitations and dependence on co–players form the basic design strategies in which the free–to–play business model of social network games is grounded. By employing such strategies, game designers deliberately drive players to exchange real money for in–game items, which generates immediate revenue (Tyni, et al., 2011). Therefore, it is not unintentionally that this model often creates an imbalanced relation between the goals offered by the game and the ability non–paying players have to accomplish them.

To bypass those rules, and to reduce the frustration of not completing all (or at least most) missions, players have organised a distinct type of cooperative play. By creating and joining groups of players in Facebook, they are able to give and receive nearly unlimited help, and are able to complete the quests in a much faster and easier manner. This alternative form of social play is explained in the next section.



3. Asking for help

The social aspects of social network games are usually explored in terms of game design and mechanics. The asynchronous nature and lack of in–game communication tools are said to offer “no real possibilities for detailed cooperation between players” (Tyni, et al., 2011). However, a closer look at the forms of interaction that takes place around the game reveals a different story.

Players have been using the affordances of social networking Web sites for creating a more dynamic, synchronous and cooperative play of social network games. By joining groups of players, they are able to circumvent the restrictions imposed by game design, and to add a new layer of engagement both with the game in itself and with other players as well. In the case of The Sims Social, those groups are very popular. A search for the string “The Sims Social” in Facebook, for example, results in more than 200 groups of players, some of them comprised of over one thousand members.

In those communities, players interact with one another exchanging items required in missions, asking for specific help, and sharing (and commenting on) their achievements. They also publish images of their homes and avatars, asking for other players’ opinions and advice. In some groups, members are highly active and the types of interactions vary significantly. Nonetheless, asking for assistance in the missions seems to be the main type of interaction taking place in those spaces.

Usually, interactions start when one member leaves a message in the group wall looking for other online players. Such messages are often replied almost immediately and, by that, the asynchronous experience and silent presence created by game design (Consalvo, 2011) are converted into a synchronous and interactive play. In addition, the boundaries between interaction within and around the game space are blurred, for in–game actions are brought into the group page and, at the same time, group members participate actively in the game experience of their peers. It is common to see, for example, messages inviting others to visit the game space of their peers and to change it by ‘reviving crops’, ‘fixing/cleaning objects’, and ‘building rooms’.


Looking for simultaneous play
Figure 1: Looking for simultaneous play.


The constraints of game design and the lack of social mechanics are thus overcome, and a meaningful cooperative play is established. But why is that cooperative rather than collaborative play? According to Stenros, et al. (2009);, collaborative play entails a shared goal, i.e., players “[work] together to reach a strategic long term goal”. In social network games, however, there are only individual goals, and social interactions have direct effects only for one player at a time. Therefore, the definition of cooperative play seems to better explain the type of sociability developed in those groups: “players band together to reach short term tactical goals even if their ultimate goals may be in conflict” (Stenros, et al., 2009).

Besides game advancements, another important outcome of those practices is the enhancement of social ties. By actively participating in such communities, players develop longer and stronger relations with co–players. Whereas the exchanging of gifts — fostered through game mechanics — has been understood as a weak and exploitative norm of reciprocity (Meurs, 2011), the interactions emerged from group play seem to provide the basis for the development of a sense of belonging and a common identity (boyd and Ellison, 2007; Wohn, et al., 2011).


A player's request that was immediately attended by friends
Figure 2: A player’s request that was immediately attended by friends.


Those practices are creative forms of circumventing the rules imposed through game design. Instead of either waiting for the asynchronous interactions of other players, or spending real money in virtual goods and game advancements, players organise themselves to ensure alternative play experiences. In addition, by complementing the in–game communication tools with those available in Facebook, they exchange game related messages more efficiently, enhancing sociability.

This alternative form of cooperation seems to be, therefore, a very promising playful practice. However, one may ask, can it be considered transgressive? And what consequences might such player behaviour have for the free–to–play model that sustains social network games? An exploratory consideration of those questions is presented in the next section.



4. Social play or transgression?

From the examples discussed in the previous section, it becomes clear that players of social network games have being playing a slightly different game from that expected by game designers. As Tyni, et al. (2011) have noted, by limiting players’ moves through time, energy and items restrictions, game design strategically ties game play to the purchasing of virtual goods and creates the revenue system in which social network games are based. When players refuse to conform the rules — which means to either wait or pay —, producers’ profits might be seriously compromised. Should these players be considered cheaters?

Whether or not this practice is, in fact, transgressive and devious depends on how cheating is defined. In its social dimension, cheating is understood both as an unfair advantage that one player has over others, and as a break in socially negotiated rules of play (Consalvo, 2007; Glas, 2011; Kücklich, 2008). In this sense, the cooperative play created around social network games appear not to be cheating for two main reasons: no advantage is given to a particular player, and play is not set outside social rules.

The first case is supported by the fact that all players have equal opportunities to join the community, to help, and to be helped. Moreover, even when a member is playing in a competitive mood — as for example, by attempting to achieve the highest house value among peers –, the mood of the group as a whole is not competitive, and the advantages offered remain the same for all its members [4].

Socially defined rules deserve a more nuanced view. As Consalvo (2007), Glas (2011) and Kücklich (2008) pointed out, by not obeying socially accepted rules, cheaters affect their own game experience and the social aspect of play, introducing deception and chaos to the game world. Although individuals do change their relations both with the game world and with other players when joining a cooperative group, those changes seems to be positive for most — if not all — players involved. Therefore, feelings of trust and confidence ensure the stability of the play field.

From this analysis, it can be argued that the social engagement created through those groups might not correspond to the social dimension of cheating. Nonetheless, Glas (2011) employs a term from De Paoli and Kerr (2009) to reminds us that “[c]heating in digital games is sociotechnical in nature.” Therefore, its technical aspects need also to be considered, and it is exactly that dimension that further complicates our question. Whereas players of social network games might not see group cooperation as transgressive behaviour, but rather as a creative and engaging social play, this might not be the case for game developers.

By refusing to be what Salen and Zimmerman have named a “standard player”, or "the typical rule–following player that obeys the restrictions of the game" (Salen and Zimmerman, 2003), players pose a challenge to the free–to–play business model, and become a potential threat to game developers. Social play can then be comprehended as social cheating: a devious act that might have negative effects to the economic system behind the game.

Developers of social network games receive profits mainly from the micro–payments and the viral marketing generated through game play (Tyni, et al., 2011). When players organise themselves to circumvent hurdles created by design, they significantly reduce the effects of that two economical strategies.

On the one hand, micro–payments are replaced by players’ mutual help. By acting as a source of fast and continual resources, group members hardly need to invest their real money in game advancements. Although players still face some design constraints, such as the limited daily requests, those barriers are lowered as the number of members and the group activity increase.

On the other hand, the effects of viral marketing are significantly reduced, since interactions are enclosed in a group consisting of people who are players already. It means that almost no new player is brought to the game world through group members, which can lead to a stagnation of game population. Without population growth there are no new potential paying players, and micro–payments are again affected.

Whether game designers have already predicted this type of player behaviour is a question that remains open. The lack of reference to that practice at the official game page and game forum shows that, if producers are already paying attention to the distinct ways games have been played, their explicit support to such engagements is still to be found. Moreover, since this practice challenges not only the way games have been developed, but also the control designers carefully take over gameplay (Jacobs and Sihvonen, 2011), restrictive measures might be soon implemented. The questions will then turn to how long it will take to players find their own ways of circumventing new hurdles, and which new forms of sociability will emerge from the play of social network games.



5. Conclusions

This paper has discussed how players of social network games have developed alternative forms of play, bypassing game restrictions and enhancing the social dimension of those games. Whereas Stenros, et al. (2009) have demonstrated that there are “many faces of sociability in games”, previous studies concerned with the social in social network games have focused only on game mechanics and in–game communication tools.

The paper has suggested a different perspective, showing that there is another face of sociability beyond that enabled though game design. I have argued that the cooperative play that has emerged from groups of players created through social networking Web sites is related not only to the technical aspects of games, but also to players’ own engagement and experiences.

While other studies of sociability in social network games have focused on the technical affordances, players themselves have shown how creative and subtle they can be when playing with the game rules. The face of sociability analysed here, however, seems to have also a negative side, for it challenges the rules of play, and threatens the business model that sustains game developers.

Although this study is primarily exploratory, it opens the field of investigation for future research on which actual effects those groups have for players’ experience, and what consequences it actually causes to the social game industry. Future empirical research is also needed to compare, for instance, the perceptions of players who participate in those groups with those who do not, as to reveal whether players themselves consider such cooperative play to be cheating. End of article


About the author

Suen de Andrade e Silva is a game researcher focused on the social, economic and cultural aspects of digital play. She graduated from the research master program in Media Studies at Utrecht University in 2013.
E–mail: suen.andrade [at] gmail [dot] com



I am grateful to René Glas for his comments on early versions of this paper.



1. Visiting neighbours, for example, can render instant energy.

2. In other platforms, players can create various Sims, who interact with one another.

3. For details, see Tyni, et al. (2011).

4. The competition against the game itself is not considered in this case.



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Editorial history

Received 19 August 2012; accepted 18 March 2013.

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Social play or social cheating? Another face of sociability in social network games
by Suen de Andrade e Silva.
First Monday, Volume 18, Number 7 - 1 July 2013

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