With the advent of social network games, game developers have been searching for the Holy Grail – elements of their games that will compel a player’s friends to become players as well. We find ourselves asking, “Is my game social? Should I give incentives, or will people want to share content on their own? Will my players’ friends even care?” What we’re ultimately looking for is social relevance both for the player (who is already playing and wants to share) and for the player’s friends (whom we’d like to acquire as players). While sometimes it can feel like chasing a white whale, asking the right questions can make designing with social relevance in mind much easier.

What are the meaningful personal experiences for a player in my game?
Users on Facebook and other social networks share their photos, videos, check-ins, and status updates after memorable real-life experiences. They create a public record of their experiences for their friends to acknowledge, envy, and discuss.

In games, meaningful experiences are often momentous acts like beating a boss or completing a collection (Xbox Live Achievements often play off of these types of experiences). But even trivial experiences can have meaning to individual players. YouTube is littered with videos of game glitches, funny in-game scenarios, and user-generated content. The players uploading these videos each had an experience they felt was humorous or interesting enough that they had to share it with the world, often using external tools to do so because the game gave them no opportunity to share. When games can facilitate emergent player expression by providing tools for sharing, the meaningful experiences its players have will be more likely to be shared.

What meaningful experiences in my game can a player have with their friends?
Experiences can become more meaningful even with only superficial involvement of a player’s friends. My single-player game of Home Run Derby in Wii Sports may come up in conversation later, when I blame my friend for his computer-controlled avatar’s poor performance. And pulling weeds on MY farm doesn’t feel like much of a conversation-starter – but a wall post informing my friend that I helped out on HER farm might be all it takes.

Of course, the strongest motivators for sharing are always the ones that are personal for everyone involved. When Facebook users tag their friends in party photos, content that belongs to one user becomes content equally invested in by multiple users. The discussion surrounding that content can keep it relevant even a year later.

Any in-game experience can also become meaningful when friends are involved. The celebration of excellent in-game teamwork or heated competition is often enough to compel a user to commemorate that experience.

Is my player’s experience relevant to their friends who aren’t playing the game?

If the player’s experience has no value for those who aren’t already invested in the game, then the messages shared by your player will fall on deaf ears. Messages with social relevance outside the world of the game are the strongest contenders for turning a game into a viral sensation. Sometimes this can be accomplished as easily as using familiar themes and language. The message “Your friend sent you a gift!” has a certain meaning that transcends what game the gift was sent in (or if it was in a game at all). When the experience’s social value extends into the real world – a tournament match, a virtual birthday gift, a game played on a first date – the motivation to share and to follow up on the message becomes even stronger.

Social relevance comes from personal experiences of all shapes and sizes. When they involve friends and real-life social connections, the strength of the message is even greater. Social relevance is a two-way street – we must not forget to ask ourselves how to embed value in our game’s experiences that is both compelling for the player, and perceivable “from the outside looking in.” When we as game developers keep these ideas in mind, everyone benefits from having more meaningful experiences in games.

Vincent St. John is an alumnus of The College of New Jersey where he majored in Computer Science, studied Interactive Multimedia, considered musical theater, and even passed one class in world history. When he is not being an armchair games critic, Vincent develops marketing strategies for social games developer Arkadium in New York.