I don’t ask a lot of my online games. If I can play without anyone actively trying to ruin my day, it’s a pretty good fit. But when looking at the social environments we play in, minimal toxicity is a pretty low bar. Socially speaking, online games have the potential to be more than just non-toxic.
The friendships we make in games can be transformative — online friends can be huge sources of support, connection and joy. So how can developers encourage prosocial behavior and even friendship?
Late last year, a group of veteran game developers tackled that very question. Together, Daniel Cook from Spry Fox, Yuri Bialoskursky from Electronic Arts, Bill Fulton from Microsoft, Michael Fitch from Betterrealities.com and Joel Gonzales from Wargaming.net came up with several fundamental principles for designing games that encourage friendship.
Those principles were developed at Project Horseshoe, a game design think tank, and were published earlier this year at Lost Garden. These are the four key factors they identified that allow friendships to form:
- Proximity: Put players in serendipitous situations where they regularly encounter other players. Allow them to recognize one another across multiple play sessions.
- Similarity: Create shared identities, values, contexts, and goals that ease alignment and connection.
- Reciprocity: Enable exchanges (not necessarily material) that are bi-directional with benefits to both parties. With repetition, this builds relationships.
- Disclosure: Further grow trust in the relationship through disclosing vulnerability, testing boundaries, etc.
Final Fantasy XIV offers proximity, for example, by concentrating players in 3 major capital cities. Each city has a single corridor where most crafting and shopping takes place, so players see each other over and over. The names and avatars you see daily start to feel like neighbors.
But proximity alone doesn’t create friendships. In World of Warcraft, players align with two factions, Alliance and Horde. That’s a point of similarity. And survival games like 7 Days to Die often encourage reciprocity, forcing players to rely on each other to survive.
As the authors point out, disclosure is the most difficult and riskiest to design for. Pushing too hard for it can make players uncomfortable, and asking for it too soon encourages trolling and other negative behaviors. Any game with private chat channels allows for disclosure. Tabletop games like True Story design for it by asking players to reveal personal details.
If you want to create a game that actively encourages friendship building, the authors recommend paying attention to all four of those factors. It’s not a simple challenge, but they lay out examples and counter-examples of designing for each. With those as a roadmap, your next social game could be the perfect environment to allow friendships to grow.