Traditionally, games have been offered from platforms such as computers, consoles linked to televisions (e.g. Xbox) or portable devices (e.g. Nintendo DS). More recent technological advancements and the proliferation of wireless Internet-enabled devices has seen games launched on a variety of online platforms, including social media sites (e.g. Facebook), stand-alone websites and mobile applications. Many games are now offered through multiple platforms, and the extent to which games are based on or integrated within a social media platform is an important and defining structural characteristic.To be considered a social media platform (or social network site), users must be able to create a profile within a bounded system and create unique content within that system, as well as interact with and view content created by other users, including those with whom they have specifically connected (Boyd & Ellison, 2007). One in four people worldwide are estimated to be active users on at least one of the hundreds of social media networks currently available, with the global audience expected to reach 2.6 billion by 2018 (eMarketer, 2013). Facebook is currently the most popular social networking site, with 1.11 billion monthly active users (O’Loughlin, 2013). Social media platforms are not static but constantly evolving, as the terms, conditions and features may be changed at any time by site operators for a variety of reasons, including responding to user feedback, incorporating new technological capacity or to generate commercial opportunities (e.g. embedded advertising).
Recent data suggest that social games have grown rapidly in popularity and attract an estimated 800 million monthly users worldwide (Morgan Stanley, 2012). Although there are hundreds of established social media sites, not all of these provide a platform for gaming activities. The definition of social gaming has been debated; however, sagame168 it is commonly agreed that a defining feature of these games is that they are based on social media platforms (Jieun, Mira, & In Hyok, 2011). As reported by Parke et al. (2013), a social media platform enables users to share their achievements and progress, view other user’s achievements on leaderboards, invite other users to play with them or support their play, share virtual goods and credits between users, discuss the game through supported synchronous and/or asynchronous exchanges and compete with other users in challenges. Despite these opportunities, some social games can be played with no or very limited social interaction, depending on the user’s preferences and game settings. In this sense, many social media gaming activities may have only a superficial ‘social’ aspect, or social functions that do not factor significantly into the overall gaming experience.
Social game operators are increasingly using social network sites and applications as part of their marketing strategy to reach customers and attract new users (Morgan Stanley, 2012). However, social games may also operate outside popular social networking sites, including on separate websites or mobile applications which allow users to interact with a specific community of users within these platforms or an existing social media platform. Some social games employ a ‘hybrid’ approach – for example, by allowing play without permitting access to social media platforms, but limiting the game play and social functions possible (Parke et al., 2013). Social games tend to reward users for sharing the game and involving their connections with other users by rewarding such engagement with access to additional game feature or content bonuses to enhance user experiences. Most social games have accessible user interfaces that can be viewed on different devices such as personal computers, laptops, smartphones and tablets (Church-Sanders, 2011).
Social games are generally highly accessible and have a low difficulty curve (i.e. a high degree of ease in learning the basic game interface and mechanics) and have few (if any) requirements for registration, long-term commitment or special skill or knowledge. By design, social games allow casual play in which users engage for short periods of time, although games employ many incentives that encourage repeated and persistent play over time, such as time-delayed reward systems (i.e. in learning theory terms, schedules of fixed interval reinforcement in which rewards are only given following responses after a specific time period has elapsed). Game outcomes are not strategy-based or focused on an end goal, and many social games are turn-based with users either directly competing or collaborating with one another. Awareness of other users’ actions and progress within a game is a core feature of most social games (Church-Sanders, 2011). The main reward elements of social games that sustain player engagement are indicators of advancement in the game (e.g. badges, player level, rewards, status and points), many of which are related directly to time invested in the game. However, in some games it is possible to accumulate virtual rewards by paying real money (usually termed ‘micro-transactions’), such as paying AUS$5 for 15,000 gold coins in Slotomania. The economic value of the social gaming market is estimated at US$1.6 billion worldwide, with this value being largely attributable to such ‘microtransactions’ (i.e. small purchases for additional or bonus virtual content).
Not all casino games are based on or interact with social media platforms. Practice games simulate gambling products provided by a gambling operator to enable users to try gambling activities without investing any money. Practice or demonstration (‘demo’) games are often offered on the same site as the gambling products, or on a separate but closely linked site such as a .NET version of the same brand and domain name. Practice games are free to play and users are typically given a certain amount of free credits. Unlike social casino games, users generally cannot purchase additional credits, and interaction between users is not typically a central feature of game play. Practice game play typically requires users to create an account and register, but does not require identity or age verification.Since users are not required to pay, even if prizes can be won, these games are not legally classified as gambling activities (Rose & Owens, 2009). Therefore, many practice games are not regulated and may not have identical or comparable structural characteristics (e.g. payout rates) to gambling products. For example, Sévigny, Cloutier, Pelletier, and Ladouceur (2005) identified that many casino sites offer very high and unrealistic payout rates (i.e. over 100%) during demo modes, which are not maintained on the gambling product. Their research also found that some sites focus on results of practice games and encourage users to transfer to gambling games with pop-ups and messages (‘Challenge your skills with real money’) during game play and with subsequent emails, and offer free credits for depositing and playing funds in a gambling account (Sévigny et al., 2005, p. 157).
Practice sites often escape regulatory scrutiny and may be offered in jurisdictions where Internet gambling is not legally permitted. As the Internet gambling industry has become more closely regulated, many jurisdictions may have requirements for practice sites offered by regulated gambling providers – for example, requiring that payout rates for practice games accurately represent real gambling products. Some jurisdictions – for example, Australia – have classified practice sites as comparable to Internet gambling, and promotions for these sites are classified as illegal advertisements for Internet gambling (Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, 2013). Consequently, practice sites are required to adhere to advertising codes of conduct such as not depicting unrealistic expectations of winning, or appealing to children and vulnerable populations. Classification of practice sites as a promotion for a gambling product is generally based on shared or similar product name and branding (e.g. PartyPoker.net and PartyPoker.com) and clear links between the practice and gambling games or sites.Online gambling-themed games that are not integrated into a social media platform and not provided by a gambling operator are classified as stand-alone games such as mobile apps and console games. These games have been discussed in the academic literature previously due to their potential to normalize gambling for young people and enable children to engage in gambling-themed activities, which may lead to gambling later in life (King et al., 2012; Monaghan & Derevensky, 2008).