Let's Talk about Candy Crush: Surveillance and Social Games

Curator's Note

In the past decade, casual gameplay in social networks has exploded. Juul calls this a casual revolution and indeed, it’s changing how we think about gaming. Candy Crush Saga (CCS), one of the largest interactive entertainment franchises of all time, is a free-to-play game that offers in-game purchases to players. It alone earned more money than all of Nintendo’s games during the first quarter of 2014.

King.com, maker of CCS, has 93M daily active users and over 1B daily game plays. King games have been installed 5B times on mobile devices. That’s a lot of candy being crushed. So, why pay attention to CCS, or other casual games embedded within social networks? Is this just the newest Tamagotchi, a passing technological fad?

First, casual, social, and mobile gaming shows no sign of stopping. Estimates suggest casual mobile gaming will be the most popular market segment in 2017, with an overall market share of 34% of all market segments. Second, screen segmentation means that marketers and game designers are connecting your game play activities across multiple technologies such as mobile phones, console games, and handheld devices. Their ability to segment you into groups based on your in-game behaviors is growing ever more sophisticated.

Finally, the number of paying consumers is also growing exponentially. What are they buying? In-game items, also known as microtransactions. CCS earns an estimated 800K daily from in-game purchases. Microtransactions make up the fastest-growing segment of mobile game monetization. In the US, the money spent on in-game items will increase by 143% in four years to nearly $1.8B in 2017.

The combination of networked relationships and the monetization of player data in games like CCS is particularly intriguing. They work together to create surveillance environments where player data is used to create gaming elements, add-ons, and levels that can be unlocked for cash.

The exchange of your data for microtransaction opportunities doesn't have to be a problem as long as each party understands the transactional terms. But because of the seamless nature of data mining in social and mobile games, we are often unaware. It doesn’t help that we usually don’t read terms of service or privacy policies. It also doesn’t help that they’re often difficult to find, access, and understand. And, if we all read these policies word-for-word, we’d spend about 54 billion hours reading them yearly.


Hi Stephanie, Thanks for starting off our candy-centric week with this fascinating post. The sheer scale of these microtransaction opportunities is surprising. And staggering. Like the Google search-engine fortune, it's hard to imagine so much capital runs through these seemingly innocuous little games. All the more so with one so shinny and playfully interactive as Candy Crush Saga. I wonder to what extent games in particular, with their addictive qualities, draw users, as opposed to other microtransaction opportunities, such as those pesky online quizzes? I did a little research on Tetris a while back, and the game's original creator stressed that addiction is intrinsic to the design. I suspect even virtual candy has its addicts.

Hi Eric, Thanks for your comments! I know, it's really mind-boggling when you think about how much money a game like Candy Crush Saga makes. I enjoy the game and I don't pay for any of the free-to-play games (if I can't keep going, I stop playing and find a different game--oh well!) but the number of individuals who do pay for microtransactional opportunities is, as you said, staggering. I enjoyed the link to your research on Tetris; thanks for providing it! It was fun to play through to read--and an intriguing way of breaking through the typical format for reading and engaging your audience. The random gameplay of mobile and social games like Candy Crush is part of their addictive nature. I have played certain levels for weeks, even months, and vowed that I would SOMEHOW get past that level without paying (and so far I have). Generally I would get past them when, by random chance, the right combination of candies fell onto the board. It's just pure luck most of the time. And then other notoriously difficult levels were completed easily when a special item needed for that level would drop down randomly. Time.com did an interesting article on some of the design elements that make the game so popular.

Hi Stephanie, This is a really interesting article! I have vowed to never play Candy Crush because of how addicted I've seen my friends get, but that promise hasn't stopped me from downloading other "free" games that are probably just as addicting. I have also been tempted to spend money on games like "The Simpsons Tapped Out" and "Sims Freeplay" when I'm doing a quest that's taking particularly long, but I haven't given in just yet. I wonder what percentage of people spend that money we're seeing on in-game items? It would be interesting to look at that big number as cost per user who spends money in a game. - Sammi

according to a survey by Swrve and reported by several sources, including Venture Beat, only a narrow margin of mobile gamers pay for half of in-game purchases. i'm interested in this new model of gaming, where friends compete, help each other, and surveil their other friends gaming activity via social media. all the while, game companies are collecting data on who is playing and who is paying. great work, Stephanie!

Great question, Sammi and thanks for commenting, Ryan! Jeferson Valadares has suggested that around 3% of consumers will spend money in free-to-play games but "over 5% of all purchases are for amounts greater than $50." These are the "whales": "30% of the total revenue is generated from transaction sizes of over $50. If you’re a game designer, your main take away is that very few transactions—and consumers who complete those transactions—make up the bulk of your revenue. Therefore, your “meta-game” should be about whale hunting." In a fascinating piece from Ramin Shokrizade at Gamasutra, we hear about how King.com uses "coercive monetization" models, "progress gates," and other monetization tricks to encourage users to pay. King.com wrote to Gamasutra to maintain that "their use of data in their game is for the purpose of 'optimizing fun', not profits."

Great post, Stephanie, and excellent discussion so far! One aspect that strikes me about Candy Crush and other games of this nature is how they mask other key issues, like addiction, behind a veneer of "the shiny, cute, warm, fuzzy, and/or playful." We are encouraged to focus only on the fun aspects of gaming instead of raising larger questions about why these types of activities are so “addictive" for many people. In his work on “binge-consuming,” Stefano Passini argues that although we engage in many activities that have all of the hallmarks of addiction or binging, within contemporary culture, we often dismiss or overlook these similarities because they seem natural or are rooted in areas that we consider to be smaller indulgences like food. Certainly, for some people, playing Candy Crush could be considered as another example of addiction that is connected, not only to food, but also to the pleasures of play and consumption.

Great points, Carlnita; I had someone ask me the other day if there was any research out there about the design of the characters in Candy Crush Saga (such as Mr. Toffee and Toffette, or "Tiffi"). I hadn't run across any but it's an interesting question: How does the design of the characters represent embedded values in the game? The Honest Video Games trailer for Candy Crush calls Toffette "future eating disorder" and Mr. Toffee "Ginger Wonka." In what ways do the characters, design, and levels mask serious issues or elements under--as you noted--a playful, shiny veneer? And again, I point out, because I think it's relevant here, I enjoy playing Candy Crush, but I also think it's useful to break down perhaps more difficult-to-see elements behind the scenes in some of our favorite games. Games are ideological constructs, and Candy Crush is no exception.

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