Closed social affordances / Open social affordances in social systems design

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In social systems design, we often need to control how different players interact with one another. We want to heavily mediate griefing and toxicity between strangers. And we want to open up more intimate channels of communication between trusted friends so they can offer nuanced sympathy and support.

“Closed” and “open” affordances are useful concepts for talking about this challenge. Here’s a brief introduction. 

What is an affordance?

An affordance is the possibility of an interaction between a user and an object. For example, a doorknob is an affordance in the sense that it lets the user know that they can open the door and helps facilitate the opening of the door. 

Affordances are designed! 

  • Utility: Someone decided that it was more useful to put that doorknob on the door at approximately hand level. 
  • Symbolism: They also decided to make it a symbolic ‘doorknob’ shape that culturally we understand as a method of opening a door. 

Designers have almost complete control over which affordances show up in their digital world. In the real world there’s not a lot a designer can do about how ‘kickable’ their door might be. It isn’t like we have control over the users legs, kicking skills or the physical structure of the door. But in the digital realm, we can simply not create a kickable affordance. If you don’t put kicking in your game, players can’t kick the door. 

What is a social affordance?

A social affordance in a digital game is some UX element of the game that creates the possibility of an interaction between a user and another user. Again, since this is a digital space, we have complete control over what we allow. 

Closed social affordances 

There is a spectrum of social affordances ranging from closed to open. 

A closed affordance is an absolute limit on an interaction. It defines the interaction concisely and cuts out unexpected edge cases. 

For example, In Journey, they designed a closed affordance where players can only make a beeping noise if they wish to communicate. There is really no other method of symbolic communication. 

Closed affordances are useful in that they remove large swaths of problematic behavior. It is difficult, if not impossible, to insult another player in Journey. When you examine many multiplayer mobile titles, they’ve simply eliminated most social affordances. There’s no open text chat. You can’t gesture. You can’t voice chat. In many cases, you won’t even see the same people repeatedly. These limits cut down on griefing and subsequent moderation costs. 

The downside of closed affordances is that they reduce player agency and expressiveness. In Journey, the lack of persistent open communication channels means that you can never form deep friendships. By eliminating the bad aspects of humans interacting, you often also remove many of the good parts. 

Open affordances

An open affordance creates social opportunities with multiple degrees of freedom and then allows users to play socially with one another in the resulting space. They can gently encourage certain behavior, but since they impose only loose constraints, you are still likely to see a very broad range of outcomes. 

For example, you add free form chat to your game, which at a surface level only adds the ability to type letters. But sending letters lets people send language. Inevitably, you’ll witness friendship formation, personal disclosure, griefing, memes, in-groups, out-groups and a general explosion of culture. 

The more freedom you give players, the more they will abuse it. And the more robust after-the-fact moderation systems will need to be shoehorned into your game. 

However, open affordances are also the beating heart of a vibrant community. You want intimacy through safe disclosure. You want local language and practices to emerge. You want groups to form identities and boundaries. This is how humans build lasting societies. 

The inherent openness of social affordances

Social behavior is a complex emergent phenomena that blossoms when given even the most limited channels of communication. There’s the infamous story of a safe chat function in an early children’s MMO where despite incredibly limited word choices a child immediately came up with the sentence “I want to stick my long-necked giraffe up your fluffy white bunny.”

Social affordances are naturally open because humans crave social connection and will pry open channels that designers tried to close off. Given time, your community will redefine existing symbols to fit their communication needs. Or go around the social structure by moving chat outside of the game. 

If you want to remove edge cases, harshly limit communication with a small sample of canned, contextual responses and disallow freeform composition of those responses. For example, Apex Legends allows a very limited set of contextual pings that are difficult to compose into complex sentences. 

Easing players towards openness

There’s a time and a place for both open and closed social affordances. Low trust players benefit from closed affordances. It gives them time to learn the rules of the game in a relatively safe space. One where they are not easily harmed, but also one where they cannot harm others. 

As trust grows, you should design a series of opt-in gates that increase freedom for how players interact with others. You end up building a progression system that slowly unlocks more open social actions as player trust grows. 


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