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Understanding Everyday Use of Facebook and Games

Andrew Basden
Informatics Research Institute, University of Salford, M5 4WT, U.K.


I began playing computer games 20 years ago. In those days, the big money had not entered the computer games discipline, and there was still much activity by creative individuals, often amateur. Creative ideas emerged about technical issues, like computer graphics, how to get the computers to do things fast enough, or novel styles of user interface, creative ideas emerged about what a computer could mean in the life of a human being and about social aspects of computer use. Unfortunately academia showed little interest in these creative ideas, partly because they did not fit the fashionable theories of computer science or information systems. I knew there was something special going on and wanted to understand it. So I gradually developed my own ideas, and eventually a conceptual framework emerged, which seems able to help us understand and evaluate not just computer games, but other 'everyday' use of computers too, such as in social network sites. This paper reflects on how we might understand everyday experience and use of information systems (IS), as distinct from professional or business use. First it examines the everyday experience of playing a computer game and using Facebook. Then it briefly reviews some standard ways of understanding and evaluating these, finding them wanting; they are too narrowly defined. Three issues are separated out. This points to the need for a way to understand and evaluate the diversity and richness of everyday experience, which points us towards philosophy. A small part of one philosophy is then used as a practical tool help us understand what is going on in everyday use of information or computer systems. The use of two small case studies means that what emerges from this discussion has no statistical validity, but this is not the purpose of the article; the purpose is to draw attention to certain issues and motivate interest in them, upon which more statistically valid research may be carried out if desired.

Everyday experience of playing a computer game

I play a rather old game called ZAngband, a game of the style of the older and simpler Moria game, both of which were inspired by Tolkien's works. It is controlled by a keyboard and has character graphics, which look atrocious when compared with today's games. But it's fun, and I play it for relaxation, often for quarter of an hour at the end of the day. It can be quite engrossing, and I have been known to spend several hours on it - perhaps rather a waste of time in a busy life?

Why is it fun and engrossing? This is because, in playing it, I explore, find things, make discoveries, overcome challenges, and undertake quests, and also there are a lot of nice touches which make the virtual world of the game 'real'. 'I' refers to a fictitious character, called Mindorf, which the real I 'controls'. Mindorf is a high elf, a chaos warrior, who has gained enough experience to achieve the status of mercenary (experience level 15). Mindorf is underground, amidst a maze of passages and rock-cut rooms. In some rooms various objects are strewn on the floor, such as magic scrolls or potions, various weapons left by other characters, and the occasional corpse of those which have been killed. Mindorf has the eventual quest to descend to level 100 of the underground 'dungeon' and kill the Serpent of Chaos, but in order to do so, on level 99 he must kill Oberon, King of Amber. On the current dungeon level (10) he has the quest of killing seven umber hulks, and has already killed two. To achieve these quests he has gathered bits of armour, a sword and various items like potions of boldness, magic wands that do various things, and so on. Some of these he has yet to identify; all he knows at present is their colour and material. Mindorf has very good strength and intelligence, good dexterity, constitution and charisma, and reasonable wisdom. He has a maximum of 170 hit points, which are lost when he is hurt during fights or when he falls into a pit in the dark; currently his hit points stand at 146, but resting will restore them to 170. If they are reduced to 0 he dies and the game ends. Such statistics are listed down the left hand side of the screen as numbers.

C Currently Mindorf is standing at the junction of three passages (shown in plan form on the screen), but not far away the screen is blank, indicating an unexplored area. So he moves a step towards this area to explore it. As he does so, he notices that something is happening to the rock wall not far away. He waits. Out of the rock emerges an umber hulk, intent on fighting him (umber hulks are non-material beings that can move through solid rock). Mindorf uses one of his special powers (laser eye) aimed at the umber hulk, which dies. Every time a hostile creature dies, Mindorf gains experience, and this kill gives him enough to get to level 16 of experience. Immediately, the Voice of Arioch roars, "Thou needest worthier opponents"; Arioch is a deity that, as far as Mindorf is concerned, has authority to arrange the game, either rewarding or chastising him.

With that, a number of other hostile creatures appear, surrounding Mindorf - mainly spiders, but one looks rather different. On looking, this new opponent turns out to be Robin Hood, the Outlaw. (What Robin Hood is doing in a game inspired by Tolkien!) Mindorf begins fighting the surrounding spiders, killing a wood spider, but getting bitten by a giant spider. This bite poisons him, which is bad news because he will lose hit points faster if he cannot cure the poison. Then Robin Hood pushes his way through the spiders to reach Mindorf and begins hitting him. Also, he 'touches' Mindorf to steal coins, but Mindorf's high dexterity allows him to protect his money pouch. Robin Hood touches Mindorf again, and manages to steal a Wand of Wonder - and then vanishes, fleeing.

So the game continues, much faster than it takes to write it. Increasing levels of experience and dungeon depth bring new challenges and interest, and sometimes humorous things. On what basis may we understand this experience of gaming that does it justice?

Everyday Experience of Using Facebook

A friend (whom I will call Bith) uses the Facebook social networking Internet facility frequently. Many of the studies of Facebook are of students or of 'serious' applications, but Bith is not a student and she does not use it for work; she told me she uses it for fun and to keep in touch with friends across the world. She kindly allowed me to question her quite deeply about her use of Facebook.

The genius of Facebook is that it has become what it is by harnessing the creative ideas of thousands of people who have written applications for it. In just a few months 14,000 applications were created, 6,000 of them being 'just for fun' [Brewis, 2008]. Bith currently uses the following applications: Top Friends, Photos, Circle of Friends, Testimonials, Hug Me, Groups, Compare People, Fun Wall, Superlatives, Growing Gifts, Super Poke, Define Me, Water Globe Gifts, Visual Bookshelf, Art, Characteristics, Causes, Lil' Green Patch, For The Love Of Walt Disney. 'Define Me' asked her a number of questions, and then assigned a colour:

Using the 'Superpoke' application, she can do things to her friends, and they to her:

 If we take into account how heavy sheep are, Bith must have got rather tired throwing all those sheep! Notice the list of things she can do to friends at the bottom, which range from throwing and hitting, to licking, kissing, winking at and worshipping. To poke a friend involves just a couple of clicks of the mouse.

Bith has received gifts from friends using two other applications, one 'Waterglobe Gift' and four 'Growing Gifts':



They work in similar ways. Once the gift is received, Bith looks at it, but for the first few days cannot see what it is; the waterglobe is just a swirling snowstorm and the growing thing is just a small green bud in the flowerpot. After a few days of delicious anticipation, the gift reveals itself.

Bith uses Facebook for fun and to keep in touch. But she told me that at one time, she felt a strong urge to return to it several times a day, to see if someone had sent her anything. As Tanya Goodin, quoted in Brewis [2008] remarked, "It really sucks you in." This meant that Bith found herself spending rather more time on Facebook than was healthy in her life, and later she remarked to me that a lot of it was rather meaningless.

Some Frameworks for Understanding and Evaluating Information Systems in Use

On what basis should we attempt to evaluate and understand such experience of games or social networking? To understand and evaluate presupposes a belief about what is meaningful and normative (good or evil), and such beliefs are usually expressed in a central concept. Critical discussion and analysis of such central concepts invokes theoretical thinking of either scientific or philosophical kinds, but this rests on an intuitive understanding of what the central concept implies {FOOTNOTE fn-lw}. The following are some standard central concepts that have been offered in the literature:

  • User interface: The old-style UI of ZAngband compares poorly with the modern, slick UI of Facebook. This, however, is only a tiny part of the everyday experience, and not a very important part since one gets used to an apparently old UI, so that it becomes 'proximal' [Basden and Hibberd, 1996].

  • Productivity: Landauer, in his The Trouble With Computers [1996], argued that computer use in business often reduces rather than increases productivity. It is difficult to see, however, how the notion of productivity could be meaningful in the everyday uses above.

  • Costs and benefits: Cost-benefit analysis is common in management. What does it cost this author to play the game or Bith to use Facebook? What benefits does each receive? And how does one compare with the other? However, it is rather meaningless to attempt to force fun and enjoyment into such categories.

  • TAM: Davis [1989] suggested a Technology Adoption Model (TAM), in which perceived ease of use and perceived usefulness were twin criteria leading to an attitude towards technology and thus an intention to adopt it for use. Ease of use is connected with user interface above and, though relatively uncontentious is of minor importance. But what is 'usefulness' in a game or social network?

  • User satisfaction: Delone and McLean [1992] held such criteria to be too narrowly defined and too managerialist, and suggested that a more general, subjective criterion of user satisfaction is more appropriate. While this might allow different experiences to fit into the same framework, it gives little help in which experiences it is meaningful to allow for as 'user satisfaction'. Moreover, it focuses too much on the immediate feeling of some kind of satisfaction and leads us to ignore such less direct impacts such as time-wasting or structural elements.

  • Power and control: Foucault's notion of power has been used by a number of IS thinkers [e.g. Walsham, 2001, Willcocks, 2004] as a lens through which to understand or evaluate IS use. This stance has begun to be used to discuss how sites like Facebook can be used by some people to exert power over others, such as stalking or bullying [ref needed====]. While this is an important aspect of Facebook use, it cannot be the sole or even the main way of understanding it.

Such central concepts or criteria are not appropriate, however, for several reasons. One is that most of them are oriented to what is important in business, educational or organisational applications - whereas the game playing and social networking illustrated above are domestic, everyday use. This limitation, however, rests on two other problems.

Three Issues of Everyday Use

The standard evaluation criteria or frameworks for understanding cover only limited ranges of issues - whereas the uses illustrated above cover at least the following in combination:

  • HCI (human-computer interaction): the user interface (though this is seldom important nowadays until it becomes inappropriate)
  • HLC (human living with computers): what the use of the IS means in the life of the user and others
  • ERC (engaging with represented content): the richness of the application, such as sheep and flowers in Facebook and Robin Hood, spiders, swords and armour in ZAngband.

All of these (and perhaps others) need to be taken into account in understanding and evaluating everyday use. First, it differentiates the more technical issue of user interface or HCI from its importance in our lives, but without implying any gulf between them. Second, it provides a basis for differentiating issues. For example, in attempting to understand what is happening when Bith was sent a Waterglobe Gift and a Growing Gift, we need to be able to account for both the similarity and the difference between them:

  • That both involve delicious anticipation in waiting to see what the gift is, is an issue of HLC.
  • That one involves a physical phenomenon (gradual settling of flakes in water) while the other involves a biological phenomenon (growth) is an issue of ERC and not of HLC.

Davis' TAM perceived ease of use and usefulness correspond approximately to HCI and HLC respectively, and our taxonomy on its own merely adds a third variable, ERC. This does not take us as far as we might. For example, we want a sound basis on which to account for the difference between Waterglobes and Growing Gifts. In both account above we find a diversity of issues, and this diversity demands respect.

Diversity and Aspects

The other problem with standard frameworks is that they usually focus attention on a single aspect thereof - those of costs, productivity, satisfaction or power (TAM has two) - whereas the uses illustrated above exhibit many aspects in addition to these, not the least of these being fun and generosity (which may be seen as the very opposite of power). As a positive part of his philosophy, Dooyeweerd [1955] delineated a number of aspects which are irreducibly distinct from each other in terms of what is meaningful:

  • Quantitative: (to do with quantity, amount)
  • Spatial: (to do with continuous extension, space)
  • Kinematic: (to do with movement)
  • Physical: (to do with energy + mass)
  • Biotic: (to do with life functions)
  • Sensitive: (to do with sense, feeling, emotion)
  • Analytical: (to do with distinguishing )
  • Formative: (to do with history, culture, technology: shaping and creativity)
  • Lingual: (to do with symbolic communication)
  • Social: (to do with social interaction)
  • Economic: (to do with frugal use of resources)
  • Aesthetic: (to do with harmony, surprise, fun)
  • Juridical: (to do with what is due; 'retribution', rights and responsibilities)
  • Ethical: (to do with self-giving love)
  • Pistic: (to do with vision, aspiration, commitment, creed, religion)

All human activity, according to Dooyeweerd, involves all aspects, though to varying degrees and in varying ways. Each of HCI, HLC and ERC are multi-aspectual in this way. To Dooyeweerd, the aspects have a modal character as spheres of meaning and law that enable the cosmos to Be and Occur [Basden, 2008], but here we will employ them mainly as a checklist. By employing them as a checklist we obtain a useful practical tool for analysis, which, because aspects are more than mere categories, possesses depths that might be explored if necessary. This provides a framework for addressing the diversity of each of HCI, ERC and HLC.

The following tables show the multiple aspects of HLC, ERC and HCI of my use of ZAngband and Bith's use of Facebook. They have different purposes. In the technical issue of HCI, the comparison is between the two IS, and also serves as an introduction to the reader on how comparative aspectual analysis might be carried out. Note that it mixes together what the user sees and what the user does). The two tables following do not compare the two IS, but rather attempt to reinforce understanding of the distinction between ERC and HLC by placing them side by side. Thus one table shows aspects of the ERC and HLC of ZAngband and the other does so for Facebook. Placing ERC alongside HLC also facilitates later discussion on the link between ERC and HLC below.

Comparison of User Interfaces and HCI
Aspect ZAngband Facebook
Quantitative Three main areas (layout, stats, message line up top) Varied number of areas (one per application used)
Spatial Layout of items on small screen
(Note: layout of dungeon is ERC)
Items on screen in several columns; long screen requires scrolling
Kinematic Limited animation Much animation, e.g. swirling flakes in Waterglobes
Physical Force needed to hit keys Force needed to move mouse and hit keys
Biotic Use of sensory-motor organs of user Use of sensory-motor organs of user
Sensitive Seeing and hearing screen Seeing and hearing screen
Analytical Simple screen and distinct shapes and primary colours aid distinguishing things on screen More sophisticated colouration and more complex screen can make it difficult to distinguish and locate what user wants
Formative Simple screen structure.
Action achieved via keyboard.
Complex screen structure assisted by chunking.
Action via mouse control.
Lingual Simple, direct symbols (each cell on screen provides information). Complex text structures can be used, and sophisticated graphics.
Social UI is culturally old-fashioned. UI is latest fashion [will it become quickly dated?]
Economic Limited screen area.
No download issues.
Larger screen area, enhanced by scrolling.
Much to download on each page, so requires broadband.
Aesthetic Simple, elegant, functional UI, but not beautiful. Complex, sometimes wasteful UI, but much more beautiful and 'exciting'.
Enables all that needs to be done; extensive range of commands.
Commands can be tailored to suit user.
Standard UI followed by all applications enables basic things.
User can select applications they want.
Feels rather a 'mean' UI. Feels a 'generous' UI.
(vision of who we are)
User is someone who wants to play this game ("no messin'") User is college-like individual who wants to link up with others, but needs to be attracted to use Facebook and 'sucked in'.
Facebook sees itself as in competition with other social networking sites; its genius is to harness the creative efforts of thousands of bright developers by encouraging competition among them for popularity.

Aspects of Playing ZAngband
Aspect HLC ERC
Spatial Layout
Kinematic Movement
Physical Walk through walls?
Biotic Health, Constitution, Poison
Sensitive Blindness, Confusion
Analytical Identifying objects
Formative Quests; Intelligent adversaries
Lingual Messages, Scrolls, Runes
Social Friendly/hostile
Economic Time-wasting Limit on weight carried; Purchasing
Aesthetic Fun, relaxation Charisma, Surprise
Juridical Robbery; Outlaws
Ethical Beggars, Good/evil
Pistic Arioch (deity)

Aspects of Using Facebook
Aspect HLC ERC
Physical Throwing, Hidden by snow
Biotic Sheep, Growing things
Sensitive Feel happy, annoyed
Analytical One friend to be 'special' Distinction: which colour
Formative Plan what to send them Solve a puzzle
Lingual Send message Message
Social Keep in touch Friends
Economic Wasting time; should be working!
Aesthetic Fun, usually with friends Beauty of flowers
Juridical Giving friends their due, or not
Ethical Want to please. Hug; Send gifts
Pistic Addiction to FB Worship

Several things may be noticed. First, very few aspects have been identified as pertaining to the use of ZAngband, while almost all except the earliest aspects have been identified for the use of Facebook. The latter is what Dooyeweerd would expect; the emptiness in the former arises from ZAngband being relatively unimportant in the life of the player except as a bit of fun. One might also add, under the analytic aspect, "Analysing gameplay for research purposes (this paper)", but have refrained from doing so in order to highlight that it is not necessary to fill in all aspects when treating them as a checklist.

Second, the later aspects are post-social, and inescapably involve some social aspects. Though ZAngband is a one-player game, and the social aspect of its HLC comes through in the shared background values of what constitutes fun and that time should not be wasted. Facebook is inherently social, and so we see many post-social aspects are important in understanding its use.

So What?

This way of understanding everyday use of IS is one that escapes the confines of assuming professional, educational or business context. It may be summed up as:

  • Multiple aspects of HLC, how we live with computers,
  • Multiple aspects of ERC, what is represented to us on the screen (and perhaps via the loudspeakers),
  • Multiple aspects of HCI, the user interface and how we interact with the computer.

The ability to distinguish HLC from ERC (and from HCI) offers the following benefits to IS researchers and developers:

  • It can help avoid too much focus on the look and feel of the user interface.
  • It can help separate out issues that should not be confused.
  • In particular, the distinction between HLC and ERC provides a basis for distinguishing real from virtual (e.g. to throw a real sheep requires good muscles while to throw a virtual sheep requires only a couple of mouse clicks; e.g. the real Robin Hood is an historical person, while the one in ZAngband is a fictitious caricature).
  • It provides a basis for planning and developing IS, for making changes along one dimension (ERC) while keeping issues along the other dimension (HLC) the same.

The use of multi-aspectual analysis helps to redirect the researcher's gaze from these three issues in themselves, outwards to how they manifest themselves in the everyday experience and lifeworld of their users - the multiple aspects of their lives, multiple aspects of what is represented, and multiple aspects of the UI. It is the aspectual suite that is the key element in enabling us to understand everyday use. This is because of:

  • the meaningfulness of the lifeworld, in that aspects are spheres of meaning and not mere categories
  • the normativity of the lifeworld, in that aspects are spheres of law, defining diverse types of being good or bad,
  • the diversity of everyday use, in which we experience many spheres of meaning (ways in which things are meaningful),
  • the integration of technical, psychological, and social issues in this everyday use.

What is the link betwen HCI, ERC and HLC? To answer this question, we must make reference to other parts of Dooyeweerd's philosophy as well as his suite of aspects. The following summarises a longer discussion found in chapter IV of Basden [2008. The most immediate everyday experience that a user has of using computers is HCI, which involves many aspects. In this, the lingual aspect is the most important in expressing why we partake in HCI (what Dooyeweerd called a qualifying aspect): in partaking in HCI we interpret what symbols that are presented to us on screen (or via speakers etc.) signify, and we signify our own meaning to the computer. This signification is of any type of meaning we (designers and users) wish, and constitutes the content with which the user engages in ERC. The meaning thus signified is meaningful in relation to the life of the user, which is HLC. To complete the circle, the activity of HCI is one activity within all those that make up HLC.

What this implies is that on one hand there are grounds for distinguishing real from virtual, but on the other hand they cannot be separated from each other fully and in everyday experience they remain intertwined. Thus, for example, real friendship (so-called offline) does differ from virtual friendship (so-called online) as mediated via social networking sites or guilds in MMORPGs for example. Real friendship involves all the aspects of HLC, including the ethical aspect of self-giving; Brewis [2008:19] emphasises the cost of true friendship ("when someone buys you a gift, or helps you move house, it has cost that person in resources, time or effort") whereas "a person who's being 'poked' recognises that it's cheap". Of course, once this is pointed out, the designers of friend-based applications could install some cost factor, but this does not invalidate the Dooyeweerdian distinction, because not only would the installation be rather arbitrary, but it depends on reference to real life (HLC) to know that it needs to be installed.

What kind of philosophical approach is needed for understanding and evaluating everyday use and experience of IS? From our brief discussion above, we can state that at least the following are necessary:

  • Obviously, we need to be able to think about and discuss the issues; so any philosophical underpinning must have a strong theory of knowing, thinking and discussing, namely an epistemology.
  • We need to be able to differentiate real from virtual; this means that any philosophical underpinning for such understanding must involve ontology as well as epistemology.
  • To make evaluations, we need some normative standards; this requires that the philosophical underpinning must include normativity too.
  • Because everyday lifeworld is constituted in meaning, the philosophical underpinning must account for meaning.
  • Finally, because of the diversity of everyday experience, perhaps in contrast to business use, the philosophical underpinning must provide an account of diversity.

The main stances of a philosophical nature which have been appealed to in the discipline of information systems are unable to fulfil all these requirements. Subjectivist stances provide a sound foundation only for epistemology, reduce meaning to subjectivist attribution, and explicitly deny both ontology and normativity. Objectivist stances provide some foundation for ontology, but are very weak on epistemology and either deny normativity or attempt to reduce it to ontology coupled with an assumed functionalist ethics, and they deny meaning. Critical social theory stances allow for epistemology and normativity (the overriding norm of those deriving from Marxist thought being emancipation, and that of those deriving from Habermasian thought being rational social action) but they provide no account of ontology and little for diversity (though Habermasian thought provides some). Critical realism purports to support both ontology and epistemology, but its account of normativity is very weak, and it provides no account of either meaning or diversity. Postmodernist stances claim to embrace diversity, but they reduce meaning to the story of the individual.

Dooyeweerd's philosophy, by contrast, provides all of these [Basden, 2008:116]. The reason why it does so is because it self-consciously begins from different presuppositions than those made by most Western thinking. It ability to embrace, and provide a sound account of, all of these is why it is being explored in this article as a basis on which to make strategic plans for research into the use of social networking sites, games and other virtual environments. This article does not claim that Dooyeweerd is the only fruitful approach, but it does make the simple suggestion that Dooyeweerdian philosophy should be seriously explored.


FOOTNOTE fn-lw: That scientific thought presupposes intuitive, shared, background understanding was one of the key ideas about what Husserl [1970] called the life-world, an idea which was expanded via Schutz, Merleau-Ponty, Weber and Habermas. That it inescapably involves meaning and normativity was discussed by Weber and more recently by Habermas [1987].


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Copyright (2008) Andrew Basden.

Created 19 June 2008. Last updated: