The research shows that beyond being a fun distraction, social network games (SNGs) can offer family members a meaningful way to interact and meet social obligations.
"Maintaining those connections is especially important as families find themselves dispersed across countries and continents," said senior author Mia Consalvo, Canada Research Chair in Game Studies and Design at Concordia University in Montreal.
"SNGs give families a convenient and cheap way to transcend geographical boundaries," Consalvo said.
For the study, Consalvo and co-author Kelly Boudreau, a research fellow at Concordia's Technoculture Art and Games Centre, polled a group of social network gamers.
Using a questionnaire and follow-up interviews, the researchers explored what it means to interact with family members via SNGs.
They found that these online games offer families a common topic of conversation and enhance the quality of time spent together, despite the fact that most SNGs do not necessarily involve any direct communication.
The games can also bring together family members who may be only distantly connected, with respondents citing experiences such as connecting with long-lost cousins or bolstering relationships with ageing aunts.
"It is not just siblings in their early 20s using SNGs to connect. Grandfathers are playing online games with granddaughters, mothers with sons. These multi-generational interactions prove social networks are tools that break down both communication and age barriers," said Boudreau, now a lecturer in Game Studies at Brunel University in England.
With online games like Candy Crush Saga increasingly replacing traditional board games such as Clue, SNGs are quickly becoming an important way to interact socially.
Consalvo sees this not only as a chance for families to connect, but also as a relatively unexplored opportunity for game designers.
"Families that play together play the longest and have the greatest sense of duty to one another as players," Consalvo said.
"That behaviour could extend the life of these games beyond what it would be if only friends or strangers were playing together. Designers should keep that in mind as they design the next generation of SNGs," Consalvo added.
The study was published in the journal Information, Communication and Society.