Where is the ‘Social’ in Social Gaming?

It’s been a while since I last looked at a social game but I felt like some late-night reading and searched Gamasutra for some game design articles. Working in a company predominantly occupied with Facebook (and Facebook Connect), it’s difficult not to be intrigued by social games. It’s an exciting space, despite what some detractors may say, and the breakneck pace and competition is exhilarating.

During my search I spied this recent article by Aki Järvinen, lead social designer for Digital Chocolate. If you’ve been a fan of the blog you might know that I do like Digital Chocolate. I took a long look at NanoStar Siege for my Gamebook feature 3 months ago and it’s one game that ranks up there with the ‘real’ gaming experiences on Facebook. However, this is besides the point. Aki was not talking about the age-old argument of real gaming on Facebook (that’s a dead horse that we can all flog long into the future), but the complete lack of ‘social’ in social gaming.

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The article is very good reading and points out a lot of truths that not many developers appear to be doing anything about. Aki highlights a number of opinions from experts in the field; Daniel James, from the developer Three Rings, says that the social component of social gaming is akin to “passing notes under the door of a friend, instead of knocking on the door.” Dave Rorhl, from Playdom, says “there are particular elements that make games socially relevant, or more precisely, “make players feel like they’re playing with their friends (even when they’re not)” — the final part is significant, as it implies that social game developers are practically in the craft of creating sets of smoke and mirror tricks in order to create illusions of social exchanges where there truly are none.”

The latter point is something I immediately thought when I first played Nightclub City. For the first time in a social game, my farm/club/town was filled with my friends, even if they didn’t play the game. Nightclub City chose names and profile pictures from your friends list, then assigned them to patrons in your club. Admittedly, it was pretty cool for a while. It’s fun seeing your ‘friends’ puke on the floor and having to kick them out. Eventually though, the gimmick wears off and you wish you were really interacting with that person and not some rudimentary AI.

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We... are... your friends! (Really?)

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Social games are possibly the least social games I’ve played, and there’s no excuse! Online multiplayer games are social by definition. JRPGs, which take weeks to complete, on your own, are more social than a social game. At least a JRPG is entertaining enough to talk to my friends about, the “OMG can you believe that happened?!” or the “Aeris” factor. Social games are single player, yet do not have a compelling narrative or a level of challenge worthy of boasting to your friends about. The only games that currently do that, to my knowledge, are Bejewelled Blitz, Brain Buddies and Robert Unicorn Attack (oh how I love that game). The only reason these games get talked about between friends is because of their leaderboard integration.

The current utilization of the ‘social graph’ is akin to renaming all the players of the England football team in Pro Evolution Soccer and pretending they’re representations of your mates, despite the fact you have no friends who are almost 7-ft tall and no-one who can miss as many opportunities as Emile Heskey. With the power of the world’s biggest social network behind their games, is there really an excuse for developers to resort to this measly level of social interaction?

Aki says that theorists call these smoke and mirrors illusions ‘social bridging’. “[Bridging] refers to weak ties which privilege exchange of information or new avenues of thought. (…) Social games in Facebook are typically low maintenance: any social capital that emerges is bridging in nature. It is there for viral purposes, such as for asking parts for collectables in the Facebook stream, but it rarely manifests concretely within the application and the gameplay there.”

This is just a small part of the article, you really should read it for the full story. Aki concludes that for long-term engagement and retention, more bonding (the opposite of bridging) will have to occur in social gaming. I think Mr. Järvinen is completely correct, although I’m not quite sure if the typical Facebook gamer is entirely bored of just looking over at the other side of the bridge yet, instead of holding hands with their friends and crossing it together.

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Sam

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