The most successful snapshots on Sims Carnival are not good games compared to casual games, and it's wrongheaded to compare the two. Rather, the successful snapshots are good games for their creators and those with whom they might share their efforts.
Consider a particularly telling example, Dad's Coffee Shop. The game was created with the Swapper tool, by replacing a few assets from the stock game Fill the Order, a simple cake shop game. The gameplay is identical; the player drags the correct cake to match a passing customer's request.
Dad's Coffee Shop's creator has added occasional photos of her parents, and this important description: "In loving and respectful memory of my father who never met a stranger." Like a snapshot, the game has value because of the way it lets its creator preserve and share a sentiment about her family. Likewise, you and I can appreciate it not as the crappy casual game that it is, but as the touching personal snapshot that it also is.
Or consider You're Invited to go to heaven, a simple quiz game created in Sims Carnival's Wizard tool, which asks a series of step-by-step questions to generate a game. You're Invited is a rudimentary example of Christian evangelism.
The game poses just a single question, "Who is the Lord of your life," and offers four answers: Chris Brown, Orlando Bloom, Zac Efron, and Jesus Christ. The "correct" choice is obvious, and it's tempting to write off this game as trite, even worthless.
Its single question would seem barely to qualify it as a quiz game, a genre itself on the very fringes of the medium. But there is something deliberate and honest about its simplicity: this is not a game meant to inspire conversion or even head-scratching; it's just a little touchstone in someone's day for reinforcing what's really important to the believer.
The game somewhat resembles the inspirational photo or message pinned to a refrigerator or carried in a wallet. It serves a simple function: to remind its player that God, not an entertainer, is worthy of worship.
If You're Invited to go to heaven offers a modest critique of the sea of media fandom, plenty of other snapshot games on Sims Carnival do just the opposite, celebrating a favorite personality cult. Lately, a popular example is teen idol Joe Jonas, who has found his way into a number of Sims Carnival games. One popular exmaple is Wash Joe Jonas, a variation of a dog-washing original created by Sims Carnival staffers.
As with most snapshot games, gameplay is quick and almost meaningless on its own: the player moves a mouse frantically to suds up Jonas before time runs out. Its purpose is simple and obvious: it offers a simulation of an intimate (if weird) relationship with a pop icon, one the player is unlikely ever to experience in real life.
The game functions like a wall poster or a printed notebook, or even like a Photoshop job that inserts teen beside heartthrob. When played, the game works as a kind of snapshot effigy, a thing to create sighs and coos and then to be put down again.
"Democratization" is an awfully haughty way to describe new ways of using old media, but it's a term you often hear among the Internet elite. Eastman's cameras were "for the masses," like the Model T., and web services like YouTube and CafePress certainly are as well.
But whether or not they deserve to be confused with self-governance and citizenship is another matter. Silicon Valley's perverted libertarianism has conflated technological progress and social progress. Another conception is needed.
There are lots of things one can do with web-based game making services. One of them is to try to create hit games that generate ad revenue and earn public renown. Another is to create art games meant to characterize the human condition, like I recently tried to do with the Sims Carnival Game Creator. But perhaps the most interesting uses of these tools are the informal ones that so closely resemble snapshots in spirit and function.
Some inventions, like the Brownie, make a previously complex creative process much easier. Yet the Brownie alone did not invent informal photography. It was just a tool. People had to be taught how to use it, which Kodak did through a lot of hand-holding, careful marketing, and patience.
Such is the next challenge for the video game snapshot. In this respect, the Sims team's effort to seed their site with examples for remix is an admirable start. The problem is, they are examples that aspire a little too much toward real casual games, a notion reinforced by the site's traditional genre categories (action, adventure, racing, shooter).
The Brownie teaches us that snapshots aren't just good pictures created easily thanks to simple tools. They are also good pictures -- or games -- created for different purposes. The future of video game snapshots will require platform creators to show their potential users how to incorporate games into their individual lives.
The result could be very important. The snapshot didn't just popularize photography as chaff, it also helped more ordinary people appreciate photography as craft. The successful game creation platform will be the one we can say the same of, someday.
[Brownie photograph, by Håkan Svensson, used under GFDL.]