One of the fundamental contradictions of the human condition is that we are simultaneously individuals and social beings. We are each lost in our own heads, with only the limited bandwidth afforded by expression and language to allow us to understand each other. We typically strive to achieve our own needs and desires, often at the expense of others; we are atomistic individuals, striving for our own benefit in a Randian sense.
And yet we cannot grow without the nurture provided by our parents, are driven by our needs to find sexual and emotional partners, have built civilizations that depend utterly on cooperation and exchange, and are most often happy in the companionship of friends.
We are both free and members of societies, dispassionate observers of our surroundings and passionate members of groups, freethinkers and partisans, competitors and cooperators.
We prize individual freedom, and also community. We solo, and join guilds. Americans, in particular, make much of the importance of individual liberty -- and yet to accomplish almost anything, we need to enlist our fellows in a common endeavor.
Though ultimately we live, and die, alone, imprisoned in our individual skulls, we are inherently social beings.
And just as we most often find happiness through others -- our partners and children, our friends, and the extended praise and approbation of the many -- so too the best and most affecting game experiences we can have are those that involve others.
The fiero of a World of Warcraft raid successfully accomplished with your guildies; the laughter produced by sardonic gameplay in an RPG; the emotional impact of a jeepform or story game produced through unexpected improvisation with others; the banter and play of power dynamics in a Eurogame; even the table talk and insights into character you gain through the play of a conventional card game with friends -- these are experiences to be prized.
Even for single-player PC or console games, if you try to recall the most compelling experiences you've had playing them, I think you'll find that those experiences derive not so much from triumph over mastery of a system -- but from a moment of insight into the mind of the designer, a grasp of what the game is trying to achieve, an insight into the game's subtext.
That moment of epiphany, when you finally understand; that sense of engaging with the creative product of others; that sense of being part of a cultural conversation, of something that you can discuss and debate with your friends -- that, perhaps, is at least as important and earning a score. In these cases, the social nature of your experience is indirect, since you experience it alone; but the experience is part of a larger, and continuing, social conversation among the players and creators of games.
If you were the last person on Earth, would you play games? And if so, would it do anything other than to make you sad with the realization of what has been lost?
The social nature of games -- indeed, of any form of art -- is part of what makes them compelling; and games that strike deep into social connections are often the most compelling of all.
"Social games," then -- that is, games that strive particularly to make and exploit social connections between players -- have enormous potential, as forms of art.
It's too bad, then, that few so-called social games are remotely social.
The first commercially successful "social games" were social network role playing games (SNRPGs), like the various Mafia and Vampire-themed games. Like more conventional digital RPGs, they are games in which you control a single character, with the primarily objective to level up by completing tasks of one kind or another. They strip this down to a bare minimum -- missions are accomplished by a single click, leveling up opens up new ones, and "energy," which recharges slowly, is the main constraint on advancement, since you may accomplish only so many missions in a period of time.
In addition to mission and level advancement, SNRPGs allow you to attack other players. In an attack, a character stat (that can be improved with level) is added to the attack value of equipment, and compared to that of the defender; the winner gains EP and money, the loser loses money and health.
An additional fillip -- critical to the game's virality -- is that players may use network invites to ask friends to join their clan (or mob, or what have you), and when in combat, your value is increased by the values of your friends. Thus, the more clanmates you have, the more powerful you are, the faster you can advance -- and the less likely you are to suffer from the attacks of others.
SNRPGs are, in fact, completely solitaire in nature, except for the ability to attack others, and the ability to have clan mates. The idea of the "clan," however, has no real meaning; each player's clan list is entirely separate from every other player's.
If I join "your clan," this does not mean that I join also with other members of your clan; I can belong to any number of players' clans simultaneously, and the only relevance this has is to increase of combat power of these people (and my own). The "clan" is merely a game conceit; it has no organization, no mechanism for interaction or planning, no common assets. It is nothing like an MMO Guild; it's just a list.
Games of this type do allow you to type in messages that are seen by your clan mates, which sometimes produces weird conversational lacunae, since your clan mate may be responding to a message from his clan mate who is not your clan mate, so you see only one side of a conversation.
The main way players use this feature is to list friends of theirs who are looking for more clan mates, so you can increase your power by friending and adding them to your clan; I now have more than three hundred social network "friends" who I do not, in fact, know, and have scant interest in knowing. Their only purpose is to make me competitive in SNRPG combat.
You can argue, in fact, that SNRPGs are antisocial in nature, since the only real interaction with other players is attacking them.