[Digital Chocolate's lead social designer Aki Järvinen analyzes the current state of social exchanges in Facebook games. He introduces concepts such as social presence, social graph, and social space to explain the kind of social interactions these games embrace, and fail to embrace. The feature presents work in progress from a book Järvinen is writing.]
Is Social Broken?
Signals from the field seem to indicate that the "social" in social games is broken. For example, a GDC 2010 presentation Daniel James from online and social games developer Three Rings described the sociality of social games as something that equals passing notes under the door of a friend, instead of knocking on the door. Social games mainly work as distractions rather than playful social interactions.
Other developers have gone to the length of accusing social games for "hating" socialization, and in his critique of social games, Ian Bogost sees social games merely instrumentalizing social relationships into simple game resources, thus implying that more authentic forms of playful social interaction entail something different altogether.
In the summer 2010 issue of Casual Connect magazine, David Rohrl from Playdom gives away that 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 story continues on the players' side as well. According to findings in the SoPlay research project, players mainly consider social games as single player games, which, despite putting their friends on display on the game, is "not the same" when compared to their conception of multiplayer games. It seems that players have hard time articulating what they are doing when they are interacting with their friends via a game on Facebook, even if the games are supposedly built on the premise of being social.
These observations seem to signal that designing social games means moving from designing social interactions to designing social distractions. Yet social games thrive on social networking platforms for a reason. Should their sociality, then, be judged with the criteria of social context and how it contributes to the social experience, instead of evaluating the social in gameplay? I will explore this starting from the broader contexts of social networks and online communication before moving on to studying particular games and their social design.
Social is Communication
Social media and network theorists have emphasized the fundamental role of communication in social networks. No relationship is possible without communication, and the more there is relevant and mutually satisfactory communication, the more intimate the relationship. Therefore also in games the social has to be built on the available means of communication and the social exchanges it breeds.
In case of social games, Facebook provides the social substrate with its communication channels. Simultaneously, as the de facto platform for social games Facebook molds their sociality to its constraints. Yet games work as independent applications on the platform, and developers can take theirs beyond the platform constraints by implementing additional means of communication into the game.
While doing so, however, they begin demanding more from the users. More complex or different ways of social interaction than the ones provided by the platform itself might consequently reduce the games' accessible and spontaneous nature that powers the social exchanges.
An even more constraining factor spurs from something implied in the above, i.e. that Facebook use in its widely adopted form apparently rules out demanding players to access a specific application or site at a particular, shared time. This is the key difference of social, and to an extent of casual games, when compared to video games. Social games try to facilitate players' daily routines rather than the other way around: players do not need to reserve a specific time slot from their daily lives in order to play at all.
To circumvent these constraints and still be able to facilitate social play, social game developers have promoted asynchronous communication as the dominant form of social exchanges in their games, essentially following and constantly adapting the core communication functionalities of the platform. The resulting types of play have been described with terminology from studies of children's play: "parallel play" -- i.e. playing independently beside others but checking the others' progress from time to time.