Social games today might have the underpinnings of various real-world social mechanics, but for now they are "primarily single-player experiences," according to Raph Koster, VP of creative design at Disney-owned Sorority Life developer Playdom. And there's plenty of room for improved player-to-player collaboration, he said.
He identified 40 social mechanics (slides of all 40 mechanics are available on his website [PDF]) that are used to varying extents in social games.
It's some of the less commonly-used social mechanics -- such as election, rituals and others -- that present some compelling opportunities for game makers.
Koster said of elections, "American Idol is the biggest social game there is. ... You could hold an election in your social game for a position that means nothing at all, but players will go bananas, because that's what we do during elections."
Rituals are another uncommon mechanic in social games that could have a big impact in the category if properly implemented. "When people change roles ... there's a ceremony to it," explained Koster. "We put rituals on all kinds of things when people change roles, and these are powerfully social."
Social game developers have explored rituals to a small extent by letting players post accomplishments and changes in role via wall posts on Facebook, but rituals could serve a much larger purpose in social games. "There are rituals all around us," he said.
Koster also said he was surprised that not many social game makers have introduced racing mechanics in their games. He said, "[Races are] actually the oldest form of game that we can find, historically."
Tournaments are yet another under-utilized mechanic. "By and large, social games have barely scratched the surface of what can be done with bracketing," Koster noted.
The idea of a gamesmaster that closely directs a social game - i.e. the game developers themselves - is another little-used concept. "We don't do a lot of directing in social games, but we certainly could," said Koster.
And assigning roles to players - a concept embraced by class-based shooters like Valve's Team Fortress 2 - is another area of opportunity for social games. "The fact that we don't use team roles or classes ... is actually really, really fascinating, because it could happen. ... This is guaranteed to raise retention," he said.
In all, the mechanics of today's social games are just the tip of the iceberg, and developers should look more closely at human behavior to find out what really drives social interactions.
"This is the first time in history that we are able to work on a canvas the size of a country. Think of the havoc we can wreak!" Koster said.