[Veteran game designer Greg Costikyan unpacks whether social games are truly social or they are not -- and having dissected the form, then leaps in with some suggestions on how to make the games more rewarding for players and developers.]
Three years ago, my friend Eric Goldberg called me up and asked me if I would be interested in working on a "social game" for a little Web 2.0 company in California he was consulting to.
A social game. Hm. That did sound interesting. I had fantasies of limited-duration, closed room live-action role playing, or perhaps multiplayer boardgames that fostered intense player interaction, or maybe something like an urban game, suitable for the Come Out and Play Festival, with players engaging with each other for extended periods of time.
Or perhaps some merger of online forum and gameplay, some elaboration of the competitive wordgames we used to play on Genie and The Well and Echo, showing off for one's peers and preening in a social environment.
Yes, pushing the social element of gameplay could be very fruitful, an obvious and exciting extension of the capabilities of the ars ludorum. And someone might actually pay me for this?
Well, no. Suspiciously, I asked Eric what he meant by a "social" game.
After quite a bit of blather, I realized what he was talking about, and cut to the essence. "Ah," I said. "I see what you mean. A game that is played on a social network. Is there anything actually social about it?"
You could hear the shrug on the phone. Would I like the introduction?
Sure. I needed the work.
When I was 13, and an enthusiastic fan of board wargames such as those published by SPI and Avalon Hill, I spent some time looking over a list of wargames divided into different categories -- Napoleonic and World War II, and so on -- thinking to myself that I wanted to find a style of game to make my one, to study more seriously and become expert on. One category popped out at me, and was what I decided to specialize in: multiplayer games.
In digital, we think of "multiplayer" as meaning anything that isn't soloplay; in wargaming, however, multiplayer meant "a game for more than two people," since most wargames are struggles between two opposing sides. I chose the category that encompassed games like Diplomacy and Kingmaker. They struck me as far more interesting than two-player wargames, because the complexity of interplayer dynamics produces far more variability than in head-to-head games. Negotiation, alliances, trades, and simply reading other players became important; it wasn't all about system and the mastery thereof.
I spent many long hours negotiating, allying, backstabbing, and learning to deal with others.
When I was 14, Dungeons & Dragons appeared, an inherently multiplayer but cooperative game set in a fantasy world not unlike those of the novels I loved to read. Its appearance spawned many long hours learning how to coordinate, cooperate, persuade, do "improv" in an almost theatrical sense, and work to shape stories cooperatively with others.
Dungeons & Dragons, in all likelihood, saved me from being a studious, depressed loner, ultimately making a somewhat charming adult out of a shy adolescent. It taught me to be a social being -- not surely from any intent of Gygax & Arneson's, but from the nature of its gameplay.
For many years, I dismissed digital games as devoid of merit, partly because of their lack of intellectual and narrative seriousness, but more importantly because of their inherently solitary nature. It was M.U.L.E. -- Dani Bunten's landmark multiplayer game for the Atari 800 -- that showed me that digital games, too, could be highly social.
I moved early into designing and playing games online -- even before the internet was opened to non-academic users, on the commercial online services -- because online games redressed the greatest flaw of digital games: their inherently single-player nature.
And in recent years, I've become fascinated with the rise of LARPs, indie RPGs, and story games, because they place socialization among the players, improv, and the assumption of character, front and center in play.
Social games -- correctly defined -- are important; and games that have hooks for socialization are, I think, our best bet for the creation of true art in this form.
It's a pity that "social games" are so unsocial.