The GDC 2011 panel may have been officially titled "A Debate: Are Social Games Legitimate" but moderator Margaret Robertson started off by telling the audience that the panelists wanted to center the debate on a question they were more conceptually comfortable with: Are social games evil?
Georgia Institute of Technology researcher and Cow Clicker creator Ian Bogost certainly seemed to think that social gaming was at least insidious, if not outright evil. He compared the slowly creeping effects of social networks and games to that of the omnipresent high-fructose corn syrup that's been pushed into nearly every food product for a number of reasons.
"I wonder if Facebook is doing for friendship what [agriculture conglomerate] ADM is doing for cheap sweeteners," he said. "It's turning people into resources, like ADM does for corn, and people become these resources that are changed into industrial value as efficiently as possible."
Daniel James, co-founder and CEO of Puzzle Pirates developer Three Rings, said social game makers had to be careful to create their games ethically, with an eye towards creating deep, meaningful connected experiences rather than just glorified slot machines.
"If you look at a row of people putting money into a slot machine, they're not really smiling," he said.
Nabeel Hyatt, of recent Zynga acquisition Conduit Labs, shared an anecdote about an office manager that plays Cafe World in weekly meetings with four or five real friends as proof that social games, far from being evil, instead "provide real social value and real happiness to their lives."
ZipZapPlay's Curt Bererton agreed that social game makers should focus less on dirty monetization tricks and more on features that increased engagement and conversation, like a personalizable cupcake maker in his company's Baking Life.
Bererton also echoed the point about the inherent value of the social connections created by these games, saying they provide a good excuse to talk with friends and family who could never commiserate over games like Grand Theft Auto and World of Warcraft.
"Since I started playing these games, I now interact with my family more than before," he pointed out as a decidedly non-evil effect of social gaming' existence.
But Bogost said that just because social games are fun and have some redeeming social value doesn't mean we shouldn't be able to look at whether or not they are the best method we have for having fun.
"We've sort of allowed ourselves to be backed into a corner on these things," he said. "I don't want to accept it as the thing we were given and it's what we've got, so we can't ask questions anymore. ... To me, we have a sort of infrastructure that feels bad. It doesn't feel like it's advancing us as human beings."
The debate soon descended into a comparative analysis of the relative "evilness" value of social games compared to other entertainment alternatives. Hyatt suggested that even the most addictive, meaningless social game was a better use of time than watching soap operas, and that these games' gentle socialization was in some ways preferable to the ridiculously violent aggression between players of games like Bulletstorm.
To Hyatt, the marginalization of social games comes off as ironic, given the game industry's larger struggle for mainstream acceptance. But Bogost said he didn't buy the argument that "we must accept all games because at one point certain games were given short shrift."
Responding to a questioner's inquiry about the evilness of rampant cloning in the social game sector, Hyatt pointed out that other entertainment forms like first-person shooters and family sitcoms show wide similarities across works, with only rare innovation.
Bererton said he was worried when his game's personalized cupcake feature began to be copied by other social game makers, but when they started improving the feature a few quick generation later, he used that as inspiration to improve the original feature in his game.
"The '80s, with all the clones of Tetris was [just] a slower version of this," he said, "and yet a lot of interesting stuff comes out of that."