Are Social Games Evil? No, with a Few Provisos.

March 4, 2011 Posted by zachary

While I was not able to attend this year’s GDC, I have been following it through the many games industry news outlets. One of the issues that has been introduced is the idea that social gaming, such as Facebook games, is evil. Many major players in the games industry have made this claim. This year at GDC, they gave the rant pulpit to the makers of social games so they could defend their trade.

I am currently in the process of developing one of these social games and I feel the need to toss my hat in the ring and come out in support of the trade. I will be using examples of what can conceivably be called evil in social games and what is not evil which are found in some games I currently play.

The whole concept of social gaming is to spend some time playing a game you enjoy with other people who enjoy it. In that since, every multiplayer game on the planet is a social game. Yet, what we are talking about here is a specific breed of social game, the Facebook Game. What about Facebook Games makes them inherently different from other social game experiences? The type of cooperative play experiences it offers.

I currently play a handful of games on Facebook, some notable ones are City of Wonder by Playdom, Knights of the Crystals by Square Enix, Warstorm by Zynga and Cow Clicker by Ian Bogost.

I will not claim that any of these games are evil as there is nothing inherently evil about them. I will claim that there are positive and negative social interactions in all of them.

So what are positive and negative social interactions? I define a positive social interaction as providing the feeling of playing a game together and a negative social interaction as playing a game at each other. I hope my examples can clarify these definitions.

In the way of positive social interactions, I think that Warstorm and Knights of the Crystals have the most. In Warstorm, you have the ability to trade your cards with your friends and help build each other’s decks of cards. This provides the ability for friends to help and compete with each other. This provide feelings of cooperation between friends. This is a very positive social interaction. Nothing is more social than talking about the new cards you got with your friends and discussing trade deals. This feeling is reflected in the very nature of the Collectible Card Game counter parts in Magic: The Gathering, Pokemon and Yugioh. This interaction is the heart of the genre. This interaction is inherent in almost all social games.

Knights of the Crystals has a very similar mechanism in place. As you play the story portion of the game, you collect totems from various collections. When you gain one of every totem in a collection, you gain the use of a new character class for your character. The game provides a way to trade totems with your friends. If you are missing one totem from a collection you can ask a friend and they can give you one. You can also trade totems with them to help them complete collections. This trading is also beneficial to you and your friends in that you can use your friends’ characters in your own party when fighting boss battles. You are incentivised¬† to help your friends gain access to more powerful classes because you can then use them to help you beat tough boss monsters. So by interacting with your friends you are not only helping them progress in the game, you are also helping yourself progress as well.

I think those are both very positive interactions in the social sphere. While neither game allows you to directly play with your friends you are playing in a mutually beneficial manner.

So what about Negative Social Interactions? These are found in all the games I listed. The biggest negative social interaction I have found is when your friends count as simple statistics in the gameplay. City of Wonder is ripe with this.

In City of Wonder, having friends who play provides benefits to you. Firstly, the more friends you have the more your can expand your city’s boundary. So you have people becoming “friends” with other players for the sole purpose of gaining larger land masses to build on. Secondly, friends help build certain buildings in the game. This interaction is weakened by the fact that the people helping merely have to be playing the game and don’t actually have to be your friend. This weakness is compounded by the fact that you cannot help through the game itself but through posts to your friends news feeds. Finally these friends count merely as numbers in the calculations of attacks on other cities. The strength of your friends’ cities have no bearing on the outcome.

This is seen throughout almost all Facebook games. When your friends are merely statistics, you are not actually playing with your friends.

The second negative social interaction is the fact that PvP activities are not actually such. You are not playing against other players, but merely their stats. Warstorm does not allow you to play other players, it only allow you to play against their decks. Knights of the Crystals allows you to fight other players, but you are really only comparing your attack against their defense. Same for City of Wonder.

So are social games evil, no as long as they provide actual positive social interactions. If an entire game is based purely on what I consider negative social interactions, they can be conceivably be considered evil. But as long as you provide interactions that actually allow players to play with each other instead of at each other, you are providing an experience that cannot be called evil without calling all multiplayer games evil.

We are seeing more and more games on Facebook that actually provide direct multiplayer capabilities. We are seeing more and more games that provide positive social interactions. Even the large game companies like Zynga and Playdom are moving away from the lucrative negative social interactions to more positive social interactions. The best things to come from these “evil” games are the accessibility which brings in new batches of players, the lower barrier to entry for developers. These new players who have been introduced to gaming through negative social interactions will seek more and more positive social interactions and games that provide such will make more and more money and will be come the norm. I look forward to being a part of that revolution.


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