Every day we're told that all of these little browser games we're playing on Facebook and in our browsers are social games'. With Massive Multiplayer Online, (MMO) games and multiplayer features in console and PC games another layer of supposedly social gaming is added to the mix. However, just how social are these games? Last week I talked about getting social in the games within Second Life. On that platform the world is specifically built with in-game features that promote talking to others, becoming social with those around you and meeting new people. So just how do you do it on a platform that is meant more for casual gaming that can be played when you have some time to kill?
The variety of games in Facebook is so wide that pretty much anyone can find something they like and may even find something they didn't realise they like. Regardless of the game though they almost all work on the same model. The game is free with option to pay for certain items or features and you can ask the people in your friends list on Facebook to come play the game with you. The level at which this model is implemented can vary from game to game, but the model remains the same. When you invite your friends to come play with you the invite usually consists of sending them a free gift from the game in order to tempt them in. Once they're playing with you, as your 'neighbor', then you can trade things with them and send them free gifts depending on the game. Some games even reward you for adding more friends as neighbours to the game by unlocking features if you have a certain number of them. Some of the top games that personify this game model are Mafia Wars, Warstorm and Farmville. These are just 3 examples and all very different, but all have the same base model.
Now this is all well and good and it's nice to play games with those who you know, but they're arguably not truly 'social'. For example, how much are you actually playing with your friends? In fact, you are rarely playing with your friends and you certainly aren't being social with them because there's no talking or true 2-way communication going - other than sending free gifts back and forth.
There are games that break this non-interaction cycle, such as Scramble., but they are far and few between. While Scramble has a chat box on the gameboard page, how often are you actually on at the very same moment and are able to play and talk? I bet it's a rarity.
The more popular games on Facebook that encourage actual social interaction certainly aren't encouraging you to connect to new people. To me being social isn't just about talking to the people you know already, but interacting and finding new people out in the ether of the internet. Posting your achievements of baking a cake to your friends and sending them arbitrary free items in order to tempt them into playing the game isn't social. In the end it's a very passive way of interacting without actually having to interact.
Now, I think anything that gets people playing more games together is good. "Social games" have spread the joy of games to more people than even 5 years ago - nowadays everybody is a gamer in some sense. However, these social network/browser based games should be called out for what they are - casual games. To call them social is a disservice to gaming in general because there are games out there that do encourage social interaction and these are not them! While they might be enjoyable at first they become series of repeat actions that end up boiling down to an exercise in signing up more friends. Presumably this is to try and sell you something in the long run or worse, sell your data. Their aim isn't social interaction and by not being honest about their real motive they do a disservice to games that really are about playing together. Nothing wrong with making money or casual games, but there is something wrong with pretending to be something you're not. So until, I can really make new Facebook friends through 'social gaming' then I'll start adopting the term.