History of Social Games

by Jon on May 24, 2010

Social games aren’t new–they’re just games you play with other people.  Social games began about 5000 years ago.  With some help from the team at Disruptor Beam, we’ve put together a little chart that traces the history of social games from its origins in Ancient Egypt all the way to the present.  I’m using the term social network games to distinguish the type of social games (Farmtown, etc.) that are primarily played and distributed via social networks.

Note: the chart was updated based on some commenter feedback on May 25, 2010. Click image for full size poster:

Some of you might say that there are some items missing, or that I haven’t included everything.  For example, I know that there are good examples of what have become known as “casual games” that predate Bejewelled, but I think that is the game that best represents the category (and probably turned it into a large commercial success).  However, if you think there are big items missing, then I’d love to hear from you!

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A Brief Narrative History of Social Games

Ancient games have been found in archaeological excavations. Senet was a game placed in Ancient Egypt in 3100 BC, and the earliest set of dice (which represents luck–likely stemming from early concepts of fate and divine favor–which emerged from soothsayers who forecast the future from the casting of bones) was found in a Backgammon set. At the same time as these early boardgames were being created, people were playing sports; it seems likely that sports have an origin deep within prehistory, but one of the earliest recorded sports was Polo–which, like Backgammon–has its origins in ancient Persia. Polo was originally designed as a way to develop military skills. Somewhat later, early ballgames like Episkyros (in Greece) and then Harpastum (Rome) were played, which later gave rise to Medieval sports such as Shrovetide Football, a forerunner to most contemporary football sports.

Chess may have been originally thought of as an abstraction of military conflict, used to teach military strategy to generals. Over the years, it grew in popularity, and during the Enlightenment was thought of as a way to train the mind. Benjamin Franklin wrote a famous essay called the Morals of Chess, which he believed taught caution, circumspection and foresight. Similarly, other games had begun to emerge that were designed to teach moral values, including Leela, a game from 16th century India which was the model for the modern game Chutes and Ladders. Also during the late middle ages, one finds a profusion of card-games, starting with Tarot Cards, originally intended for use in games (although they later became associated with fortune telling). Games of chance, like luck, seem to be perennially associated with the occult.

1974 was perhaps the most important year in modern game history; this is when Dungeons and Dragons came to market. It integrated the ideas of abstracting tactical combat along with storytelling and a unique social aspect in which individual players used their imagination and creativity to contribute to the ongoing game. From D&D, you can trace a history through early mainframe computer games, to MUDs (multiuser dungeons) to MMORPGs such as World of Warcraft. Meanwhile, many people were looking to engage in asynchronous games that wouldn’t require groups to gather at set points in time, giving rise to play-by-mail games. The earliest implementations of online PBM games (aside from their manifestation as play-by-email games) were BBS “Door” games. Trade Wars is probably one of the most famous; and I wrote a game in this market called Space Empire a long time ago. A lot of these play-patterns are similar to what you’ll find in current Web-based and social-network games. Over this entire period of time, board games were also getting more sophisticated–spurred by the Spiel des Jahres competition in Germany, which popularized games like The Settlers of Catan.

Games that originally emerged in the hobby gaming market (such as Magic: the Gathering) laid the groundwork for virtual economies by showing that elements of games could be collected, traded and derive value from the intersection of their scarcity and utility. Most early MMORPGs built business models around subscription rather than virtual goods–which caused secondary markets to emerge for trading in items. Today, many games in the Free-to-Play (F2P) market have turned this on its head, by making virtual goods the way the game publisher monetizes; because this has become such a good way to attract players and monetize attention, this has become “the” business model of current social network games. Likewise, virtual reward systems and metagames such as the Xbox Live Achievement system prefigured the underlying mechanic of Foursquare and Music Pets.

The current social network game market is the confluence of several big trends: social gameplay, along with asynchronous play patterns and a virtual-goods business model that has been shaped by market forces. We’re only at the beginning of seeing how far we can take the genre. It’s my belief that the next wave of games will draw upon many of the elements we’ve seen work in the past: great storytelling, challenging decision-making and a sense of tribal belongingness that surrounds popular games.

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Thank you for reading this article. Please follow me on Twitter to hear more from me on innovation, games and entrepreneurship. If you'd like to learn how games can transform your business, also check out my book, Game On: Energize Your Business with Social Media Games.

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