Social Games are Evil (and other stupid memes)

by Jon on March 3, 2011

Have you heard the news? Social Games are evil. And they aren’t even games.

Of course, the term “social game” isn’t very helpful. When people criticize games as being evil (as Jonathan Blow did), or as not actually being games at all (like Nintendo’s Iwata recently did), they’re talking about social network games. I’ve pointed out in my post about the history of social games that social games have been played together for thousands of years. So we’ll forgive Blow and Iwata for maligning the entire history of games, and instead focus on what they mean with respect to social network games.

Flickr Image by YankeeInCanada

One could dismiss the criticisms except that they seems to stick around and resurface regularly (especially in venues like GDC) like a bad case of cold sores.  Here are some thoughts:

  • Social networks are a new way to create novel forms of gameplay. Designers are still figuring it out. Lots of game genres evolve, as do their distribution channels. Social games will be no different, and we’ll see some amazing gameplay on social networks as the years advance.
  • Social games are getting more social. Yes, it’s true that many early games were only social to the extent that they forced you to signup lots of your friends for you to benefit from the gameplay. But social network games can no longer direct wall posts to people who don’t want them (at least on Facebook) and that’s caused designers to think about all the other social interactions that these games can enable. Teamwork, collaboration, gifting–these are all moving social network games in the same direction as other multiplayer online games (MMOs, FPS, RTS).
  • Social games are games. Maybe you don’t like the particular rules they use, but they certainly belong in a broad classification of cultural products that includes everything from tic-tac-toe to World of Warcraft.
  • Games are a business. We should celebrate new business models and distribution channels that inject life into aging industries, forcing everyone to rethink old assumptions and learn about more effective ways to market and sell products. To paraphrase Jefferson, the tree of industry must from time to time be refreshed with the new blood of entrepreneurs.

Sure, profit is a motive for social network games. Without it, there wouldn’t be a sustainable business. But it’s also a great field to be making new games in–which is why legendary designers as varied as Sid Meier, John Romero and Steve Meretzky have all gotten involved in social gaming.

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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Adrian CrookNo Gravatar March 3, 2011 at 10:39 am

Good post. Further to your last point (Games are a business), I think it’s the proximity of design to the business model that turns off many traditional game designers and makes them resent social games as pure cash grabs.

This stems from the fact that in core game dev, a game designer is as removed from the sales of the end product as a factory worker is from the sales of the car they made. The distance of commerce from the actual production of the game is likely what allows core game designers to think of their products as “art” and themselves as artists – unsullied by the influence of money.

So us social game designers who have to design a revenue model into the game and design a game that envelops and contextually supports that revenue model appear as though we’ve “sold out” and are simply designing a cash grab, not something that is as equally worthy of being called “art” as any console game out there.

As a designer, there’s no better place to ply your trade than social games if you’re actually interested in iterating based on player feedback and improving yourself rapidly. After 13 years, I grew tired of the core games industry’s auteur method of game development and all its attendant hubris.

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