Social Games Need to Grow Up

Social Games Need to Grow Up

Though opinions on the matter do vary, social games have the same right to exist as any other breed of video game. True, Facebook/social gaming is still a relatively young genre, and therefore playing with them sometimes feels like you’re being forced to interact with your little brother. After all, social games can be jittery, childish, pushy (“Play with me! Play with me!”), and sometimes it seems as if the entire genre doesn’t have an original idea between the hundreds of games currently available.

Games writer Leigh Alexander penned a thoughtful article on Gamasutra about Facebook gaming’s desperate need to grow up. “At best, [Facebook games are] perceived to be too shallow and simple to be respectable entertainment,” she wrote, “and at worst, they can be seen as deceptive, insidious, not much better than computer viruses.”

At first blush, comparing Facebook games to a computer virus is a bit extreme, but it’s not terribly far off the mark, either. Many Facebook games, especially games cobbled together by Zynga, tend to smear spam on your friends’ walls with every movement you make in-game. The idea is to get your buddies interested in your game–and to Zynga’s credit, it’s been a wildly successful bit of marketing. It’s also been enough to make social gaming universally reviled.

That’s a shame. Going back to the little brother metaphor, social gaming has a lot of potential. It simply needs to grow up.

Unfortunately, as Alexander’s article points out, one of social gaming’s great bright hopes–Sims Social–adopted Zynga’s worst traits instead of revolutionizing the genre.

“One of the common social mechanics on Facebook is to create tasks that have multiple parts, and require participation from friends to complete each step,” Alexander wrote. “For example, if a player wants a certain kind of building in their city, or decorative item in their home, a player will have to ask friends for items, parts or labor. These generally don’t rely on actual inventory; whether a friend “has” said item or not, they need only to receive and accept a ‘help’ request from their friend in order to complete it. What’s required isn’t actually an object, it’s an interaction.

“This creates conditions where many game objectives — often those framed as ‘key’ — aren’t achievable without sending notifications to friends or making advertisement-style wall posts about what they need. And generally, as a game progresses, achievements and objectives that rely on asking for help multiply.”

Alexander argues that the necessity behind these messages actually makes “social” gaming quite anti-social. Anyone who doesn’t have a large pool of social game-loving friends to help fulfill a game’s endless item requests is all the more aware of the revulsion that’s sparked by a game’s publicized “help” requests. He or she is going to start feeling uncomfortable about sending requests to Facebook acquaintances who don’t play games, and in time, he or she may simply stop playing.

“And in the case of Zynga’s games, it’s even more embarrassing, Alexander continues. “Can you imagine going to an adult’s Facebook page and seeing post after post about how your friend needs extra Fairy Wands to make magic on their farm? Respected Colleague needs more seashells to complete his aquarium! Admired Employer is helping a skunk get his stink back! Prospective Partner has extra fertilizer to share!! I mean, honestly?”

The Facebook/social gaming market is seriously juggernaut-sized: It could potentially carry around a bear like an accessory dog. In other words, it’s successful. Everybody knows it exists. Isn’t it time for Zynga and every other social game developer to move beyond forcing its player base to strong-arm every relation and co-worker into the fray?

When we think of the word “social,” two images come to mind: A gathering of like-minded people who want to have fun together, and an awkward party nobody really wants to be at. The term “social gaming” should conjure up that first image, not the second. It should be synonymous with group effort, community, and projects (say, cities and farms) put together with the combined efforts of willing friends. It’s time for social gaming to prove that it can grow up to become more than a bunch of inane messages and childish cries for help splattered all over Facebook.

About Nadia Oxford
Nadia is a freelance writer living in Toronto. She played her first game at four, decided games were awesome, and has maintained her position since. She writes for 1UP.com, Slide to Play, GamePro and other publications, and is About.com’s Guide to the Nintendo DS.

1 Comments

  1. Brilliant post and i fully agree with the points you made here.

    With regards to the sims social i was expecting the old sims experience where you could do what you wanted, not needing energy to carry on performing tasks etc.

    I think it would have been better also if they had it so that when you visit friends as your neighbours you can freely type to each other and interact that way. And yes, Its funny how facebook are quite tight with other peopling spamming but let game developers.

    I think having it the original way like you said would have helped to evolve it, its what i was expecting.

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