Social gamers aren’t looking for games

Talk to most hardcore gamers and they don’t consider social games to be games at all. Talk with many social gamers and it’s likely they don’t consider what they’re doing a game either. So what exactly are they doing? Facebooking, that’s what.

Urban Dictionary defines Facebooking as a verb:

To check your facebook profile, search for something on Facebook or use one of its many apps.

Social games are apps, so social gaming is Facebooking. Daniel James, Co-founder and CEO of Three Rings spoke about Facebooking at a recent panel on social gaming.

They are mentally Facebooking. They are not there to play games, they are there to Facebook. And as a part of their Facebooking they are engaging with game experiences.

However that might be a little out of context as even he points out that the big question is if they think they’re playing games at all?

The big question that no one really knows yet is when someone is on Facebook are they in fact mentally, in there little mind, playing games at all?

So if the users don’t feel like they’re playing a game, can it be a game? That might be more, if a tree falls and no one is there to hear it… We could turn to some of the experts in the field of games for more help. But according to Daniel, they might not have high opinions of social games.

A lot of people, especially in the game business have a very snooty opinion about Facebook games. They describe them as basically, they won’t call them a game, “that’s not a game, I won’t call that a game, it’s a distraction” is a term I’ve heard used.

Social games are just a distraction - really?

A distraction! Now that isn’t very nice. But given all this, it isn’t too much of a stretch to assume two things:

  1. Facebook has found a captive audience
  2. Social gamers aren’t looking for games

In a way it’s a captive audience

They’re all on Facebook and they’re looking for a distraction, that makes them a captive audience. They aren’t looking as much on AOL or Yahoo! these days but they sure are on Facebook. Facebooking might be the modern form of channel surfing.

They aren’t looking for games

If they’re just Facebooking and don’t consider themselves gamers they can’t possibly be looking for games. They’re looking for a distraction, for anything. Well not everything, they seem to gravitate toward interactive entertainment. From Daniel again (I love pulling quotes from this guy):

I don’t know if that necessarily plays to the person wanting to a have a deeper more engaging, generally social experience. If they are there for distraction maybe that’s all the large scale market wants.

The opportunity is bigger than just games

What all this means is the opprotunity to experiment is huge. Everyone loves a captive audience and we know what they’re looking for – interactive entertainment. That’s a pretty broad category however. You can throw games into that, but it’s not just games. If I go to GameStop it’s likely people there are looking for games, not so much with a random sampling of people from the food court. The same is with people Facebooking, we don’t know exactly why they came to the mall but it’s safe to say it was to shop. What we don’t know is what for. So shouldn’t we try to throw everything and the kitchen sink at them?

To see the opportunity for social games as just games might be missing a whole lot. What about visual novels? Dating sims? Both are huge in Japan. I know I continually harp on how we need more story driven stuff but this seems like the perfect fit.

A friend of mine is addicted to Professor Layton. The game is a series of puzzles and for each you unlock you get more of the story. It’s nothing new but apparently my friend has been hooked by the story. So much so that she read blogs about the upcoming games in the series all the while professing that she does not like games.

People follow stories, gamers follow games.

As humans we can all follow a story; we think and learn in story. We can all play games as well but they don’t grab all of us equally. Some people love games, others can put them down at any moment. If I’m at GameStop my captive audience is looking for games, if I’m on Facebook what they’re looking for is much broader. Currently we throw games at the that captive audience. For one, it’s what’s working and bringing in profits. Second, it’s a great way to enhance sociability. However there has been little experimentation in interactive drama – outside of Japan that is. The classic example thrown around in the United States is, “Oh do you mean something like those Choose Your Own Adventure books?”

Facebook delivers a captive audience for interactive entertainment and the opportunity to experiment is huge. It goes way beyond what we’ve traditionally thought of as games.

Hollywood, meet multivariate testing

Let’s say the social gaming industry begins to experiment with interactive drama, just imagine what they could do. This is an industry built on metrics, on split testing – think of what you could do if you applied those techniques to a movie? Continuous deployment? You could start with a minimum viable product  that isn’t very good and over time evolve it into something worthy of an Academy Award. That might be stretching it, but it’s very different from the screen tests Hollywood does after shooting has ended. This would be the true digital revolution Hollywood has been waiting for.

12 thoughts on “Social gamers aren’t looking for games”

  1. Professor Layton could translate onto Facebook well, perhaps if it incorporated some collaborative puzzle solving. Btw, agree about the story part, I don't normally play puzzlers but like brain age found myself caught in by the non gameplay aspects

  2. Now we'll have to see if the social game industry feels the same way and integrates and/or experiments with story more. Traditionally the game industry hasn't held writers and writing talent in high esteem. Then again Playdom has a veteran of adventure games and interactive fiction as their VP of Game Design – Steve Meretzky.

  3. This article reminded me of a game I played in 2001 called Majestic. More of an interesting interactive story than a computer game. And when it would call you and leave messages on your home phone, send a fax or instant message, it began to blur the lines between reality and the game world.

    It would be interesting to see if someone could take a game like this, and mix it in with friends on Facebook or other social networks where you and friends work together to dig through the mysteries and find your way through the experience.

  4. Gaming is a very broad term. The computer games that are promoted as the significant examples of out craft are actually a specialisation. This is why we call them 'hardcore' games, 'casual' games, or use specialised language to describe them. Anything that has a reward mechanic is a game. The fact that the mainstream industry is dismissive of the current crop of social games is irrelevant. The fact that the current crop of social games is of relatively poor and uninspired quality is more relevant.

    If anything current facebook games stress the viral elements more than the game play. I had a go at airing a few points of mine on this a while back:

    Hopefully this situation will improve as we get better designers and more original thought into social games. There are great opportunities for games here that would not be workable in other media.

  5. I never got to play Majestic but ARGs have always intrigued me. The seem ripe for the social media sites like Facebook and Twitter however I hear less and less about ARGs these days. Maybe that's just me though. They do present interesting issues outside of what traditional interactive dramas have faced:

    * That Darn Conundrum –
    * Flawed Methods for Interactive Storytelling –

    Dan Hon wrote a great article about the issues affecting ARGs specifically, “Everything you know about ARGs is WRONG” –

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