Social Gaming pt.1: L’enfer, c’est les autres

“Hell is other people”, wrote Sartre. He missed the rise of electronic entertainment as a social phenomenon by a few years, dying in ’80. Too soon. Still, one wonders what he would’ve thought or said had he lasted a couple more decades and witnessed this age of purples and fora.

The cynical in me thinks he would’ve said exactly the same thing.

There is one nebulous constant in these things we call MMOs, PEGs and MPGs. That is, the ultimate quality of the game – how many imaginary units of pleasure we extract from it when we play it – is directly tied to and controlled, willingly or not, by the other people who also play it. It’s difficult to put a finger on, on one hand because it’s not contemplated at all in the game design, on the other hand because it’s an intangible we’re generally not very comfortable dealing with.

This is the first one in a series of posts that will dive into the murky waters of social gaming. Maybe even come back with a pearl. Read on.

Just what is Social Gaming?

Social Gaming is a definition, as good or bad as any other, that attempts to classify the intangible elements a player perceives or feels as he plays the game, and are directly influenced not by any of the areas relevant to the game design itself, but from the presence, actions or inactions of other players playing in the same shared space.

As any player plays a game, at any level of seriousness or involvement, the player’s mind is given elements by the game, and those elements remain there. The game’s quality in sound or graphics, for example, are always in the player’s mind as he plays the game, gathered by the player’s senses. The game’s rules, features and their execution also claim an important part of the players mind-time. And of course, the social aspect of shared games – as stated before, the presence, actions an inactions of other players – are also present as well.

The social aspect is the most unapproachable, to a great extent because it’s not contemplated in the game design itself. A game designer can create his game or world to the rules of his choosing, but most of the time his design is concerned with the intrinsic qualities of features of the game itself, and little else. A designer can make his graphics to have any style, his sound and music to convey any mood and his rules to establish any kind of gameplay, but the social aspect of the game itself is impenetrable to the design. This is the territory of the players themselves, and perhaps it’s precisely this which gives it that aura of impenetrability, of an organic landscape reigned by a chaotic system – the very opposite of design itself. A designer usually has no tools and no ideas to deal with the kind of social mindscape the players create for themselves, because this mindscape is created after the design is done, and the game completed.

In all honesty, I doubt most designers are even concerned with the social aspect their creations generate.  However, the social aspects of games, particularly our contemporary shared gaming experiences, do deserve a second look and I feel warrant an examination. If nothing else, for the mere reason of the comparatively outstanding amount of mindtime and mindspace the social aspect creates in players, which is much bigger and stronger than the spaces design elements proper create. In fact, I put it forward that players, at a minimum, spend as much time (if not more time) dealing and immersed in social aspects as they do dealing and immersed with intrinsic game design elements.

So, to end with a more concise, yet more complete definition: Social Gaming is the part of the game experience a player extracts from a game, normally not considered by the game design a priori, and always shaped by the presence, actions and inactions of other players.

Why should designers even care about Social Gaming?

There are many facets of design and what design tries to accomplish. Sometimes, design is the tool used to translate precise ideas from thought into reality. Game rules are the prime example of this. Design also can serve to emphasize and create particular moods or styles, via art. For this, we have to look no further than graphics and sound.

But there is another facet of design that is just as important: Design is also concerned with the final, general quality of a game. Design is responsible for presenting an attractive final game to the players. A game that players would find fun and entertaining, would be drawn to it instead of repulsed, and would like to play. Games, after all, exist to be played, and a game without players is not a game, but merely an exercise in design. Effective and successful design creates in turn effective and successful games.

In this vein, it should be very much in the mind of the designer just how much are players enjoying his game, since that’s the game’s raison d’etre. A skilled designer would pay attention to the common facets of design, of course. The rules must be good and make sense. Graphics and sound must be attractive. But the social aspects are commonly absent from the designer’s thought. Why is this? If we have established previously that the social aspects occupy so much of the player’s mind in time and space, why is it that this area is usually left to its own devices, normally given very little thought?

Part of this, I surmise, is due to designer self-censorship or perhaps a lack of confidence in his own abilities. Perhaps even doubt, in the designer’s mind, that he even has a mandate to regulate the flow of the social aspect in his own game. Curiously enough, most designers have no problem controlling, shaping or vectoring player behavior from the very design. For example, if a designer does not want players to combat or kill each other in certain areas of the world, he simply disables their ability to do so in the design. If he wants to limit the amount of game money players have, or to curb it somehow, he introduces ‘money sinks’ in the design. If he wants to have areas where players are free to combat and kill each other, he does so as well. Those are very common examples of a designer and a design directly influencing player behavior.

Yet, for some reason, the same designer might feel apprehensive at touching the social aspects of his game, or even feel he has no reason, mandate or authority to do so. Why this dichotomy?

Social Gaming: a creature of un-design

Part of this reluctance from designers to interfere in the social aspects of a game is born out of simple ignorance. Designers most of the time are ignorant this area even exists, or simply do not recognize it as an important part of the game experience. It’s something for the GMs to deal with in-game, and the customer service team in the forums. Doesn’t belong in design itself.

However, an interesting question at this point would be: How much easier, or how much different would be the task of GMs and customer service teams if the social aspects of the game would be considered in the design instead of left to evolve or devolve on their own?

Take EVE and their developer-player scandal recently. Part of the responsibility, of course, lies on CCP for their inadequate handling of the situation from beginning to end. But it must not be forgotten that part of this debacle came to pass because of certain practices the EVE community engaged in, practices that were well-known to CCP, but still left to pass becase CCP might have felt it wasn’t in their competence to do anything about it.

The lesson to extract from this: If a design does not contemplate or regulate the social aspect of the game, the presence, actions and inactions of players, these will happen regardless, evolve with their own shape and could potentially influence the quality of the game as a whole.

What kind of tools do designers have to tackle social aspects of a game from the design itself? More tools than we think. Certainly, the number of things designers can do to tackle this area is much bigger than the will of the same designers to do them. But as far as these tools go, that’s material for part two of this. For now, suffice it to say that the social landscape is basically left untouched by designers, because it’s commonly felt that this area is (or worse, should be) a creature of un-design. Something that ‘just spawns’, inside the game, but separate. The disconnect comes from the fact that players very much do not perceive it that way. For players, the social aspects are almost unequivocally part of the very game they play; designers feel it’s separate, so it’s hardly ever touched.

Part two will come… when it’s done.

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