Industry answers: “What is a social game?”
To toss my tiny hat into the game, my answer would be any game that encourages meaningful social interaction within the game’s mechanics and dynamics, more so if the main dynamic of the game relies on meaningful social interaction. To that end, a couch session of multiplayer streetfighter IV would fit the bill; (just as the random player selector of arcades) so would dungeoning and raiding in WoW, a co-op game of Borderlands, a round of Munchkin and Bridge. These are games (or sections of games) that ultimately rely on meaningfully interacting with other players to get the best out of the game. Farmville and Cityville don’t count. There’s no meaningful interaction beyond treating your friend’s list like a resource.
I think a better question to ask is what games fulfil our social need?
A lot of time, the definition of the current crop of social games boils down to casual games where we play on social media networks. The term did derive from the type of games typically seen on Facebook, while the buzzword social media was being bandied around. It seems games on these social media just borrowed the terminology without really applying the meaning of the word social. I don’t think the limited interaction afforded by the majority of facebook games count as social. At best, the make use of the social interaction of facebook itself, rather than bake it into the gameplay.
Games fulfil a certain entertainment need, or perhaps an activity need. We play them because they’re a good use of our time, we don’t feel like we’re wasting it by playing games. Whether this is through the experience of something new, the sense of reward that a game confers, (realistically or falsely) or because it allows us to interact with others of like-minded interest. The latter point is the most important for me, seeing as how the majority of my closest friends came from gaming, and gaming is still a conversational touchstone or activity that I can use to get to know a stranger better.
I’m not sure where social games fall into this. I don’t know of anyone who talks about farmville, or cityville outside of playing it besides industry types. I do know of people who talk about awesome moments in Call of Duty or Starcraft whether they self identify as gamers or not. I know guys who discuss in-depth detail about football manager, while shying from being labelled as hardcore gamers. The games are conduit while these people exercise a certain basic human need, the need to socialize; to communicate with out fellow man. To just shoot the breeze and feel like someone is listening and actually cares about what we’re saying.
The industry likes to debate about the social aspect of the games that’s currently in vogue,* (read: getting really popular) because, well, they’re trying to figure out how to capitalize on this. That’s great, but I think we’re approaching this backwards. Maybe we should stop looking at the games first and wondering whether they are social games or not. Maybe we can start looking to people and society and wondering what sort of games we can create that would fulfill certain social needs.