Of small and large form social games and gamification

I have been meaning to write further about social games and the gamification of social media for a while. Some recent binging over on Empire Avenue lit the fire. I want to outline a few points, not in great depth yet, but with enough to put some stakes in the ground. I want to distinguish between socializing games, and gamifying social. The small form socializes games; the large form gamifies social.

Rules of the game

Let’s start with games… What are games? Games are rules. Rules that organize the allocation and use of resources, for example. Rules that govern the actions of players. As well as what those actions mean — for example, what they count for. But rules, also, that organize sequencing of actions over time.

Within the rules that define a game are dependencies. If this, then that. And so on. I know this is vastly oversimplifying the matter, but it’s to get to the crux of the matter: a set of rules provides generic, universal, and global constraints on actions, seriality, and outcomes. In other words, regardless of the particular individuals who play the game, the ruies are the same, the game is the same, and the outcomes are essentially the same.

Rules are transformative. They suspend reality and enable a fiction. A structured and organized fiction that allows some kinds of action but not others. And which, by the effect of constraints, enables some kinds of actions and outcomes (but not others).

The beauty of rules is in this reorganization and transformation of reality, such that a new reality can be shared and experienced by participants — and with enough stability and coherence that it endures.

Now, rules are not all what games are. In fact participants will be largely unaware of many of the rules required to organize a good game. By this I don’t mean rules as in chess or checkers alone, but the rules that undergird such experiences as Foursquare badging, investing on EmpireAvenue, or what have you. Reason being that the rues required for successful participation by people need not all be explicit and known, if they are properly articulated by design, and reflected in the functionality of the “game’s” features and functionalities.

In short, many rules are just “how it goes.” Nobody needs to think of these conventions as rules — expectations will suffice.

Game design: large and small

We now have a model, if you will, of game rules and game design. Rules are consistent — it’s in their consistency that they supply the reliability of the game. Design reflects rules, but can articulate many of them in ways that do not appear to be rule specific. Think context. (In fact, think Royal Weddings: many of the institutional rules in place will appear to viewers, and to those of us on this side of the Atlantic bucket, to be ostentation, pomp, ceremony. Precisely: social rules often appear as tradition.)

In the world of social tools and more specifically, the gamification of social tools, game design often refers to things like Farmville. Sometimes Foursquare badging and mayorships (wars). Farmville is certainly a game. But it’s a small form social game. That is, its use of social in game terms is through embedding social into the game. The game refers to social phenomena — and so social stuff is represented in the game.

In other words, knowing something of society, economics, agriculture, farming and so on makes one a better player. Because it’s in part what the game is about.

Now some say that Foursquare used “game mechanics” to grow user adoption. Perhaps. There’s no telling what in fact contributed more to its adoption. But foursquare is a shallow game then, if it’s a game at all. Making use of game mechanics or game elements without a game itself is shallow. And many have said just as much: after a few months of checkin in and achieving badges you do wake up one sunny day and scratch the rust on the brainpan to ask: What’s the point?

Well, the reason Foursquare got away with claiming to have used game mechanics without actually providing players with a decent game, is that game play provided benefits in and of themselves. Something else — checking in with friends; seeing friends’ checkins; competing with friends, etc — provided enough of an experience that a more naturally social type of game play emerged.

Large form social games

Not the social packed into the plots in Farmville. Not social in the game. Social as the game. This is large form social gaming: making social itself the fabric of game play. This I personally find more interesting, for a number of reasons. (First being that I’m not a gamer.) I’m not done thinking about these yet, but I’ll put a few out there for starters.

Most importantly, it seems to me, is that in large form social games, game play relies less on the direct “entertainment” value of the game play itself (angry birds, etc are fun!). Instead, game play leverages player know how. And in good large form games (EmpireAvenue, whether you think it’s pointless or not, is well done), this know how permits a great number of game play strategies and tactics. Skills and competencies come from the player’s own wit and experience; talents; friend networks; handling and communication skills; creativity; social media know how. And so on. There is a great deal of the social reality of social media at play in a game like Empire Avenue. That’s what makes it more than it is.

We might say that in large form social games, both entertainment and production value may be exchanged for social invention and spontaneity. You give up the charm of design to instead flatter the player. Less game play is achieved by the traditional elements and materials of design, in other words; more is achieved by well-crafted, structured, and scripted manipulations of social realities and know-hows.

Game play — this is what’s interesting in large form social games. It’s necessary in talking about social games, or games of any kind for that matter, to distinguish between the rules of the game, and playing the game. The rules of the game are generic and stable, no matter who plays. Game play, on the other hand, is individual and specific. Game play is the event of the game; performances by players realize and actualize (enact) the rules and scripts uniquely. This holds for all forms of codified performance (from musical compositions to menus).

Game play is greater in large form social games. Not only because the game design is itself less strict, less designed, if you will. Not only because players can provide some of the game’s rules because they know the social themes and recognize how to act “as if” they were real (EmpireAvenue requires some know how of stocks and markets). Not only because players are playing with actual friends and real reputations and other social media sites connected to game play in fact. Game play is greater because it is so undetermined. The more about a game that is designed, the more has been “determined.” Large form social gaming leaves much of the game up to players.

What this means is that the design of these kinds of social games requires a bit more thinking about user experiences. And about social outcomes. For the play is achieved not on the basis of levels, points, and leaderboards alone. It’s achieved on the basis of on-going “play” (which might seem quite real to some, depending on the depth of their social media addictions and habits). Want to start a newsletter of stock recommendations? Do it. Want to start a trading Index? Do it. Write to your shareholders? Re-invest when friends reciprocate? Shout out with personality? Acquire and accumulate? Spend actual money to get ahead? Tweet and Facebook the world?

All these and so many more may be game play moves, tactics, and strategies. And what’s beautiful about the social games that gamify social reality is that there is no telling which may work, for success is a qualitative outcome in the real world. It’s not just points. It’s the intangibles, the passing, fleeting, lasting ephemera of the everyday. What matters lies on the margins of the leaderboard, where social currencies are measured in pounds of flesh, as debts, credits, obligations, favors, promises, disappointments, jealousies and all the other good stuff that compels us to be social.

So this is how I see the development of social gaming, and the gamification of social media (and more). Small form games will offer tightly designed and articulated experiences where the game play value owes more to the beauty and charm of great design. (Yeah that includes shoot em ups in six-dimensions, or whatever comes after 3D.) Brands get visibility in here. Not much, however in terms of loyalty or depth of course — just real estate with a twist.

Large form social games, however, open up the possibilities. As some would have it, for brands and for people. And why not. Theoretically, it works, as long as the fiction created by the game accommodates brand presence as well as people presence. The stock market does. Many other themes would, too.

There will be more coming. I wanted to make a couple observations about rules and games, about game rules vs game play, and about small and large forms of social. We know more about how to do small form: how to represent social themes and how to functionalize social interactions and transactions, relationships, etc inside a game. We know less about how to gamify social reality, how to use a player’s actual social resources, more or less mediated, and more or less “valuable,” for game play. If reality tv is any indication of what stirs the mainstream heart, this could all get ugly quick. In the meantime, however, I say “Game on!”


If you’re playing EmpireAvenue, and you thought this was worth the read, I’m Gravity7 and at the time of this writing I’m a bargain at 35 eaves. :-)

Related post: I just killed a social game mechanic

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