Social games, social actions, and gift economics

EmpireAvenueIt’s possible that every social game is built around a core social action. A social action that forms the basis of individual user experiences, and which scales to produce a social dynamic that is  entertaining, engaging, compelling, and familiar.

If this is the case, then we might ask how social games best iterate on their own design, not only to enhance a core experience, but to extend it also (connect it to other experiences). On empire, this might entail any number of game developments — such as a content feed (rumored to be coming, and to use shares owned in members as a feed filter). But also perhaps activities that might verticalize the many relationships members have enabled by purchasing shares. But I’ll leave speculation aside for now.

Empire is built on a very basic social action. An action so basic it formed the basis of economic and social activity in cultures prior to market capitalism — an action that organizes exchange around social obligation (instead of the equivalence of money). It’s gifting, and the economy first identified by anthropologist Marcel Mauss early last century is the “gift economy.”

Of course, Empire is not a gift economy as such. In fact there are no true gift economies any more, for the gift economy applies to all social relations, especially filial relations. Early gift economies served a purpose — organization of the exchange of people, tokens, food, and more, all by ritual giving and receiving.

The trick to the gift economy is that it’s not as it sounds. Gifts are not acts of generosity. They’re obligations. Gifts create debts, paid back in the form of a return gift. (Mauss noted that “sacrifices” made to gods were not acts of generosity, faith, or devotion either, but in fact attempts to oblige the gods to return the sacrificial gift in the form of plentiful harvests.)

Gifting on Empire takes the form of purchasing shares in another member. This is the core social action. It works so effectively (as anyone in social media knows already), because as an action it solicits return by the law/expectation/norm of reciprocity. I buy you, you buy me.

Purchasing is following, is friending, is re/tweeting. Reciprocity serves the purposes of game play well, obviously, because it’s self-reproducing and ongoing. Like communication (which it is), it is open and unfinished unless rejected. (Players who don’t buy back fail, which also means that game play requires ongoing game play.)

The attribution of a number, or value, to membership in Empire adds purpose to the activity of purchasing shares. Media are quasi-obsessed with numbers and with quantifying value by means of numerical ranking (numbers that are not just numbers, but which are social numbers, for  their value signifies something else: status).

One’s share price on Empire, then, is a reflection of one’s “value,” and this is as powerful a motivator (for better or worse) in social game as there is. The self is scored, the goal of gameplay is a higher score, which is to say, higher perceived status.

Most people see through this pretty quickly, because, like the action of giving, share price and purchasing are self-serving activities. They are worth nothing in an of themselves, because the value “created” is non-exchangeable. Eaves (Empire’s currency) is non-fungible.

But those who continue to play the game recognize this soon enough, and continue for other reasons. Which is in part what makes Empire an interesting social game, and one worth studying. Much of its game play is extrinsic to the game. It involves activities outside the game, or in ways that extend the game– in chats, groups, on twitter, and so on.

All of which demonstrate that when the game’s core actions provide the impetus for participation, but in the context of social participation that is open enough to permit other related activities, players will invent ways to extend the game. This then is game play, not game design, strictly speaking. Because it involves interactions that are not designed by designers, or the game’s inventors. It involves interactions that are fundamentally about playing the game, rather than the design of the game’s rules, organization, and resources.

Most game designers focus on game design, for obvious reasons. Game rules and design are the designers purview, and within the designer’s command and control. But good game play occurs around, sometimes even in spite of, game design.

So the lesson learned, then, is that there is a lot more to a game than its design, and that player interactions around a game demonstrate the ways in which the game’s core social action can be leveraged and extended. Worth taking note. Because a lot of people seem to think that a game design results in game play. In fact the key to social game design rests in core social actions — and their tendencies to connect other, latent, social rites,  rituals, and pastimes.


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