Social games: not just competition

I’m working on a new gig and this time focusing on deepening engagement using gaming strategies and the like. Every time I go down this road it strikes me just how much about social games has very little to do with competition and competitiveness.

I can’t help but wonder if perhaps it’s our culture that emphasizes competition — as a form of narrative, story, and entertainment. And as a type of interaction, a kind of situation, a type of event, a form of news, a reason for action, heroism, meeting a challenge.

If it’s the case that we are so immersed in competitive cultural experiences, from Wall street to Hell’s kitchen, then surely “competition” is a pretty meaningless term. We would have to admit that there are so many variations in what constitutes competition that competitiveness itself is probably not the best explanation for what makes competitions interesting.

Perhaps competition is the “Westerner’s” version of the Easterner’s “luck.” Perhaps it’s something akin to uncertainty and chance, with a bit of destiny, but destiny as a personal and individual (hence “Western”) challenge. A kind of coming into Self and overcoming odds, thus “in one’s control” and a calling to which a person can be made accountable and for which his/her rewards reflect effort and action. Not the cosmic and religious destinies to which people were subject in pre-capitalist times.

I don’t think competition and competitiveness explain anything really, when it comes to forms of entertainment, media, stories, and whatnot that are “competitive” in nature. I think it’s all in the details — the rules, codes of conduct, specific skills, type of gaming/activity (personal challenges vs tracking/scoring vs social vs collaborative etc), individual and social rankings, and so much more that we find the operative distinctions.

All of them, if the meta myth of competition is indeed a disenchanted form of “luck/chance,” then relate to how we might control outcomes. These based then on mastery, skill, strategy, tactics, deceptions, generosity, and so many other aspects of game rules and game play. It’s not really competition that explains the genre, but the use of techniques designed to result in expected outcomes — and interventions along the way that confound player progress.

I think to view these kinds of practices as examples of competition and competitiveness might just be to miss the boat. To conflate too many differences into something that seems to explain but doesn’t.


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