Can social games get real?

“We are best served here by taking the general model of the game as a point of orientation. This will also explain to us why it is that sports programmes, especially where replays are concerned, count more as entertainment than as news. A game, too, is a kind of doubling of reality, where the reality perceived as the game is separated off from normal reality without having to negate the latter.” Niklas Luhmann

Interesting thoughts here from one of my favorite media theorists, Niklas Luhmann. A minor and somewhat obvious point perhaps: games are a form of entertainment, and both forms involve a doubling of reality.

Now apply this to social media, and social games played using social sites and networks. (Disclosure: I play the more social social games, and few of the gamey social games.)  These social games are thin on entertainment value. They sacrifice immersion within a game experience for connectedness across a player’s real online identities and activities.

For this, social games built around checkins, posts, comments, likes, and so on become compelling because they gamify a player’s personal reality. Not because they immerse the player in the reality of a game. It is the player’s own (and very real) world that is gamified.

These kinds of social games (I call them large form social games) extend the player’s ego and online reputation — regardless of whether they do so accurately or not. Ego extension figures into the player’s motivation: game play sustains the player’s view of self, as it is represented by a score, position, badges, etc; and insofar as it changes.

How is this related to Luhmann’s observation? Well, most online games connect to “actual” or “real” online realities. Game activity can be tweeted, posted to facebook, and so on. The “doubling of reality” Luhmann attributes to media-based entertainment becomes “news” within the actual reality of online social media.

This tells us that the distinction between “fictional” and “real” experiences is already blurred online. It is easy to pass “real” news into online commentary, and game-like activities back into “real” online habits. The medium used is the same, and for this, the distinction between one experience and the other owes to context and practice, not to representation and form.

Social media, which have leveraged gamification with limited success, must then confront the matter of their relevance within “real” daily realities. How well, and using what services, do online activities stick in “real” life? Where time, image, message, and event are bound to laws of physical reality. And more importantly, where the ego does not encounter representations of itself but is constrained by immediacy?

Do social games — with their incentives, badges, and leaderboards, ever extend into daily life? Can they only be played online? Which is the more likely future scenario: gamification of more of daily life; or a whithering interest in playing games online?


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