Social in games: from where we came

Thinking about social in games seems to be like trying to cover an entire planet with one’s own hands. From what we know, games are a growing environment where social is spread in a form of a lot of different channels, techniques, frameworks and scenarios, and bringing into action a brand new set of powerful features to foster the interaction of players between themselves and the network they build as a community.

By the time virtual games have been existing, different forms of social play (embedded in the game) and sociability in games (outsourced but fostered by the games) have appeared and co-existed, diminished or promoted, exploited or forgotten; but shaped the entire community of players into what they are now. In this article of the Social in Games series, I’ll try to approach to the evolution of social into the most remarkable scenarios which have made a turning point in the videogames world.

First of all, I’ll try to get out as fast as possible from the early (really early) times of social in play inside videogames. Arcades (or what we should be thinking as the first multiplayer live installments) where the frame where co-located play started to grow and where specific space-related forms of social play grew.  Arcades were a place for players to gather and spend their spare time playing with or without another one. The social play within the games, was only available to co-op/pvp at the same time and in the very same console or game.

Though other constructions of social play emerged, such as parallel play (where players play together in the same space but different games) or playing as a performance (where a player was witnessed by other ones in the act of playing), the lack of back channels for users due to technology was unable to offer higher or deeper interactions. But as well a niche grew around this specific scenario, and those samples of sociability are far from being treated as trivial, their evolutions is what right now we’re seeing in the social media installment of the extended outsourced sociability in games, in which I will focus later.

I  You have to fight for your right to LAN-party

I remember the first time I got into the community play or play-a-large. The experience I had was overcoming the small tournaments of Counter Strike on a local cybercafé (which aim was to initially offer the joy of the 2.0 world to newcomers, but everybody got a clue about that it turned out to be a 5% of the customers; almost everyone else was willing, one way or another, to test himself playing with 15+ friends or foes shooting themselves on the same maps all over again). The thing about it was clear: it was the first time such amount of people had a place to gather and play together in the same virtual scene in a co-located way.

But it was impressive, and it was the moment what it felt magic. How could I be portrayed as an avatar and virtually fight against all other players spread across the café, that actually were trying to behave as a band on the go? That was social; there was a small community of 15 people, two teams, progressive skills, same approach, same goals. Later, once their net-time ended, they discussed about their performance, provided the sociability of the scenario: I grabbed the flag here, you should have tossed the grenade further, etc; the first lovely marks of game slang were taken and spread, there was an ecosystem growing up, with a preferred space and a distinctive behavior on it, which separated it from the rest of other ones known so far. Social capital (defined by Aki Järvinen as the value that intangibly we give to our social networks) was growing considerably, though it only belonged to an small group of players which composed the network.

Lan party

Good ol’ gamers lost a little part of themselves on cybercafés or basements

By the time LAN party and the first installments of widespread online multiplayer emerged, everybody was allowed to get into it, but sadly not everybody was made to be on it and hold its ground if the average skills were way higher than the ones a newcomer could achieve in a day.

An incredible part of the newborn communities, was the self-regulatory nature of them, capable to incredibly create rules from outside the code of the game. Rules such as forbidden the use of specific items, creating specific roles for players and son on, were the ones in charge to make the first steps into the organic regulation of communities, an impressive fact taken from real worlds up to virtual conventions.

But, on the bright side, people managed to create teams, to seize dates on when to play, there were channels, tips, specialized players; the early days of internet for peasants, where It wasn’t as democratic  as it turned or claims to be (perhaps by the huge cost of maintenance and installation, or perhaps some sort of local skepticism about its usefulness), forged the gamer community into an small but solid amalgam of people sharing things in common and their ludic spare time, rather than spending it elsewhere.

II  Multiplayer goes Massive

Later a fresh formula appeared and reshaped the knowing genre of community play, of alter (virtual) ego and of social gaming. MMOs drive the flood and fostered the change to something as dense as a world: rules, economy, social interactions, status generation, player taxonomies, types of play, genre theories revisited, immersion, etc. There was a fertile playground that assembled more to a virtualization of a universe rather than a game itself, and it made sure their features were up to cause the greatest stickiness and loyalty to players as never seen before.

New players were brought up to the scene, the role the player took inside such phenomena  was studied in several ways, most of them tackling how deep social play within the game was able to be developed, and how the character construction will help to dive such adoption of this new genre where all had a place to co-exist. Of course, immersion played its perfect role and the beauty of the universe was enough powerful to ensure players could have a preliminary sense of reality towards it. The Role Play genre behaved as the perfect partner for such way of playing, and World of Warcraft, Blizzard’s milestone, set the turning point of all the industry towards the golden years of MMORPGs.

In terms of social, inside MMOs people weren’t asked to LAN party, but the system successfully suggested that socializing was an option embedded on the game, and that sooner or later it was the way to go. We could not participate alongside the social stream of the game (creating the so called massive single player game dilemma), but we couldn’t do anything possible to avoid it; everyone was able to find an alive virtualization of another player every time they logged in and, if such thing did not happened, it caused a feeling of solitude, making the player to miss presence.


Massive got massive, and MMOs set the groudn for loads of interactions to grow

There was the time to start calling, as Stenros et al of SoPlay states in The Many Faces of Sociability and Social Play in Games  , the neutral tendency towards other players, causing to treat them as tokens (equal to non-player character): players where in the world to give an inhabited feeling, contributing to the need of co-presence, creating the alone together play.

The physical gathering and playing feature was replaced for the remote side (though still some arrangements were made, and players still teamed up physically to take on quests or dungeons during long play sessions), and everyone was able to connect to thousands of players with the same preferences and goals. There were guilds, associations, status management, and loyalties. Things hardly to be thought and seen: a guild master leading his fellows to victory, a bank manager taking into account the virtual savings of the overall team, there were taxonomies of players based on their specific behaviors during their playtime sessions, there were psychologies, human behavior, even brain hacks. We talked about addiction, about real roleplaying, about extended experiences. If earlier this was an ecosystem, later it evolved into a world.

If there was a primeval slang on the early days of CS and cybercafés, it turned out to be the top of the iceberg for what it was going to happen, and evolve. By the time, not playing any MMO (if having an internet connection and a lusory attitude towards videogames) was hardly unseen. There was progression, social status management (based on a bunch of juicy features which fostered the way we are towards the community), there were epic storylines, meaningful rewards, a feeling of freedom, an impressive art development, large scale environments with thousands of things to do, secrets, multi-player only missions(or raids), player versus player systems, ranks and leaderboards, achievements: it was the perfect cocktail and it looked like the last instance of what games had to be.

As any trend, MMOs suddenly felt the winds of change and renewal, seeking new ways to compensate the massive (paradoxically) exile of players to another genres. The strong competition between developers collapsed the marked where loyalty was still strong enough to divide the market into very few titles. The monetization model of subscriptions started to feel unconsistent and some other business models coming first from the asian market, such as free to play, appeared to bring back the loss of such community, willing to seek for something new by avoiding the risk of a monetary commitment. Though their loss, MMOs are still making its way by seeking new features, frameworks and formulas to keep social play renewed and updated, and each year new installments are launched willing to refresh the player’s ambition towards massive social play.

 III The community and outsourced sociability

One of the greatest relevant parts of the sociability produced by games is the massive amount of external channels created from such games and the community that frequents them. Though they act as something outsourced, they created a turning point that help to drive the notion of social interactivity beyond games and something impossible to not avoid when it comes to new titles .  Such extraludic communication has been a proof on how much the extended effect of games is able to cause people to establish social interactions between users, to create content and to share it.

From forums, to live streams of people playing games, e-sports, message boards, specific game social networks, in-game chats; everything is connected and available to create an incredible set of different actions for those who deserve something beyond the act of playing. It doesn’t matter if you’re asking for a cheat or a tip, or just to find people joking around while streaming a game, everything from whitnessing to commenting causes a direct effect into socialbilty and shapes the environment in which we actually exists.


Steam, counted towards as the nº1 videogames social network, is the living proof of outsourced interactivity from games

Youtube, G4tv, Machinima, Steam, Origin, PlayStation Network, Xbox Live, IGN, among others, are the live examples of how big these channels are growing bigger and better, with more witnesses and creators of game-related content that tends to spread largely the vision of connecting with others that actually share the same affinities, and to drive such ambitions into the action of social play.

This set of features is so important, that mostly all design takes one way or another one of this externalized interactions; whether there is forums, vlogs, tournaments, live talks, embedded networks, trade/auction systems, etc. The construction of identities through these channels, the status management, the direct chat messaging, the physical and virtual  outsourced gathering from communities: everything is a tool available for those who want something beyond the game itself but that actually has a lot to do to it, mostly beneficial and that ends up directly into playing it or interacting somehow with such system.

 IV Facebook and social games

The age of metrics and asynchronous play arrived within the social boom of Facebook Games, more often called social games. A wide set of games, under the label of social, started to achieve an incredible relevance in the gaming environment. Starting with high hopes, many developers switched their agendas into what was going to be a place for everyone to play with each other. Even 2010’s GDC turned out to completely navigate around such theme, taking it as the main scenario for developers to grow.

In terms of virality it was clear: offering the largest social network bring up to the scene loads of future willing to play individuals, connected with other potential users, which bonds together could be enough powerful to grant titles with a display of social features never seen before.

The large set of tools which helped developers to gather real time data, and place them in charts, helped incredibly to manage interactivity and to constantly tune it to get the best profit; we could be watching online stores swapping their prices from one day to another, A/B tests, etc.

social game 1

Did social games really counted towards the way people interacted socially? or every maneuver was to foster outsourced sociability? The discussion has been a popular theme since their boom.

Retention and monetization were the beauty and the beast of the social games’ world, if tackled correctly, both companies and users could see their interests fulfilled, but without control just a diminishing of the conventional conception people had about such genre or phenomena (we talk about scams, continuous offers, spamming alongside Facebook walls, etc.), even some developers accepted their behavior in order to get revenues, as Zynga’s ex CEO Mark Pincus said. Such sociability turned out to be outsourced, meaning that all the possible deep interactivity was partially created from outside the game channel. In the game specific Facebook pages there were people asking to be added as a friend to help on progress or obtaining specific rewards, as well there could be seen requests on playing sent in form of messages, some fan pages, specialized blogs, status messages on players’ walls, etc.

Though social interactions where offered through the games, they were far from the expected results of what the network was available to give to the players, and hardly any  sample of elaborated social play was seen. There where loads about the instrumentalization of social relationships and, by the time the -Ville fever was rapidly spread, copied and re-distributed in loads of different titles across the network, Bogost’s Cow Clicker did the same on the critical way, thinking deeper if the aim of such games was really to ask for social, or it was just a conventional nickname for something acting through a social network.

Though the formula still keeps being profitable, it is continuously less efficient than what it seemed a couple of years ago during the prosperity of the model; the migration to mobile platforms (more accessible, capable and dynamic than what Facebook was able to grow), seems to be taking the fast lane and helping to the  building of new genres to new and avanced players willing to play in a more continuous, extended and dense way.

Mobile platforms actually are offering some renewed formulas into the scene, borrowing them from the last decade of social play and bringing back features for casual and hardcore players, applied to both in many different ways. Small and big developers hardly avoid to think about social (outsourced or embedded) inside mobile games, and it is about time to see deeper interactions in the genre.

Some thoughts…

From what we experienced through time, social in videogames is by far a growing phenomena that holds each time a more relevant seat as long as the days go by,  and both technology and users are able to adapt new forms of communication and interactivity. Whether or not we shall be asking for social interaction between players, the wide set and range of features from which to choose is wide enough to ignore them beforehand. In addition, the global player community is constantly demanding for richer and more elaborated ways to create content, share it and to interact within networks embedded or not inside the games’ boundaries.

The 2.0 web, and the social media boom, has helped considerably to foster this innovations and tools. Design now takes into account features that we would never think years before they were enough important to manage, communities play a key role, and multiplayer is so diverse that the rules are even created from outside the code, self-regulated and driven by consensus. 

The power of such relationships is always up to the players, while developers offers the scenario from them to grow and evolve into substantial and meaningful acts that transcends the act of playing, and adds a value achieved by every single player as special and useful as well.  Social is there to be, and their constant evolution will be watched and experienced in a true form of incredible and different forms of expression, giving the players a reason to play within and beyond, to interact and to explore, to do and to be.

By now I’ll keep the future of social and the forthcoming guesses on the next article of the series. Stay in tune!

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