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GDC 2011

A Debate: Are Social Games Legitimate?

Posted by , in Sessions, Summits, Social & Online Games 01 March 2011 - - - - - - · 1,202 views

The "A Debate: Are Social Games Legitimate?" panel opened with moderator Margaret Robertson (Moderator), and then went on to allow each panelist a small amount of time to make an opening statement on their pre-existing opinions on the matter of social games. This started with Ian Bogost, then Daniel James, Nabeel Hyatt, and finished with Curt Bererton. The order of these panelists seemed, intentionally or unintentionally, to take the order of "most negative" to "most positive" feelings towards social games.

Ian "Cow Clicker" Bogost is, in fact, in the house.

Moderator Margaret Robertson opened with a discussion of the panel's title and mused about the use of the word 'legitimate' in the title by saying "[i]nstead of 'legitimate," are these things... "evil?" She then polled the audience on a variety of social game-related questions. All told, the audience of the panel largely consists of people who make social games. When asked who in the audience plays socialgames, a majority raised their hands; when further asked who played these games for fun, a majority of those hands dropped.

Ian Bogost starts talking by illustrating the amount of high fructose corn syrup in a variety of food products (and points out its presence in unexpected foodstuffs like bread). Bogost wonders if Facebook is doing to friendship if what the leading maker of high fructose corn syrup is doing to food: homogenizing them. Bogost then tosses Zynga into the mix, insisting "you can toss any company into this mix but, you know, the colors matched." Bogost asks the point "is this the way we want to bring this infrastructure" to dealing with friends.

Daniel James started his bit by pointing out that this panel is partially for entertainment so the things said should not be thought to completely elucidate the panelists' opinions. He says "it's interesting that games like Farmville can be considered 'virtual world' games." "It's up to all of us to make ethical decisions about how we spend our time" and considering how the output of a creative work will be used by the end-user. James went on to to discuss the validity of making gambling games (slot machines used as reference) and that doing so would evoke a large amount of personal distress if his games relied too heavily on gambling tricks.

"First things, these games are very fun to play... but they're also a lot of fun to make," says Nabeel Hyatt to open up his opening dialogue on the panel. He relays an anecdote about a woman playing Cafe World and getting together with her like-aged and -gendered friends who all get together with their laptops and play Cafe World together while talking. Hyatt then goes on to talk about Brian Reynolds (who is, largely, responsible for FrontierVille at Zynga) who said that social games were the only area that Reynolds could go where he could "be a game designer." He concluded by saying a lot of people are not in social games "for the money, they just want to hone their craft."

The final opening statement came from Curt Bererton who started by calling him and his coworekrs "the indie evil" (for becoming a small company that makes social games). "You could say we're using metrics to make high-fructose slot machines," but what you end up with is "actual social value and an excuse to talk to [your family] more often." He also adds that since they started playing social games, "I actually talk to my family more." Bererton ends with an anecdote that he could send his mom a "birthday cupcake" in a social game and that's "pretty special."

The panelists then start open discussion with ways to get people talking to their friends and working with other people they know in these social games. Hyatt insists that while games that have strong social ties are effective in getting people to play and talk to one another, that they are actually "more insidious" (he goes on to cite a World of Warcraft raid group getting people into the game for a raid).

On the topic of user metrics, Hyatt says that "some companies use metrics and [it's essentially] pumping out sugar" but that only works for so long. He continues by saying "as evil as you can be with metrics, [...] they can also be used for good things too. [Metrics] also allow you to make better games." Bogost retorts "it doesn't matter how fun these kinds of games are to play, but is it the kind of fun we want" to have. Bererton responds to Bogost by saying that "in the broader strokes of things, these are all a waste of time," and in the broader scheme of things, he'd rather feel like it's a waste of time made better with friends. Bogost says the social game platform "is built on a foundation that I think is troublesome."

"Metrics are a measurement of people's behavior," Hyatt says and continues that metrics get "the game designer out of the ivory tower." Metrics on social games allow a direct feedback loop rather than a designer working on something for three-four years and espousing their opinions before they get any direct feedback from the audience.

Bogost says that the existing social game infrastructure "feels bad." Bererton responds to him that there is a lot of real social value on Facebook now. "I don't have a problem with making money [...] I just think the question is how we do so," Bogost says.

Margaret Robertson asks: "Should social games have ethics policies." "I think a lot of people do have unwritten ethics policies," Bererton responds, "and sometime they look at a feature and say 'I don't think we should be putting this out here.'" Hyatt brings out Jesper Juul's quote "social games are the video games of video games" (in the sense they are the games fighting for legitimacy in an industry fighting for legitimacy). Bogost says "we need not love every form of games, we need to be allowed to ask questions about the kind of games people want to make."

Bererton thinks the "hardcore industry" looks at social games as "not games." He goes on to say "You can't just say all modern art sucks just because you like impressionism." The discussion then goes to the point that if you can't ask questions and argue the validity of a certain type of game, then "what's the point?"

Hyatt is quick to defend the platform by saying that "there are reams of anecdotal evidence that social games are adding real value to people's lives."

"So... So long as social games are doing more good than evil, it's okay that they're doing evil?" Robertson quips in response before ending the discussion and opening the panel to questions.