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Think Big. Move Fast.

As I’ve spent more time looking at the games on Facebook, I’ve been trying to detangle the difference between a social game and a game on a social network. In response to my post on the top developers of Facebook games one commenter asked:

1. Andrew – February 13, 2008[Edit]

I’m all for the development of games on the Facebook Platform, and can even see the value and revenue model working…..but does it really need to be branded ‘Social Gaming’? The idea of playing multiplayer games isn’t exactly new, and even on a web model, Yahoo and MSN Games have existed for years….

Something about this didn’t sit right with me. Scrabulous feels like a social game to me, qualitatively different from multiplayer games on the web. But what is it that makes Scrabulous on Facebook a social game, but Chess at Pogo simply a multiplayer game? I think the difference is that social context has an impact on the game play and enjoyment.

Playing Scrabulous against my wife puts the game into context in a way that playing with a stranger that I met in the Yahoo games lobby simply doesn’t have. If I’m losing against a stranger, I might just abandon the game – not an option against my wife. If I’m taking too long to move, I’ll hear about it from my wife in a way that will cause me to play- not true for a stranger. The bragging rights on the win will be more meaningful and last much longer when I’m playing my wife. And finally, the act of playing itself has the subtext “I’m thinking of you” that is absent when playing against a stranger, where the game is the only concern.

That being said, many of the games on Facebook lack this social context. Warbook and Texas Hold’em, their success notwithstanding, are more like multiplayer games that happen to sit on top of a social networks – the social context is not a key element to the game itself.

One game that has strong social context is Parking Wars. Ian Bogost has a great discussion of the social context of Parking Wars over at Gamasutra:

In Parking Wars, each player gets a street with several spaces as well as a handful of cars, which come in different colors. Play involves virtually parking these cars on the streets of one’s Facebook friends. Each car earns money by remaining parked on the street over time, but the player can only cash out a car’s value by moving it to another space. Players level up at specific dollar figures, earning new cars as they do so.

Some spaces have special rules, like “red cars only,” or “no parking allowed.” It’s possible to park illegally in these spaces, but if their owners catch you they can choose to issue a ticket, which tows the player from the space and forfeits the money earned to the space’s owner.

parking wars screenshot

When possible, it’s best to park legally. However, in practice this isn’t easy, since many players vie for the limited resources of their friends’ collective parking lots, just like we do with our coworkers at the office. Moreover, very occasionally the signs on spaces change, so no one’s guaranteed to be safe.

Playing Parking Wars is an exercise in predicting friends’ schedules. A colleague in Europe is likely to be sleeping during the evening in the States, and thus his street might offer safe haven at that hour.

And just as some meter-maids don’t get around to patrolling real streets, so some players of Parking Wars don’t get around to patrolling their virtual one. Of course, such players might just be busy, or they might even be baiting their colleagues so that they can later issue a whirlwind of unexpected tickets.

The social context – knowing which of your friends are diligent about ticketing and which are not, and who might be too busy (or sleepy!) to be ticketing at a particular time, are key elements of the gameplay.

MindJolt, Jetman and Diveman are all games that use the “challenge” dynamic as their social context to drive repeat play.

I’m looking forward to seeing more games involving explicit social context get launched over time. What games do readers think have social context as part of their gameplay, thereby making them social games?