What Exactly are Social Games?

By February 16, 2010Ideas
Courtesy of Flickr's jef safi pictosophizing

Courtesy of Flickr’s jef safi pictosophizing

I’ve had a few conversations recently with friends–not in the industry–about social games (mainly, we debate the definition of “social game”). After researching the topic and speaking to some folks on our team, I thought that it would be valuable to post an article exploring what I came across. Here are some of those findings.
At first glance, defining a casual social game seems simple (it seemed simple to me): games that are not played using a console like a Wii or an X-Box, games that are simple to figure out in terms of skill-level, games that are free or relatively inexpensive to play and live on Facebook and Myspace. Sound right? Depends on who you ask.
Casual Games
Casual games are defined as online games or video games that have simple rules, so that anyone can play, and they’re typically free to download or free to play online. According to some, a few years ago casual games were considered to be “lightweight games” that were played little, but often.
Facebook Games or “Social Games”
In just a few years, social games have become one of the hottest category of applications on Facebook. Some might say that these Facebook games or social games are just enhanced versions of the casual games I mentioned above. So what’s the difference? They now have a more social element to them. Since the Facebook platform opened up to developers a few years ago, what that allowed game developers to do was insert an element of socialization (or insert social graphs) into casual games (social graphs is a term defined by Facebook to describe their social network). There was an explosion of games in this “new” category and with good reason.  It seems that socializing casual games has made them more attractive and more viral.
Four Definitions of Social Games
So is a social game just a casual game on Facebook or is there more to it than that? Should social games be in a category of their own? Is it that this relatively new genre of games now provides social context to gameplay? Obviously these are concepts that explore a fascinating area and we’ll flesh these out more in a later post. Until then here are a few ideas floating around and worth considering.
1. Nick O’Neill from Social Times proposes that social games have the obvious common features of being multi-player and being based on social platforms.  But for Nick, social games should also have a turn-based system as a feature ( enable users to take turns) and they have to present a social context (being aware of others’ actions).
As I’ve spent time looking at the games on Facebook for this article, I would agree that most of the games I play, for example Friends for Sale! have a strong social context. The entire game is based around actions and conversations that I’ll be having with my close friends, colleagues and even family members. Once these elements are introduced (knowing which friends are worth more, how these friends react to your gifts), this all starts to have more meaning..it impacts the way I play and puts it all into a more meaningful place for me. Nabel Hyatt from GigaOm would agree with me, as according to him social gaming allows us to have fun together but with meaning.
2. A UK-based social game developer proposes that social games are not defined by being on a social network. Rather, they’re built around rewarding players for using social skills effectively in the game. As we’ve explained in a previous post, understanding engaging game mechanics  are very important to building social games, so for me, this definition would make sense.
3. I found a blog post by Jeremy Liew who is a VC that invests in social gaming companies. His take on this issue? He says social gaming is a tactic, not a category at all. (A bit controversial?). I’ll let you digest his post on your own, but essentially, Jeremy argues that only defining social games as being on social networks and having a viral component is a limiting concept.
4. For the purpose of this article, we came up with our own definition of social games:

A social game utilizes your social graph in a meaningful way. It matters that there are other people there, and relating to them in some way is a significant component of the game play. These games often are built using published APIs from social platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Myspace.

What is your definition of a social game? Do you believe that social games deserve their own category and if so why? Contact us or leave a comment.