Video Games Intersect Social Networks at D.I.C.E.

By Garnett Lee, Feb 13, 2011 9:00am PST Some of the brightest minds in the video game world discussed the industry's rapidly growing relationship with social media at this year's D.I.C.E. Summit. Mark Cerny, whose career stretches back to designing arcade games in the 80's, broached the subject in broad terms during his talk titled "The End of Death, the Crash of 1982 and Other Topics."

In it, he discussed the challenge of unlearning habits and moving forward in changing times. As an example he cited how even today designers struggle to break free from the artificial requirement that a player die many, many times which is a holdover from arcade games needing to keep players paying the next quarter. He surmised that in similar fashion it will take at least 10, and as many as 20, years for designers to readapt and get socialization right in video games.

While Cerney painted a very broad timeline for change, the discussion on the "Gameplay vs. Gamification" panel the prior day addressed the very first stages of that process currently starting to take place. Jesse Schell, CEO and creative director of Schell Games and author of The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses, and Brian Reynolds, chief game designer at Zynga who prior to Facebook games designed major titles including Civilization II and Alpha Centauri, looked at the rapidly blurring line between full-fledged games and the encroachment of game mechanics in everything we do, now popularly referred to as gamification.

"It's like we're alchemists trying to turn lead into gold and haven't figured out the periodic table yet," said Schell, seemingly in agreement with Cerney's assertion that we have much to learn. At the heart of the matter lies the question of what constitutes a game. The two waxed philosophic on the subject, with Reynolds evoking Aristotle. "He said that happiness is activity in accordance with your purpose, and by purpose I mean the purpose that is wired-in to you by wherever wiring-in comes from. So the fact that we're wired to find patterns in things and try to get better at stuff--to try to throw things and shoot more accurately--and, in fact, to socialize means that activity in accordance with that purpose creates happiness, creates fun; and that's certainly what games are trying to do," Reynolds noted.

Reynolds sees the games Zynga creates as fitting well into that definition. "We try to create an experience that's really fun and really social and then get them [players] to play for it...I design a game and other people figure out what's the right price to charge for the items," he says. And of social games like those he creates he says, "Mostly, you're enjoying the game. Gameplay is designed to create actual pleasure in and of itself. It's gameplay for gameplay's sake that creates our particular entertainment form of hapiness."

The waters get much murkier when it comes to whether using game mechanics constitutes making a game. Schell relates how he fields calls day in and day out from those hoping the addition of a few game ideas will bring them overnight success. He likens the problem with this thinking to that of coming to the conclusion that because chocolate makes ice cream taste great, chocolate could be similarly added to cottage cheese and it would taste better. "You have to find something that resonates with what you're doing and brings out its essence," he says.

Even when the right fit is found, the result remains something other than a game. Airline frequent flier programs came up as an example. Their goal is status; the privilege to move to the front of the line or get a better seat. But for games, Reynolds said, "sure, status is out there as part of socializing but I don't think it's the leading driver of the compulsion in games and in social games." Whatever the priorities of each situation may be, it seems that the influence of social networking on games is destined to continue its growth, and vice versa.

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  • I think Steve Gaynor's quote from The Idle Thumbs Podcast 5 (which was posted right after GDC 2010) bears reposting here (full transcript of the relevant section here:

    Steve: "I almost feel like the games that are the ones I like the most are kind of becoming an endangered species. Single-player immersive games are the main thing that I'm into, but they cost so much, and they have so little inherent connectivity and saleability... if you're not making Facebook games, people are still looking at Facebook integration, and social everything... I tend to play games more the way you read a book; I want to sit down and concentrate on it and have it be a contained thing... It makes me wonder if... the kinds of games that have kind of defined the cutting edge and the most... high-profile gaming experiences for the last 10, 15, 20 years could almost become dinosaurs the way that flight sims, you know, that were really big and expensive have, or..."

    Chris: "I was just gonna say, if you feel like the games you like are endangered, then any game that isn't the most successful within the console arena, those people, including me, have been feeling endangered for a long time; like any remotely complicated strategy game, or tactics-driven thing, or anything basically that isn't a game where you're a guy who runs around, on the kind of high-end PC and console space, those things have been endangered for a long time."

    Jake: "This GDC especially freaked out a lot of people, because of that..."

    Chris: "because of all the... Facebook people were out in full... this was the first GDC year where those people were out in full force with already a proven year of success. Whereas last year a lot of people were talking about that stuff, this is the year where Facebook has 90 million users..."

    Steve: "It's strange to me, because it feels like things that are intentionally single-player, period, just like, no co-op, no competitive, no Twitter or Facebook integration, or anything, are like..."

    Chris: [interrupting, mocking an optimistic marketer] "But you can tell your Twitter friends how far you are in Uncharted 2!!!"

    Steve: "MEOW! ...are like headed towards being a pretty specific niche, you know? Where it's just like, no connectivity, this is a thing you do by yourself, AND you feel like you're in a world experiencing it firsthand."

    Chris: "I agree, and that is the kind of game I play the most overall, and..."

    Steve: "...and it's not like those things aren't still profitable, but I mean you look at games like, for instance, Mass Effect 2 did really well, critically, and I assume in sales, and... I dunno."

    Chris: "That's why you probably don't have much to worry about, because those are still... the people who already enjoy those games aren't going to stop existing, that's my point. There might be lots of OTHER people who don't enjoy those games, who do enjoy Facebook games, but someone who enjoys playing Mass Effect 2 is probably like you, I don't think they're suddenly going to disappear..."