Ralph Koster’s comprehensive presentation about social game mechanics at the most recent Game Developers Conference includes some pithy and striking definitions of social concepts and how they relate to games:
* “Identity: Means of displaying status and role via rivalrous goods.”
* “Gift: “transferring a rivalrous good to another actor to increase their status.”
* “Community is where we play games on you.”
* Mutual improvement is anathema to games
All of these posit a zero-sum, competitive definition of the concept. Of course, competitive and egocentric motivations are mixed in with most social activity. Identity entails self-expression, affiliation with kin and tribe, and expression of status. Gifts involve generosity, understanding of the other, reciprocity, and status for giver and recipient.
One of my favorite Rabbinic tales is about the necessity of selfish and competitive motives in human life. But defining these concepts as the zero-sum aspect is rather shocking. And it’s not even true of all games. Players of World of Warcraft talk about the games as means of self-expression, play with identity, and affiliate with a tribe. Folk who are more involved in game cultures may be able to come up with examples of gift practices that aren’t just about rank. Sesbastian Deterding notes Pandemic as an example of a cooperative game where players work together to find cures to diseases.
I’m not much of a traditional “gamer”, and the zero-sum orientation is part of the reason. The gamelike experience I’ve been involved with designing lately is the Drive Less Challenge, which invokes competitive, goal-oriented, and cooperative motivations to help people reconsider their habits of driving alone in a car.
A non-zero-sum orientation toward social experience may be new to gaming culture. In a writeup from a recent Game Developer conference, a Zynga developer talked about discovering alternatives to zero-sum conflict.
One of the things I had to come around on was the importance of zero-sum conflict. Coming from strategy games as I did, I was very focused on the competitive aspect of games. I was aware of players wanting to build or explore, but I always saw that as serving a conflict-driven goal. I have learned that, for many people, the conflict-driven nature of traditional games is a major detraction. I’m not saying that overall conflict is bad or that you can’t have conflict-driven action in social games – both of these things are very much not the case. What I am saying is that there are a lot of players out there, far more than I understood, that really want a game experience that isn’t driven by the need to compete against another person.
As game techniques are applied to a broad range of activities, will the broader understandings of social design be used to expand the social attributes of games, or will the zero-sum social definitions from game culture be applied to more aspects of social life?