Zero-sum social

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?

4 thoughts on “Zero-sum social”

  1. this raises the much bigger question of what is collab vs competition — for many games that are competitive are socially collaborative. i sense a false distinction emerging between game play and user experience. competitive games need not be experienced as conflict, and conflict built into game design (limited and scarce resources; mutually exclusive choices) need not result in a user experience that feels conflictual.

    there is, in social economies, a great deal of constructive, pro-social, cooperation even — or possibily especially — in circumstances of constrained actions and limited resources.

  2. There are some interesting cultural dimensions involved in the shared understanding of what a game is and what it means to have gamelike aspects in user experience.

    The traditional gaming culture is self-perceived as competitive, and it shows in the psychological orientation in the Koster deck. There may be non-competitive experiences among the people playing the game, but the game designers may not be focusing on that.

    “Social games” are a fast-growing market, but have traditionally been disdained by game designers, see this post by Sebastian Deterding:

    Meanwhile, the application of gaming principles for purposes other than games is headlined by the application of achievements (points, badges) and competition (ranking, leaderboards). This leaves out some of the critical elements of games (increasing challenge/difficulty, fun goals). Nor does encompass socially collaborative or interactive elements that are even more important in a lot of the realworld interactions that the so-called game dynamics are being applied to.

    The argument much too quickly becomes whether game design principles “can” or “can’t” be used in other user experience. Instead of what aspects of game design, what sort of games, what sorts of experiences.

  3. Three quick notes: One, even mathematical game theory (which is what Koster is building on) is not exclusively about zero-sum games. So I would love to see a take on the issue by someone who looks into these aspects of methametical game theory.

    Two, beware to equate “social games” with “social” – with reason, one of the most often-heard phrases among researchers is “social games aren’t really social”. Usually, they sport only “lateral interaction”, e.g. you being in my network automatically boosts a game stat of mine, or I manipulate a game object of yours (harvest your crops) and vice versa, and are strikingly lacking in all the collaborative game design patterns that exist out there.

    But – three –, oftentimes, the gameplay is but the pretext for socialising around it. So if you’re looking into how games might facilitate socialty, SingStar or Guitar Hero are much better places to start then FarmVille. The sociality of games is less about the gameplay but the larger context it creates.

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