Richard Bartle: “Social games aren’t social”

Richard Bartle: "Social games aren't social"

Richard Bartle: "Social games aren't social"

Richard Bartle, co-creator of the first virtual world, MUD, a multiplayer RPG played over ARPAnet from its release in 1978 (read our Making Of MUD article), is known for speaking his mind, but he hasn’t previously been particularly vocal about gaming’s current hot ticket, social games.

But at Barcelona’s Gamelab conference he finally chose to let it all out. “The big revelation about social games is that they’re not actually social,” he said. “Strictly speaking, they are, but people don’t use the term strictly. They call them social games simply because they run on a social-media platform. What we like to call ‘social games’ are basically solo games with a veneer of interpersonal contact.”

“There is an argument that social games are not only not social, they’re not games either,” he added. “Because they lack gameplay.”

So why are they so popular? “For the player, the social aspect adds validity. For the developer, it adds virality.” And why do people play them? “In a word, rewards,” he said.

Bartle argued that social games share similarities with gambling because of mechanisms that promote addictive behaviour, but social games mostly lack the associated adrenaline rush of gambling.

But since humans are excellent pattern-matchers and data-processors, if they repeat things over and over, they will notice and become bored. And this means, he said, that the extrinsic rewards of social games only have value as long as players agree that they have value. “When players cease to value them, the whole system collapses.”

It leads, he argued, to situations in which players say to themselves, “This game is boring. I keep doing the same things and the only result is that I make more work for myself.” And then to worse ones: “This new game I thought was different is the same as the earlier game I found boring.”

“From this, we can deduce that whatever today’s CityVille players play five years from now, for most of them it will not be CityVille, nor anything like CityVille.” Why? Players can and will intuitively learn when they’re being fed extrinsic rewards that aren’t particularly valuable, Bartle said.

“People who began reading with The Very Hungry Caterpillar don’t want to read More Very Hungry Caterpillar or The Even Hungrier Butterfly. But the chances are they will want to read more books.”

So what will they be playing? “Perhaps social games can merely create basic gamer literacy in people who are non-gamers and turn them into people who seek out games with actual gameplay,” Bartle said, echoing that long-held hope for social games as an entry to a richer world of play.

Not that social games’ design and values necessarily match those of more traditional games. “Social games objectify people: you don’t value the social interaction as much as what value you can mine out of your fellow player.” Though some players are fine with games in which losers can pay money to become winners, the harder-core the players, the more unsustainable this becomes. Cosmetic items are acceptable but ones that impact on fairness will be viewed as unacceptable. Just look to the ongoing furore in Eve Online around the introduction of premium items and the idea of buying ammunition and other advantage-enhancing items.

But! “Before you get excited that 100 million gamers – ones who’ve been converted from fledgling social gamers – will want to play your triple-A FPS in 2016, it’s not the case,” Bartle warned. “Gamers will inevitably fragment as they identify the genres and style of games that they enjoy playing.”

“To pick up earlier metaphor, just because numerous people have learned to read with Very Hungry Caterpillar, some will go on to read War and Peace while the majority will opt for other popular, less artful mainstream authors.” Yes, that means Dan Brown, Jeffrey Archer, et al.

So, what will CityVille players be playing in five years’ time? Well, according to Bartle:

  • Some will still be playing CityVille
  • Some will play next game in the –Ville series.
  • Most will be playing casual-level games from a variety of sub-genres, but these games will have strong gameplay.
  • Other players will graduate to games that so-called “gamers” play (they may even self-identify as gamers)
  • A few will move on to playing sophisticated, thinking-person games
  • A tiny percentage will go on to create their own game forms

So social gaming will lead, Bartle says, to two results: today’s social gamers will be playing the same sorts of games as the rest of the gaming population, and there will be 100 million or more players around.