PAX is nigh, and therefore I expect to lose my ability to make coherent blog updates for a while. Before I stride boldly into the Hynes Convention Center to enjoy my 1.8 feet of personal space, I'd like to frame a question.
Despite my personal GDC takeaways, the big conversation that seems to have come out of the conference is all about "social games", a category that, while nebulous, seems to comprise half "Oh goddammit FarmVille" and forty-nine percent reaction to that. From what I can tell, a cynical-but-not-incorrect definition of "social gaming" is "the viral Skinner boxes acting as venture capitalists' flypaper du jour", and in that light I can't say it really captures my interest. And yet, I find myself thinking a lot about the potential of Facebook-based games, and wishing to challenge the common perception that player-abusive games are somehow intrinsic to the platform.
While I normally avoid dichotomies, I have to admit that I find Jesse Schell's model of "persuaders" versus "fulfillers" attractive and compelling; it strikes me not so much of a good-versus-evil simplification, but rather a Discordian-style Greyface-verus-Eris framing. It casts the games that exist for the shining, pure joy of play against a dark background of games that exist primarily to control and exploit their users. And certainly, where "social gaming" is concerned, that backdrop seems quite vast and dark indeed.
So my question is: Where are the Erisian games of Facebook? I assert that Facebook is ripe for interesting and fulfilling games built specifically for its unique features, and which exist only because the games' authors wish for us to experience them, not because they want to try hypnotizing users with candied progress bars while reaching around for their wallets. Games that people will want to drag their friends into in order to share the joy, and not merely because it makes their eggplants grow faster. More after-school club, less Amway.
I would put forth TradeWars as a memorable example of a game designed to a fit a specific and peculiar digital platform - in this case, single-line dial-up bulletin board systems, as they existed circa 1990. It was essentially a rendered-down digital adaptation of the tabletop RPG Traveller, taking place on a "board" of connected interstellar trade routes. While a multiplayer game, only one person -- the one user currently gumming up the BBS's single incoming phone line -- played at a time. Everyone had an equally limited number of daily turns to take, and they were guaranteed to happen both serially and in total secret from all the other players. Games usually had a set end-condition, at which point the winner received a congratulatory message in the BBS's login screen while the game world reset itself. The result was a compelling competitive experience, and a perfect fit for its medium.
Where are the TradeWarses of Facebook? By which I mean: where are the games whose "wall" posts serve only to further the fun, rather than act a big wet viral-payload sneeze into the collective face of one's friend-list? Where are the games that use Facebook's API to let people quickly assemble teams of friends to compete in clearly defined, finite-scope contests, with no more hooks into revenue streams than one finds when kids gather to play ball in a sandlot?
By one metric, more than one percent of humanity has FarmVille player accounts. If that's the best game that Facebook's enormous-and-growing userbase can play, then to say that they are ill-served is an understatement. It pains me to think that the forces of Greyface run roughshod, completely unchecked, on the world's largest digital social interface.
If such games exist within all the current "social" noise, please tell me -- I would love to learn about them. Because otherwise, if the goddess does not exist in the realm of Facebook, then someone'd best get around to inventing her.
Image: The Sacred Chao, with modification.
 Normally I avoid using past-tense verbs to describe old games, since that implies that they're long gone and unplayable, when that's usually not the case. But I feel compelled to make an exception here, since the entire medium of dial-up BBSes that games like TradeWars required for proper play has long since died away. The modern, web-playable recreations are just that: adaptations of the old ruleset to a new medium, not the original thing itself, now impossible to play as it once was. (I welcome correction, if I am mistaken!)