The first vertical to “go social,” is games. What that means is that the experience has been reoriented around people, and with Facebook’s social graph as a backbone for interaction.
The advent of “social gaming” has taken us by storm. Companies like Playfish and Playdom are being auctioned off to the highest bidders—Electronic Arts and Disney respectively—and Zynga’s valuation is somewhere north of a billion dollars. The scale of the Facebook platform has provided savvy developers with access to hundreds of millions of users, and enabled them to soak up billions of minutes in game-play. But while “social” gaming is interactive, it has not yet become “social” in direction, or focused on broader causes.
There exists enormous potential to create social games, or “SocialSquared” games. Such games would not just broadcast supported causes to friends, utilizing news feed, but would effectively tie the virtual gaming world with real world, mission-driven achievement. Some of those ideas were outlined in Marcia Stepanek’s July 12th SSIR transcript with Games for Change chairman Alan Gershenfeld, entitled “Game Theory” . And here are some more.
New games could be structured as virtual worlds that would mirror real worlds. In-game credit spent to build a home, store, or school could translate to the purchase of real-world building supplies to bring the project to fruition. Teams of people could be cohered through game mechanics, interactivity, and competition, framing in-game incentive structures around external project-driven goals. Furthermore, new games could offer concept teaching in addition to virtual-to-real project finance. For example, a virtual world could incorporate game mechanics and feedback mechanisms based on human development indicators, and in-game success metrics could be communicated based on literacy, technology penetration, or infant mortality rates. Such games would have entertainment as a requisite component, but could concurrently introduce development concepts through in-game feedback. For example, in-game feedback for success based on human development indicators might read, “Invest in labor, capital, or technology to increase output,” rather than, “your crops are withering.” The “Help” button might thereafter explain a Cobb Douglas function, or how to increase output.
Or new games could be created to leverage the scale of Facebook Platform to systematically build viral applications that would attempt to cohere billions of minutes of monthly game play into the crowd-sourced accomplishment of mission-driven initiatives. For example, divisible development tasks, potentially slum mapping, crisis mapping, translation, local knowledge input, human rights violation reporting and geo-coding, polling to gauge political interest, could be packaged as a Facebook application or game, syndicated trans-nationally. The in-game tasks, and leveling, would accord with the implicit or explicit goal of commons based peer production, or cohering disparate engagement to obtain aggregate outputs.
The creative possibilities are limitless, but the engineering barriers also sufficiently high.
There are other ways of bringing SocialSquared gaming to fruition, for example, by leveraging existing games as distribution channels to sell mission-driven virtual goods. Such linking is not unprecedented, and groups such as Zynga have attempted to tie in-game virtual seed sales with donations to Haitian relief efforts. Similarly, Jambool and Kiva.org formerly had an arrangement to donate small denominations to developing world entrepreneurs based upon the attainment of specific in-game spending thresholds. Such examples, however, are surprisingly rare, which begs the question “why?”
In sum, the incentives are sufficiently aligned, but the pieces have yet to be assembled. For example, non-profits and international organizations need access to scale to address global issues. Facebook Platform offers such access to scale. New game development requires burdensome marketing and user acquisition challenges, but existing games present tremendous distribution channels, for access to massive social communities. Concurrently, game developers struggle to attain user “discovery,” and are looking to differentiate their product in an increasingly saturated gaming environment. While some subscribe to Facebook as a procrastination destination, there is no reason why it should not also become the premier portal through which to make a difference. Such potential for brand lift and positive press provides them with motive to support such endeavors.
So the question then becomes “how?” What are the ways that such simple processes&mdsh;such as fostering partnerships between large-scale game developers with the ability to sell virtual goods at scale and non-profits in need of access to scale—could be institutionalized? What are the relevant levers and incentives necessary to change developer and non-profit behavior, and frame some aspects of gaming around commons based peer production and donation?
For governments, international organizations, non-governmental organizations, and non-profits, Facebook offers more than a second homepage. The Facebook platform offers a portal through which an enterprising developer could source billions of minutes of game play, bundle messaging and problem solving with groundbreaking scale and precision. The potential for partnership development between game developers and non-profits, and for Facebook to capitalize on this trend to institutionalize the process for brand lift, is ripe.
Sufficient technology exists, divisible problems abound, platform offers scale, games offer potential for sticky, established distribution channels, and as yet, no one is building SocialSquared games. SocialSquared games, if done well, could be tremendously powerful.