Academic Project Prom Week Points to Problems With Truly Social Social Games

Last Friday at the Inventing the Future of Games symposium hosted by the University of California at Santa Cruz’s Center for Games and Playable Media, students showcased Prom Week, a social simulation game built for Facebook. The game presents some interesting challenges for games that go for deep social integration with Facebook’s social network features.

Prom Week is an experiment in artificial intelligence-based design that builds on the complex network of social interactions between humans confined to the same social group. The game plays out over a series of chapters, each starring a different character, in the school week leading up to prom. Within each chapter, players take the role of a specific character within the high school that has a goal to meet in order to enjoy prom (e.g. “Become Prom King”). Guiding the player through a series of dialog trees, the player can interact with other characters in the school and shape the social landscape. The nerdy character, for example, might break up with his nerdy girlfriend and date the popular girl in order to satisfy the goal of “Dating Popular Girl,” or he might try to make his existing girlfriend popular through social interactions like befriending a bully or making enemies of a science geek.

It sounds like satire and certainly has the potential to be depending on the tone of the written dialog. The unique thing about Prom Week, however, is the game’s ability to remember the complex layers of social interaction between characters throughout the game. For example, while trying to make the nerdy girlfriend popular, the player might try to make her interact with a skater boy character to make friends. The skater boy, however, will remember any bad thing the nerdy girlfriend might’ve said about him to another character by virtue of gossip and then shut her interaction down with a reminder that she’d said bad things about him. Other lifestyle simulation games offer this mechanic, but only in a limited scope. For example, in The Sims 3, the game might register an intense dislike between two characters as a result of the player’s manipulation, but the game itself has no “memory” of why the two characters don’t get along. This distinction is what makes Prom Week more of a “social physics puzzle” than a high school dating simulation.

What makes Prom Week’s integration with Facebook interesting is the complication of an actual social network. Josh McCoy, one of the student developers on the title, explained that his team wasn’t sure how best to implement social features into Prom Week without creating an uncomfortable user experience. For example, the game could use players’ friends lists to find people the player actually went to high school with in real life and then generate actual in-game characters based on those connections; but how much fun would that really be for a user? True, the information about with whom a Facbeook user went to high school is mostly public depending on user settings, but in-game interactions with virtual representations of these people is something McCoy and his team view as private.

For now, the Prom Week team hopes to add in-game achievements and replay functionality to the game during its beta phase. The goal is to get the game live on Facebook by the end of August or in early September in time for the start of the 2011/2012 school year. As the game is an academic research project, it will not use any monetization features. Find out more about the game on UC Santa Cruz’s Center for Games and Playable Media site.