What distinguishes social games from multi-player games?

While explaining the idea behind social gaming, many people act a little confused. “Are social games really that different from multi-player games?”

What makes “social games” different from the multi-player games (that are most often played with strangers) is that the game play experience of social games (especially when played with friends and family) is significantly enhanced and affected by the context of playing in a social network environment. The social context created in social networks allows for significantly new kinds of game-play experiences – enough to create a whole swath of new online gamers.

For example, take Scrabulous. What makes playing Scrabble with friends and family different than playing with strangers? Jeremy Liew describes how the social context affects game play within Scrabulous well:

Playing Scrabulous against my wife puts the game into context in a way that playing with a stranger that I met in the Yahoo games lobby simply doesn’t have. If I’m losing against a stranger, I might just abandon the game – not an option against my wife. If I’m taking too long to move, I’ll hear about it from my wife in a way that will cause me to play- not true for a stranger. The bragging rights on the win will be more meaningful and last much longer when I’m playing my wife. And finally, the act of playing itself has the subtext “I’m thinking of you” that is absent when playing against a stranger, where the game is the only concern.

Another example of how game play is significantly affected by the social context is Parking Wars. In Parking Wars, your personal knowledge of your friends’ real-world schedules allows you to surprise your friends and succeed in the game. As Ian Bogost, founder of Persuasive Games, notes on Gamasutra,

Playing Parking Wars is an exercise in predicting friends’ schedules. A colleague in Europe is likely to be sleeping during the evening in the States, and thus his street might offer safe haven at that hour.

And just as some meter-maids don’t get around to patrolling real streets, so some players of Parking Wars don’t get around to patrolling their virtual one. Of course, such players might just be busy, or they might even be baiting their colleagues so that they can later issue a whirlwind of unexpected tickets.

Receiving a ticket in Parking Wars isn’t a prank on the level of spreading dog poo on the underside of a buddy’s car door handle. Rather, the combination of latent, ongoing play and occasional “gotchas” makes plays in Parking Wars feel like pranks.

The game weaves its way into the player’s ordinary use of Facebook, rather than requiring complete immersion. This latency creates a credible context for surprises, just as the flow of the work day sets the stage for switched desk drawers or shoe polish-smeared telephone receivers.

Gotchas come in at least two forms: in giving or receiving a ticket (which pops up as a big, yellow overlay across the screen), and in the silent knowledge of having taken advantage of another player’s inattention.

Many games give players the opportunity to trick, fool, or swindle an opponent out of resources — just recall the pleasure of seeing an opponent land on a particularly valuable property in Monopoly. But in Parking Wars, players aren’t always expecting it. By setting up an ordinary social environment for disruption, Parking Wars becomes a medium for pranks, a kind of video game whoopie cushion.

What do you think distinguishes social games from multi-player games? Are they really that different?