Casual Connect: Art and Emotion in Social Games

Dan Fiden, GM of North America for EA-Playfish, gave a great talk today about the emotion and art within social games, and afterwards we had a chance to chat about the importance of art within the social and casual games industries.  Standing on the third floor balcony overlooking the entire conference, we discussed the importance of putting art and emotion into games, and how the modern day casual and social games industries are doing just that.  I thought I’d post a few thoughts I had after our conversation.

The social games boom has been coming on for years, but the last 12 months have really been their defining surge.  With FarmVille becoming a household name, there is a whole audience of hundreds of millions of new players of games, and we’ve only hit the tip of the iceberg.  That said, is there art in social games?

Taking the literal definition of art as “the creation of beautiful or significant things” can be tricky because beauty is hard to quantify.  That said, all that can be shared in an analysis like this is opinion, and for me we haven’t truly seen the beauty of gameplay in social games, but we’re beginning to.  I tend to look at Playdom CFO Christa Quarles’ talk at this year’s Social Gaming Summit as an example of interactive art beginning to develop.  She discussed one of the most unique features in their new Social City game, and explained how the spontaneity and unpredictability elicited a strong emotion in people.  Certainly we tend to believe that a “beautiful” thing is something that evokes emotion in us, and by that standard that piece of interactive gameplay was a ‘beautiful thing’.

The fact that social games rely heavily on social graphs may sway the issue a bit, because gameplay that involves your family and friends is far more likely to elicit emotional responses but that doesn’t necessarily make it art.  For instance, if you’re at your house and your sister plays a prank on you, everyone will be emotionally affected but (almost) nobody would call that art.  The smudged line between a beautiful thing that elicits an emotional response and a beautiful social thing that creates an emotional response is probably the border along which true interactive social gaming art lies.

In any case, Dan’s presentation really had the audience thinking about design in a new way.  He stated that when Playfish makes a decision, they’re making it with the feeling of the player in mind.  This is something that is quite different than some other big companies’ approach, where you create the game, and start turning the dial to see what generates maximum engagement.  That said, the ‘dial’ approach may just as well be generating emotion and art in players, but the approach is just a bit less ‘artistic’ in its nature.  I look more at that distinction in a future post about technical vs. emotional design of games

Image courtesy of FlashMagazine