Now, now, don't look like that- it's just a GAME!

I hate to say it, my dear friends, but I've been having a lot of writers block lately.  Most of it is literal blockage, because my daughter (who just turned 3 in mid-June) is developing skills like nobody's business.  Only a few weeks ago, she was still mostly in diapers and largely computer illiterate.  Now she's almost 100% potty trained (we do pull-ups over her underwear at night to minimize messes in the case of an accident), using the "pincer grip" to hold crayons (where she used to just manhandle them and flail around on coloring books with them), and she's using our newly purchased iPad every day to do a plethora of phonics and word games that have increased her vocabulary and speech abilities by leaps and bounds.  Needless to say, she's leveling up into a proper little human being!

You know how much time resource management games like the SIMS, or Pikman or Age of Empires take?  Imagine that time a hundred when you you are raising a kid.  It's gotten to the point where I start thinking it would be fun to play one of those games and I try playing the first level before I just close it out and delete it off my iPhone because it's too much like what I have to do in my REAL LIFE, and gaming (at least for me) is supposed to help me to unwind and relax after a day of doing all that stuff!

Being an adult, and especially a parent, is basically like EXTREME RESOURCE MANAGEMENT on EXTRA HARD MODE.  It is not for the weak of spirit.  And the worst thing?  You can't really skip any of the hard parts by spending extra money- it always ends up coming to bite you in the butt later on.



Today I want to talk about social gaming- but specifically the sort of social gaming that you're probably constantly encountering in games that your Great Aunt Matilda keeps sending you requests for, regardless of the fact that you last spoke to Great Aunt Matilda when you were five years old and she insisted on pinching your cheeks until they turned red with pain and you still remember how much you hated it.  Yeah, you know what I'm talking about- pretty much any game that has the following logo:

"Don't you want to play with me? DONCHA?! DONCHA?!"

Whether it's "Mafia Wars" or "Words with Friends"- social gaming through sites like Facebook are really commonplace.  But most people I know who initially do start playing them burn out pretty quickly.  And this is for one primary reason:

Social games are awkwardly designed for in-browser computer games if you are even barely computer literate.

It's one thing if you just do one thing on your computer, but let's face it, most of us computer savvy folk are multi-taskers.  We've got several tabs open to our news site, a shopping page, our social networking page, that funny YouTube video your friend just linked you to (you know, the one with the cat doing that funny thing), email inbox and probably a chat program like Skype or AIM.  And most plug-in games, especially ones linked to social networking sites, require you to JUST FOCUS ON THEM.  A lot of them have annoying pop-ups that you constantly have to navigate, or ads that blare in your face to buy crap you don't care about.  In general, it's just a big hassle.

But there IS an upside:

The SmartPhone- Does What It Says On Tin

The saving grace of most social games is through smartphone applications.  Not only can you bypass the annoying ads by paying a small fee for ad-free versions (if you want), but the games are much easier to play with a touch screen interface.  I don't know about you, but I let many a Words With Friends game stagnate for weeks because dragging those little blocks around on the screen with my mouse was seriously killing my wrist.  And I didn't want to have to sit there and pause what I was doing on my computer and stop multitasking just to figure out a word.  What started out as a fun diversion became a grueling obligation....and it was worse because my actual friends would send me messages like, "Where are you?" and "Hurry up!"- it just took the game out of the game, if you know what I mean.

The nice thing about applications on a smartphone (at least for me) is that I can still link it to my Facebook account (and therefore play with actual people that I actually know, which is a lot of fun), but I don't have to pause all the stuff I'm doing on my computer- my iPhone does that for me now (in fact, I just took a 30 second break to catch up on all of my WWF games on my iPhone as I was typing this very sentence!).  It's simply GENIUS!

Of course, it's not all fun and games....because that would be too easy, now wouldn't it?

"Uh...It's normal if your only daily interaction with your sister is how many times you've killed her in Mafia Wars, right?"

One of the biggest downsides to social games, especially games that used to be reserved for the Dreaded Family Board Game Night, is that most social games actually encourage the OPPOSITE of socialization.  Sure, there are chat options, but it's not that often that we drop a line to our friend in the game.  With consoles that have headsets, you're more likely to have conversation, but unfortunately most of it degrades into adolescent poo-flinging pretty quickly unless you're playing with friends, and then it turns into haute couture poo-flinging, because, ya know, you and your friends are classy-like.

There is a huge difference in how we socialize when someone is in the room with us and we are directly interacting.  Even if my husband and I are sitting in the same room looking at our phones and playing a game with one another via phone, it's still going to be much different than putting a board on the table, getting out some tasty snacks and drinks, and making an EVENING of the game.  You see, the way we've "evolved" social gaming is still a lot more impersonal than true SOCIALIZING.  There's a warmth and a camaraderie that comes with sitting next to your friends or family members around a table and digging into a game of "Clue" or "Scrabble."  

So when it comes right down to it, this is a situation where technology has outpaced social construction- our senses of family fun or enjoyment in a traditional game (or even just people playing Super Mario side by side with controllers instead of through online co-op) come from a long tradition of creating an "event" around the activity in question.  It's no different with games on smartphones.  With portable devices, we are less tethered to a big computer set-up and we can reconnect with the more "social' aspect of social gaming.  The question really is, do we want to, if it means having to deal with Aunt Matilda and her cheek-pinching fingers?

Social Gaming- Fun Diversion or FAMILY DESTROYING ISOLATION? You decide!

Of course, my points above don't take into consideration the fact that as a culture, we're more fragmented than ever.  With most adults working full time and kids with a ton of after-school activities (not to mention ramped-up schoolwork/homework/testing) it's no wonder that it's hard for most overextended families and individuals to find time that everyone has free.  It's even more widespread with families who have to move all over the country, or people going off to college or getting a new job away from their hometowns.  We just don't see our families and friends as much as past generations because everyone is mobile to a much greater degree.  In the past, this meant waiting for the annual holiday letter from your second cousins or your aunt way out in the middle of nowhere, and maybe the odd phone call or two (but only if you got a special deal on a long-distance phone card) when something really momentous happened.  But now we have so many ways to communicate, we're often at a loss of words.  From Facebook updates to emails, we can pretty much cover the bases on what is going on in our lives and others can easily see what we're doing.  

But gaming provides a fun diversion that you can enjoy with another person- and that's where the beauty of social gaming comes in.  Sure, you might not hang out with your cousin in Texas all that much, but both of you can have fun playing a simple back and forth game of Words with Friends without too much trouble.  Plus, when you meet up on one of the rare occasions where the family is together, you can talk about that funny word you played last Wednesday or what not.  It can be a fun way to keep connections with people you won't be seeing or interacting with on a regular basis due to geographical or time constraint reasons, and that's pretty cool.

But, of course, there's always too much of a good thing, and sometimes that can lead to stagnation in relationships.  After all, if your only link to your elementary school soccer buddy is playing a game on Facebook from time to time, it's not going to be enough to carry the friendship for long.

I guess what I'm trying to say here is- make sure to game responsibly- don't use it as the linchpin in your relationships with people, but instead as a tool in your friendship arsenal. 

Which brings me back to- OH RIGHT- FUN!

So it's totally ok if you're a hardcore gamer and don't like social gaming (seriously, don't worry- it's just your personal preference so rock on).  However, if you DO like social gaming, you're going to want to check out this new game (especially on iPhone, because it works really well on there).  The name of the game is called "Matching with Friends."  I just recently decided to try it because all my Words With Friends games were up to date and I figured why the heck not?  Basically, it's a game that involves a lot of pretty colors, multiple ways to make buttloads of points (yes, buttloads), and the sound/gameplay package is quite addictive.  The other nice thing is that so few people are currently playing the game that there are not all that many annoying ads on the free version (just in case you like free things- you like free things, right?).  Most of them are actually hints for the game and stuff.  

The basic idea of the game is that you have a grid board where you can place colored blocks that are set in lines of three.  There are various colors available and the color your name is in at the top is your "bonus color" (if you match colors that match the color of your name-which changes each game- you get extra points).  Just like in Words With Friends, you have to switch around blocks to make groups that net you the highest amount of points (luckily, there's a place up at the top that gives you an estimate of how many points a particular set of moves will get you, so you can strategize that way).  You can also swap out block lines if you have coins (which you can earn for free, by the way, so it's not just sketchy pay-hawking behavior), and there are bombs and other "line clearing" items you can earn and purchase with in-game coins.  There are also stars that stick around on the board and stand for "wild cards" and can be matched with any color for bonus points.

So far, I've been having a blast making interesting matches and watching the colored boxes pop and make cool noises (yes, I'm aware that I'm sounding like what a cat would write if a cat wrote blog posts, but so what?  PRETTY LIGHTS AND SOUNDS! *purrs*), and I'm catching onto the different strategies that you can employ to make your game the most lucrative.

So, if you're looking for a new game to play, this one is interesting and fun- if you want to play against me, you can search for my username: Oni no Tenshi

I'm always happy to play with the awesome people on GIO! :)

Watch out- if you spend too much time looking at a screen, your face will stick that way....

So in closing, I think it's a lot to do with balance and moderation.  Playing social games can be fun when you're using a computer or smartphone (or console, to those of you who love a good round of multiplayer), with the caveat that most of your friends are not just disembodied words or voices flittering over the ethernet cables and wireless access points.  Each of them (and ourselves as well) are individual human beings with as many facets and interesting qualities as there are stars in the sky.  To reduce all of that down to a few "lol" messages when you get away with playing the word "cocky" just seems like a waste of an otherwise perfectly good friendship.  But as for Aunt Matilda?  At least you're on the other end of an internet connection, where even the pinchiest fingers can't reach you!


So, what do you think about the current role of social gaming in our society?  How does it compare to the "good old days" of board games and a more "party" atmosphere?  

Do you think that we can create new "traditions" to make social gaming more personable, or is it doomed to be something that people do while ignoring each other in the same room?

And finally, what is your favorite game to be "social" with?  Do you still invite your friends over to play, or are you more of a "lone gamer"?