(This is not a tight essay. It's flabby. You don't need to read it.)
Roll the Bones has been talking about a book I cannot seem to find. It looks very boring, but the blogger is chugging through it and dissecting it. Lotsa good stuff. You can find a recent post here.
Social play is on the forefront of many designer's minds, and it's certainly something I could stand to know more about. As the world becomes more connected, social play is probably the most effective play model we have to use.
Right now, what we do with social play in our best-selling games (like, say, World of Warcraft) is assign roles by giving specific people specific abilities. Their interactions with the world and each other determine what they can attempt to do and what kind of people are likely to choose which kind of roles.
The problem is a lack of change. I'm a huge fan of change: without a continually evolving set of patterns, a game is going to be boring.
Some games address this by allowing "out of game" socialization. For example, making a tribe would quickly produce tribe politics. However, this is painfully removed from the game. Although it is possible to tie them back together - a tribe charges a 10% tithe but also sells weapons to members at cost, for example - this is going out of their way to work inside the bounds of a game which is built to resist this kind of clumping. (It breaks the game dynamics, so developers try to limit the actual use of large teams of people.)
Some games address this by having no set paths. These games, like The Sims Online and Second Life, allow you to be whoever you want to be. They do have in-game progression, almost universally in the form of cold, hard cash, but even someone who is broke can be anyone, from the most stunning model to the most brilliant computer hacker. In a kind of prop-supported freeform environment, they manufacture their relationships on the fly.
This comes with the innate problem of boredom. You'll tend to stagnate in this kind of environment, and it's relatively rare for a player to be the kind of person who continually searches for new relationships. Plus, in these environments you can't easily change 'personas' while retaining the other player's investments in you.
Let's compare this to how kids play. I'm speaking from experience, watching my young cousins (<10) play with each other. I've watched them play with each other for about three years now, and it has slowly evolved.
They play an amorphous, ever-changing freeform "game", frequently bounded by rules such as "You can't see me! I'm invisible!" and "Oh, I have a Pokeball!" Their obsessions have changed - Pokemon is thankfully fading from their view for a more generic set of fantasies - but the rules remain pretty much the same.
Side note: whoever made Pokeman, you need to DIE. I have never seen any other cartoon which causes kids to scream the same word OVER AND OVER AND OVER. So, thank you. Let me pipe the sound of a million kids eight and under repeatedly screaming "Pikachu!" as loud as they can while throwing stuff at each other.
Okay, got that out of my system. Back to children at play.
The children will take up roles eagerly. In most of the situations I've seen, there is a dominant child and one or more submissive children. The dominant child is the one who determines the setting ("Okay, we're in a secret lab..." (no kidding, they're that kind of kids...)) and the maximum bounds ("You can't be Pikachu!", usually in response to another child's role choice). The dominant child also tends to solve conflict by giving himself or herself more powers or by suddenly changing roles. The submissive kids tend to work within their roles to solve or present conflicts. This is almost certainly because whenever the submissive kid tries to alter his role to give himself a sizeable advantage, the dominant child shouts him or her down. Wow, the dominant child is a jerk!
I'm sure this varies from situation to situation. I can imagine situations where two dominant children play together, but unless some kind of "trading victories" thing was in place, I think it would mostly cause fights. The older child seems to be dominant in all the play I've seen (under the age of ten).
The roles children assume are directly influenced by the roles they perceive. The powers the played roles have are pretty much restricted to the powers the original roles have. Although there is often some alterations for playability, this seems mostly true, especially at younger ages. For example, if they're playing Pokemon, they'll assume the role of a given character or animal and restrict their capabilities to those which the cartoon role might actually perform.
As the children get older, they gain an ability to use scenarios rather than direct roles. For example, whereas before they might play specific Pokemon, now they might play games in which they pretend to be new Pokemon, or several characters combined. Similarly, they might invent a world which is "like" something, then create roles for themselves within that world. The world is often extremely loose, like "I'm a cop, you're a robber."
The problem is, as people get over the age of ten, they all want to be the dominant one. Video games are extremely popular because they let everyone who plays be a dominant player. Children, continually exposed to an older sibling who establishes dominance, will tend to be submissive without much struggle... but once they reach a certain age, they start to buck this submission.
Perhaps it's just an American trait - I have no way of knowing - but the end result is that the majority of the First-Language-English world wishes it was the dominant player.
Is there any way to set up a game so that this can take place? Sure! Games already do it. You are good at a particular thing. You can be dominant there. By stabalizing the game world, the game keeps particularly talented or ornery players from "taking over" and changing the rules as the dominant child does.
But that doesn't seem to really be the best way to do it. There is a kind of immobility in that kind of situation which goes directly against many of our play instincts. Play involves change, and there's no change there.
Also, there is a sizeable target audience which does not seem to be bucking for the top: the SecondLife audience is largely filled with dominant players, but many of them are perfectly happy to simply spend money, have a good time, and explore. This is, in itself, a kind of dominance - like a brewer vs a warrior, they have very different powers but are dominant in their own field.
By restricting the types of interactions to mostly tangental meetings, you can let both people remain dominant. A warrior meets a brewer. The brewer isn't going to want to be a better warrior than the warrior, and the warrior is fine not being a better brewer than the brewer. When two warriors meet, things can get complex. In a statistical game world, one will obviously be better. In a less statistical world, which is better will be a much fuzzier choice.
Is that bad? Well, it can lead to conflict, especially if they are actually competing. In many cases, who is the best warrior has nothing to do with stats, but who can harvest experience points and loot best.
These complexities aside, it isn't really BAD. It adds tension to the game. If you want tension, you can add this kind of challenge. If you don't want tension, back off.
But... the universe is flat in this kind of situation. "I'm the warrior of the team!" is nice, but after a while, it gets kind of stuffy. You want to expand.
You don't want better fuggin' stats, you want a better ROLE. You want to go from free-range warrior to, say, a knight serving a king. Then up the rank until you are the head knight. Get a land grant. Become an earl. Etc, etc.
Each step is a proof of power and a change in role. Each also comes with a requisite change in play style, and if that play style interacts poorly, it could easily cause quite an upsetting lack of balance.
Can a game be created which has all the good elements - all the change, all the growth, all the dominance - without any of the bad elements - stagnation, irritation, and excessive conflict?
Hm. I think so, but I'd love to hear from everyone else before I post any ideas.