In Swords and Smiles I talked a little about abstraction. Right now, combat is abstracted out, especially in RPGs. These games have very simple combat mechanics: choose "attack", and you'll hit and do damage based on your character, skills, and/or equipment. As interfaces become more complex (Wii) we're seeing this abstraction reduced, the play more openly simulated and interactive.
The question is, can social games use these kinds of abstraction, and can they ride the same wave of unabstraction?
I say "yes". There are lots of ways to abstract out social play. The problem is that when we abstract it, it ends up being very shallow. Imagine an RPG with no levelling or equipment: you simply walk around the map fighting random fights. Click the button, cross your fingers that you'll do more damage than it will. There's not very much interesting about that.
Abstracted social play is the same way. But it can be solved the same way, too: adding in secondary play loops like equipment, levels, plot, etc. It makes just as much sense. What you wear changes how people react to you, and how long you've been doing this sort of thing affects how well you do it.
I can't see any reason why you couldn't make a compelling social game, save one:
Most games have a plot, and a lot of their pull is from that plot. Because the plot isn't affected by the combat, the writers can write pretty much whatever they please. However, in a social game, you'll have to be careful to keep the social play separated from the plot, or you'll end up with a branching plot of DESTRUCTION, impossible to write. That really limits our play options.
However, I think it's still possible. And I have an idea for a game. It involves team-based high school melodrama (or college melodrama, I suppose). I like the idea, but I don't really have the time or energy to write it up. But I'll give you a sample: everyone has confidence and loyalty, but they are opposing. When one goes up, the other goes down, and visa-versa.
Think about it...