Most games that we play are about winning. People may emphasize personal achievement, team play or the spirit of the game, but talk to anyone whose had a losing streak or a winning streak and they’ll tell you, it feels good to be a winner.
Most games set-up clear competitive goals in which quantifiable outcomes determine a winner. What keeps the games going are the series of competitions which are often nested inside each other. Take baseball. The first unit of competition is the single pitch. The batter either wins, by hitting the ball or loses by striking. Several pitches make up the at bat game to get an out. Several outs make up an inning, nine innings make up a game, all the games make up the season. At each stage, there is a clear winner.
This is also true in the world of gaming. You kill the monster, you clear the sector, you finish the level, you destroy the all powerful final monster. Many games, such as World of Warcraft, have collaboration features where you can help friends, create teams, go on missions, etc. These collaboration features have give rise to social interactions and endless possabilities of play. But the core game mechanics are still built on winning – developing the most powerful character that can defeat anything.
A true social game is not about team play or playing poker with a few friends online. The best social games are based on rules that generate social interactions which emphasize creativity, support and endless play. Games without winners or endings.
Yes, social games may have competition and may have ways of rewarding winners, but the center of play is the social interaction. You take care of my pet or visit my restaurant, you help out both yourself and me. Games that have social rules at their center invite reciprocity. And reciprocity is never finished, each action requires a reaction that tightens the bond to the other player and the gaming environment.
Winning is not at the center of a social game. The competition and rules are a sideline to creativity and fun. And as along as the game never ends, everyone really can be a winner.