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Analysis: 'Socially Awkward' - F***book

Continuing his series on social games, game designer Patrick Dugan argues that Facebook was built on sex, and wonders why the emotions associated with that don't come through in most Facebook games.

Patrick Dugan, Blogger

September 2, 2011

8 Min Read

[Continuing his series on social games, game designer Patrick Dugan argues that Facebook was built on sex, and wonders why the emotions associated with that don't come through in most Facebook games. Here's "Socially Awkward VI."] Time to get down to the basics. Society was founded on a few things other than fear; it was also founded on hunger and lust. Conveniently, you need other people to have sex, like, the proper way, and there are economies of scale involved in bringing in food. So far, so good; what the Lilith could possibly go wrong? Facebook was built on sex; the clumsy data structures that effuse its foundations demand it. Is she single? Would he perhaps be interested in fulfilling my fantasies, and is he occupied with a relationship? Is it complicated? Yes, it is fucking complicated, thanks for asking. Chris Crawford once said that interactivity, but pronounced - inter-act-iVity - is like a conversation. You speak, I listen and think about it, then I speak, then you listen and think about it. Turn-based, Platonic (who's got two thumbs and hates Plato? Socrates) and Vulcanized with rationality. Sex is a better metaphor: it is real-time, it is visceral, it is subtly parametrized, there are binary outcomes, and there are minute textures of performance. It is an unrestricted game, pure play, you can be good at it, but only great at it together. You can avoid losing or you can lose. It is not a game that can be won. It is the fundamental social game that precipitated the existence of all human beings. I've experience the following emotions on Facebook:

  • Jealousy seeing another guy hold my son while I barely had visitation.

  • Jealousy seeing another guy (a director of BI at a publicly traded game company) flirt with my one true love after she deleted my comments and he hijacked the thread.

  • An incredibly awesome blend of mischief and schadenfreude when a girl who wouldn't go to homecoming with me in high school wrote "My Grandmother's Funeral will be held at 3pm this Thursday", and I clicked "Like".

  • This giggly feeling of "oh man, I would love to fuck her so much" with a 19-year-old, periodically over a year, followed by "dude, what are you doing to yourself" as I dragged the mouse cursor to the "Profile" button to get off the page. She contacted me the day after the mother of my daughter broke my heart, letting the dirt bag from item 2 goad her into saying she didn't love me anymore (changed her mind a couple days later). I originally met both young women on the same day at the local game conference. That girl used to be so sweet, but people change ("which girl?" - your inner English teacher marks in red). She later removed me as a Friend.

  • Chummy buddy stuff, mostly inside jokes, occasional funny YouTube videos. All my old friends lost their edge, and text just makes it worse. The guy who got offered a record deal but coked his life apart and wouldn't attend the abortion of the girl (who I was in love with periodically in high school, different one) who spent 10 years following him around the country, and now he's getting married to the girl he met after he finally dumped her. And he lost his ridiculously obscene post-Simpsons humor. I don't know if I'll get an invitation to the wedding.

  • Naches and kvell.

  • Arguments over friend requests and removals and new requests.

  • Fanboy-ism, such as writing Brain Reynolds a heartfelt note and not getting my Friend Request accepted, or writing Steve Meretzsky a semi-snide note about city-sim games and not getting my Friend Request accepted, or writing John Romero a brief and punchy note, and getting my Friend Request accepted! Loot Drop is hiring.

  • Probably at least six or seven instances of beautiful catharsis after looking up and talking with girls that I used to know (like the Elliot Smith song) who once broke my heart, and having a really enlightening conversation fraught with understanding that I don't get in my actual relationships as much, or so I think to myself as I click the other tab and buy that white picket fence with those Facebook Credits. To their credits, they all accepted my Friend Requests.

  • Mind numbing chore-blues when clicking on little stars and wondering why none of the above emotions have ever been tapped, at all - AT ALL - in any Facebook games.

Yeah, yeah, these emotions are powerful, destructive even, and we've made a well-oiled science out of placating people with only the most tame banalities, USDA approved, radiation-levels deemed safe. I've presided over board-room rituals at the top of the pyramid where the spilled blood of the innocent is re-targeted at the local maxima and fed to the hungry mouth of Huitzilopochtli; don't cut my heart out and tell me the solar eclipse is the awning maw of god. But what could result from tapping into something actually at stake between human beings? It works for the US political system, and it's worked for organized religion (please make a counter-argument in the comments that religious wars were not beneficial to the net-entrenchment of religious institutions in general); why can't it work for social games? Considering that Facebook has been an amplifying conduit for the worst kind of pain I've ever felt in my personal life, and also a healing tool for pain I felt mostly before the advent of Facebook, here's how I would build the spreadsheet: You have pain and catharsis effected by interactions between people. These events lie on a probability distribution that becomes more kurtotic as you gain "experience", but the experience isn't quantifiable XP, it's more like skill, so you'd have to transpose a ribbon banner of different skill levels and figure out how quickly people "mature" up through the banner based on post-hoc data. Then you can figure out median net-pain caused by human interactions, and the time-lag between the pain and the catharsis. If the balance is suitably hellish but endearing, like a scantily trusted lover, you can monetize people to decrease the time delay between the two. Am I joking? Facebook should be flooded with games trying to entice people's rawest feelings to motivate a desperate monetization towards finally being loved. But everyone decided the 35+ female demographic was the only one worth selling to, and Facebook policy makes sure everything is nice and G-rated. So the thing Facebook games cater to instead is eating. Everyone is cool with that, right? I'm a natural foods geek, so I do judge people morally for their eating choices (except for myself), but the target audience of 1st-gen social games generally prefers to judge people's sexual choices. And thus games about 3D deformed people waddling into a restaurant and scarfing down plates buffet style have entertained an average total of 15 million people every day for two years. Makes you want to eat your own tongue a little. FarmVille is all about pretending we're all neighbors but without the in-breeding, just growing food. I've designed a baking feature and a custom cake feature, I get it. Hamlet discusses madness with the family clutched around the table. The Last Supper. The party goes quiet, the feast dies down. All throughout history, myth, or literature, eating has been a core social ritual. So sell it, ok. When I ate food, and then later had sex, in a process I like to call "motherfucking life", I created two babies with two women. In between, I had a girlfriend who had a baby already, and I got introduced to her on Facebook. I am... a certified... motherfucker. And one of the most beautiful things about being a motherfucker, is that you get to be the dad of the most amazing people you'll ever meet, and you get to hold them in your arms and stare into their alien faces and when they yawn, you yawn. Friend Request accepted. The reason I went dormant on Facebook is simple: I grew up. When I was an immature vagabond, I thought there was value in aggregating your entire life's relationship history into a gigantic beehive. That reminds me of the time I was stung by 11 hornets. Facebook is fundamentally designed on the idea that people want every social interaction they make to be available to all their friends so they can aggregate mad cool points. Life stops working that way in high school despite the best efforts of Greek organizations to keep the dream alive. I am trying to get my life together and take care of my family, and to that end Facebook is dramatically worse-than-useless. I don't want to be a part of it. If you've got any serious aspirations in your relationships, like providing a good life and having sustainable happiness, you're much better off not participating in your account and relying on email. I like sharing content and getting into discussions with people. From now on I'm going to play that game on Google+. I don't want to play play the jealousy and envy game anymore. After all, I already got a catharsis with every girl I ever had a bad relationship with. Better to quit while you're ahead, before the game consumes you. [You can also read the rest of Dugan's series about Metal Gear Solid 2 predicting Facebook, the industry's Wall Street envy, the joy of vector meme, peripheral visions and dreams, and metrics.]

About the Author(s)

Patrick Dugan


Patrick Dugan believes games about characters and social dynamics are the future of the medium. He is currently prototyping a cutting edge, independent drama game about Irish pagans running up on English paladins. Before this he did QA and Level Design for Play With Fire, an innovative casual title released at the launch of Manifesto Games. He keeps a blog called King Lud IC, detailing the new school of game design.

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