Casual Games: Social By Nature

Even as more venture capitalists see us “on the verge of a casual games backlash,” members of the media are trumpeting the rise of so-called social games. (That would be, yes, “the new hotness.”) But what are social games? Are they single-player games with group chat stapled on? Or simply any Flash game uploaded to Facebook?

At the recent Social Gaming Summit, social games were defined as products that:

  • Leverage traditional gameplay dynamics;
  • Make interacting with, or competing against, your friends is a core piece of the game itself;
  • Provide players have clear goals, something to strive for, maybe even a meta game to pursue.

Despite what some folks are saying, social games are not new. They’ve been around forever offline (think about Spades or Tic-Tac-Toe) and have been online for well over a decade. Years before people started playing word games asynchronously on Facebook, they were meeting and sometimes even marrying in massively multiplayer matches in Gamesville’s Bingo Zone.

No, social games aren’t new, but something is happening: we’re seeing a confluence of trends. Broadband penetration, the rise of casual gaming online, various methods for opening up your friends lists, the ability monetize your product through video ads and virtual goods — all of these things are coming together to enable games as an industry to grow exponentially.

Of course, every instance of a popular gaming app on Facebook is “casual” in nature, from Ghost Racer to Fluff Friends to Who Has The Biggest Brain. There’s no real surprise there. After all, casual games are perfect for short bursts of activity within a social setting. But does that mean casual games are social by nature, or that all social games must be casual?

Taking Bejeweled and uploading it to Facebook does not make Bejeweled a social game. By the definition above, you’re not interacting or competing with others as a core part of the gameplay. Neither does just adding chat or a high-score leaderboard. And that’s fine; Popcap has nothing to be ashamed of there. They’ve sold 25 million units of Bejeweled without any social gaming aspects whatsoever, thank you very much.

Casual games and social games certainly overlap, but not every casual game is social by nature. You can play Braid on your own just fine. But try to play Friends For Sale on Facebook without any friends and, well, you can’t.

As for all socially oriented games needing to be casual in nature? I think Delora and Rhovan would have something to say about that.

Christopher Cummings, author of The Left Click columns appearing on, is senior product manager for, where thousands of people compete daily in free, massively multiplayer games to win real cash prizes. You can join the Gamesville group on Facebook

This editorial originally appeared at