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On the train Wednesday morning I was reading the most recent issue of Game Informer. As with many industries, game design is embracing social networking functionality. Sony’s vision of the future of gaming is “The connected [gaming] device with dynamic content and active connected communities [and] open standards.”[1]

Finding the popularity of SecondLife hard to resist Sony has created a social networking space called Home. However, it wasn’t Home that caught my interest. What really fascinated me is a game due for release in early 2008 called LittleBigPlanet by Sony and Media Molecule. This is a multi-person (4-player) PS3 game in which players work together to solve physics-based puzzles and compete to collect items. This type of play is squarely placed in the console game arena. Where the game spans new territory is what else a player can do inside the game in addition to the traditional “play.” A player can modify terrain, create the levels, and and there are several intriguing sharing features. Here’s what the game review says:

 “Players can make stickers out of any image file on the PS3 hard drive and slap them on any surface [in the game level]…”
  “Players can publish created levels…and keep track of comments left by other users, play counts, and rankings. If you’d like to check out what other people are making, you’ll be able to search content by user rankings, tag words, and length of time the level had been posted. Users who like each other’s work can also team up on created stages if they choose.”[2]


What makes this application different than other social networking and media sites? I think there are two things working in concert. First, the game is the destination rather than a function being the destination (e.g. sharing photos, keeping a journal, gathering contacts). Second, and most importantly, the online interaction is now focused on shared experience.

Most of the robust social networking sites were developed around a function for sharing a medium or fulfilling a defined task without common focus other than medium (photos, journal entries, video). Topic-specific chat forums I don’t consider to be robust, though they are social networks. More recently robust sites have been created with no specific purpose other than as an online “hang out spot,” such as SecondLife. These imitate some characteristics of games and certainly leverage the 3-D modeling programs developed in the game industry.

Largely, these social networking sites presumed that a first time visitor would come into a social networking situation with little or no online shared experience or that “word of mouth” would bring new users with knowledge of the space but not shared experience. Features or functions were seem to have been built on the presumption that no one has or needs any common ground. The new user figuratively dives into a social space not knowing whether there is anyone out there with a common interest or whether anyone might have an interest in what they want to say or post. This was more true when sites such as MySpace were fledgling than it is now. Currently, most users in the primary social networking demographic already have offline connections that infiltrate online social networks; often they join knowing that they can find offline friends there. However, this doesn’t change the fact that such sites weren’t designed around starting the interaction with a shared experience.

Social networking tools in other sites enable user categorized content, add content, or use customization features and they can drive personalization. The existing site is the destination for some other reason outside of social networking(shopping, information/news). The experience is site-to-visitor with the anonymous traces of what other people have experienced and done.

With LittleBigPlanet the game is the destination and play is the impetus to visit. When the online components are engaged a sense of community will have been established through the shared experience of playing and building the game. How a player manipulates the game and what and how he or she uses the social media features has the potential for dynamic fluidity.

The serious adoption of social networking into the gaming space shouldn’t be a surprise. Some PC and console games have been widening their presence in online and offline mediums.
dot HACK// created by CyberConnect2 and distributed through Bandai is an ongoing series interwoven of PS2 games, anime for television, original animated videos (OAVs), manga, and trading cards. The anime episodes and OAVs hold clues to help you open levels in the game and the game filled in pieces of the story. You needed to engage with all of the delivery to follow the story and if you do so, the whole is much more engaging than just the PS2 game. http://www.dothack.com/game/index.html Outside the game there is a community http://www.blackwings.net/hack/ talking and sharing information about the game.

Sanctuary For All by Stage 3 Media, Inc. presents internet delivered Sci Fi “webisodes.” http://www.sanctuaryforall.com/ The official site hosts and promotes the “social networking services” in the form blogs, forums, and journals. Early on there was discussion of a MMOG game tied into the webisodes content, though at the moment, it appears that the game did not come to fruition.

Eve-Online by CCP|White Wolf, World of Warcraft by Blizzard Entertainment, and EverQuest by Sony have sanctioned announcement and forum spaces such as http://myeve.eve-online.com/ingameboard.asp Their players have a variety of grass-roots communities that range from meet-ups to blogs to LAN game days. The companies have also used their fan base and intellectual property to expand into the CCG and RPG market.

What makes LittleBigPlanet different from other console and online games? With the addition of truly interactive features (you can do more than change your character’s outfit or run to a different server) and social media tools, Media Molecule has transformed a situation that is often a-social or has limited social interaction into a game with potential for lots of social interaction. The communities that have grown around other games, Media Molecule has provided venue for in-game. Players don’t have to seek a community, but they will still build it.

Where LittleBigPlanet could lead opens a myriad of questions for me.
 Where will social networking take online expectations when people have a common interest and shared experience (beyond, “rate your shopping experience” and “look at my photos”)?
 Does the destination and shared experience make the social networking features more attractive and meaningful?
 Will the shared experience keep the network focused and narrow or will tangents grow in the network the way they do in friendly conversation with others who have a common interest.
 Will the game remain about playing through the puzzles and challenges, or will the game become about sharing what you’ve done? Will one dominate? Will there be balance?
 Will the in-game social networking have an impact outside the game world? I think it will. What do you think?