An updated look at social gaming
Since I last wrote about "social gaming", my term for gaming as a medium for socialization (as opposed to gaming for the sake of gaming), my opinions on the topic have changed quite a bit. For clarification, I am still talking about video gaming, and my goals are still more or less the same: to use video games as a medium or an excuse, really, to bring people together and create social bonds. Video games are already quite successful at doing this- the aim is to make explicit this desired effect and therefore be able to optimize our gaming activities toward this end.
What social situations actually arise when you invite some friends over to "play some video games"? The most interesting scenario occurs when you have a mix of "hardcore" and "casual" gamers. For me, the striking difference between these groups of people is not gaming ability (although the difference is significant) but rather the attitude that they take toward gaming. As I mentioned above, hardcore gamers play the game primarily to play the game. They are concerned with in-game achievement: getting better scores, more kills, higher APM, that sort of thing. Casual gamers primarily see the game as a focus for socialization. The game itself takes more of a background role.
This causes some problems for socialization, of course. Hardcore gamers are often unaware that their competitiveness makes games un-fun for non-competitive players; in fact, competitive games are almost built to be un-fun for poor players. The majority of fun in Halo or Call of Duty comes from getting kills on other players; if you can't do that, running around and dying every few seconds could hardly be considered to be fun. Additionally, gamers who are too focused on the game won't be able to devote mental time to holding conversations (outside the game) or otherwise socializing with the party.
One possible "remedy" to this "problem" is to encourage people to play co-op games instead of purely competitive ones. (It's worth noting that this isn't so much a social problem as it is my problem. I could sidestep the issue entirely by not using video games as a social medium, but I think it's an interesting opportunity and one worthy of study.) My newest example of a co-op game which encourages socialization is Atom Zombie Smasher, a potentially co-op game about (what else?) killing zombies. Look forward to some analysis and anecdotes about playing this game next time.