8 people sit around a table, glaring at each other. Knowing that someone’s not going to get back up again.
The Godfather sits calmly, fingers wrapped around the pistol in his hand.
Everyone is silent. Guitar music drifts in from outside. A child laughs.
“You.” The Godfather says. A single word shaped like a dagger, pinning the target to their chair.
They slowly reach beneath the table, their cheek twitches. A smile?
The Godfather’s right-hand man dives across the table, his hands entwined to form a gun as he screams, “BANG!”
Everyone laughs, relaxes, moves on.
What is Social Gaming?
Social Gaming is a lost term. One that’s been abducted by Facebook games to mean growing virtual crops, clashing clans and fighting off zombies with foliage. But, for one genre of boardgames, it feels apt. More than the ‘Party Game’ label slapped across box lids, feeling vapid and quick. While not an inaccurate name, it’s one that makes these games sound so much like a quick cash-in. No, Social Games are the Board Games where we can’t depend on dice rolls or card draw for our victory but instead have to depend on ourselves. Social Games are the group games, the ones that require little explanation and are generally the more the merrier, catering for anywhere from 8-38 players. Where most boardgames have set actions, certain specific things you can do to interact with the game, Social Games allows you to use your creativity and charisma to influence the game. To put it simply, it’s any game where you can talk your way to victory.
All on the same page? Excellent. Now to tell you why they matter.
“I ain’t got time to read.”
First off, they’re accessible. All of the complexity of a social game lies within human communication, which is something I hope we all do every day. Whether reading body language, writing texts or even just talking we’re all engaging in transmitting information from one person to another. The best social games play off of this, slipping into the cracks in the english language and asking you to communicate in unusual or twisted ways. Mysterium asks someone to communicate solely in warped dreamscape pictures, whereas Spyfall is reliant on all but one person being in the know and talking secretly around them. Even the most complicated Social Games will have a gamesmaster, an experienced player who can guide the other players through each stage of the game. To most ‘non-gamers’ I’m far more likely to suggest a round or two of Codenames or Funemployed than all-nighters Android or Twilight Imperium. Plus, there’s fewer small pieces, so you’re less likely to lose track of/eat things you shouldn’t.
Interview with a (Salsa) Vampire
The ease of learning to play means that Social Games are like salves for awkward situations. I’m a sucker for chicken dippers and tortilla crisps, which means I’ll go to any party that has a free buffet and then loiter in the corner like a salsa vampire. Usually, if not enough people know each other, someone will suggest a game, maybe Cards against Humanity or…ugh…Charades. Social gaming adds structure to social interaction, rather than feigning interest in what someone does for a living or asking whether the little chef on the M11 still serves garlic mayo, you engage in an activity that you can all invest in and get to know people while you do so. It’s an icebreaker activity. Even outside of an event like a party, in a game where there may be more experienced players, new people in Social Games are a fantastic novelty, an unknown quantity rather than a liability you need to explain all the rules to. Social gaming is easier to pick up & play than a board game and requires less time than a roleplaying session, bridging the gap neatly between the two.
You win or you die.
In wargaming you’re (hopefully!) a tactical mastermind, in Dungeons & Dragons you’re a plucky adventurer, in Chinatown a landlord. Most games with even a hint of theme ask you to take on a role and accomplish a task that anyone in that role would want to accomplish. In social gaming the player roles take on a much larger, well, role. Many Social Games like Dead of Winter or Battlestar Galactica are co-operative games that operate with a traitor mechanic, one or more person whose interests are antithetical to the rest of the group. Others, like Two Rooms and a BOOM! have hidden roles, obfuscating allies and enemies and muddying the choice of who to trust. This is, again, the play on communication, the manipulation of information and puzzling the truths from the lies. There’s a deep, dark appeal in being the Varys or Iago of a game, with the power to destroy someones credibility with just a few words and plotting the downfall of everyone who opposes you. There’s a reason we don’t do this in real life of course, as we enjoy having friends and being trusted as a moral human being rather than a dangerous, psychopathic meglomaniac, but within the realm of a social gaming, this behaviour is accepted, even encouraged. Why? Because it’s just a game.
And that is why Social Gaming really matters. Because it doesn’t matter.
At the end of the game, everything resets. The victim of the Werewolf mauling gets back up. Your friend forgives you for betraying them and screaming “TRAITOR!!” in their face to hide your own disloyalty. I’ve turned to a girlfriend’s father and asked him “Did you raise trustworthy children?” and wasn’t immediately thrown out, (Him and both his children were traitors.) Like a book or a film, you choose how much you want to interact with it and once it’s over it’s finished. The whole idea of Social Gaming is to create a structured, safe space where the consequences of your actions, the events of the game, play no further part in your life. You can try things that you never would in a normal social setting, like avoiding questions to the point of farce or making jokes that you’d never make ordinarily, but because the beginning and end of a Social Game is clearly defined, you aren’t defined by the game. It’s escapism. A way of play-acting, like you did as a kid. A way to meet new people, spend time with old friends and then ruthlessly destroy them. Because you can!