The hardest thing in the world is being something new. Ask any disenfranchised minority who has ever wanted to vote, own property, or marry - from suffragettes in the 19th century to furries in the 21st. The Establishment does not like things that are new, and will hate on them just for existing and daring to carve a new identity.
At LOGIN 2010 this past May, I ran headfirst into the game industry's latest "new." Colleagues - usually virtual, but for this narrow window of time sharing physical space - commented on how they'd observed me playing Facebook games over the past several months. "You're just doing that for research, right?" one asked. "You're not one of those people?"
These were online game developers, and this was a good friend, a compassionate guy with a family and a very reasonable and ethical approach to life and game development. But New Things can make otherwise eminently reasonable people retreat into tribal human shield-banging without even realizing it. What my friend said was echoed by the rest of the gaming community - which, with a blinding level of hypocrisy, has largely turned on social gamers with all of the violent name-calling and apocalypse-hailing usually reserved for the likes of Jack Thompson. Something about these "social" games so terrified gamers and game developers that as a unit they flew from edgy First Amendment defenders to Dr. Phil groupies in ten seconds flat.
Because my approach to game design has always been full immersion, I knew more than ever in that moment that, although I wasn't yet, I needed to become one of "those people" - who knew something that I didn't about the world's most popular new form of gaming.
Help Me Help You
As some of you secretly know already (you're not fooling me - I've seen your level 24 farm), getting pulled into one of these games, at least the first time, is shockingly easy. Which is, of course, the point. Social games reel you in with their accessibility but they keep you with social glue: an advanced generosity system that takes the "player exchange" economy mechanics developed in MMOGs and distills it into a pure hardened crystal of reciprocation.
It's unintuitive to think that games where you actually do not ever directly interact with another person could have a community, but what social games do is generate an asynchronous cloud of persistent community formed by the constant exchange of gifts, tools, and requests sent by other players. It's generosity-driven, but transactional - if I send you a gift, I'm feeling happy because I helped you out (especially if I'm responding to a request you've put out), but I'm also hoping you'll send me something back. And the more I send and receive, the more I plant, the more I return every day (or more than once a day) - the more hardcore my play becomes. Watch a hardcore FarmVille player. They move fluidly and attentively around the tiniest change in mechanics, and play not for some whimsical dollhouse experience but for tight, fast, controlled optimizations, seeking the fastest path to a clear goal, and putting in as much time as it takes to get there.