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bang! you're a dork
the slippery slope of social gaming
by joe procopio (@jproco)
pop culture

Let me start out by making it very clear that this is not a column about video games, or computer games, or strategy games, or games which require graph paper and a pointy hat. You do not have to be a geek to participate, in fact, it’s not even going to help. I’m talking to you, Joe Six Pack and Susie Snuggie, the normal everyday people who maybe have a Facebook account and an iPhone.

At some point in the next two weeks to six months, you’re going to find out something dark and ugly about one of your friends. This is probably going to be a friend you don’t see every day and haven’t phoned or emailed in a while. You’re going to find out that this friend is involved in something you had no idea floated their boat. You’ll be surfing the World Wide Web or twitting, and you’ll discover that this friend has knocked over a liquor store, or kidnapped their best friend’s girlfriend, or purchased an eighteen-story landmark downtown.

You’ll believe, for just a split second because you’re a relatively normal person, that this actually happened. Then you’ll think that your friend is just messing around with some elaborate scavenger hunt for some civic group that they belong to, and you’ll laugh at the joke, even though you really don’t get it. You’ll make a mental note to call them, because finding out what this whole crazy thing is about is just the icebreaker you need to get over the fact that you feel kind of bad that you haven’t been in touch.

However, before you get the chance to make the call you were never actually going to make once you jotted it down on the sticky, you’ll be shocked by another obscene factoid involving the same friend. Now they may have upped to ante to murder, running for mayor of Ubertown, or have a dozen or so people, some of whom you might even know, locked in their basement.

This is your time to act.

Every single one of these oddball updates or messages or tweets will be accompanied by an option to ignore.

By all that is holy, hit that switch.

I’m serious, you have roughly five or six seconds before you piece it all together in that little part of your brain that you’ve been repressing, the one that has always wanted to cast spells or roll twenty-sided dice. And a very calm, reassuring voice will tell you that this makes you happy.

At that very second, you’ll get an invitation to become a player in a social game. And you’ll think, “what could it possibly hurt, I need more fun in my life anyway” or “Oh, this is what Tom was talking about before everyone sort of drifted off to the kitchen.”

And WHAMMO, you’re a social gamer.

This is exactly what they want.

Social gaming is not a new phenomenon, but like most phenomena that are prefaced with the fact that they are not new, it’s only now starting to seep into the greater collective consciousness. These are games that don’t seem like games, but more like the aforementioned scavenger hunt. What they actually are is MMORPGs without the… I’m sorry, they’re Dungeons and Dragons without the dungeons or the dragons.

These are non-linear quest events, where you are required to go certain places (some digital and fake, like websites, some physical and real, like landmarks), interact with certain people (some fake, like a mafia hitman, some real, like your Facebook friends… except that one friend who is totally fake) carry out certain actions (some digital and real, like poker, some digital and fake, like kidnapping), for a reward (pretty much always points, but in rare cases also making out). They can be as obvious as Vampire Wars or Knights or as deceptively innocuous as Pass a Drink or Word Challenge.

Thanks to the common interface and built-in networks of Facebook and the iPhone, there are now a plethora of social games and casual players, all centralized around a single hive or two, which means you’ve seen it, you know a couple people who play, and you’ve had at least an invite or two.

If you haven’t, you’re a dork.

No, wait. If you haven’t, you’re NOT a dork. Apologies.

You might think that social games are the natural outgrowth of the recent 25 Questions and/or 5 Things That Tickled My Whatever and/or Which Noun I Most Verb and you’d be forgiven for making the assumption (I’m disappointed in you, but it’s all right). After all, on the surface, it looks like just another layer of the onion that is self-reference. But social gaming is another beast altogether.

Social games are a stepping stone to nerd city.

I’m not making fun of you, just trying to snap you out of it.

I’ll give you an example. I love video games, I always have, but I love two kinds of video games: the kind of game where you shoot everything and football. This keeps me grounded. I know I’m a geek, but I’m comfortable with where my geekery starts and ends. However, having played all the Star Wars shooters and having heard really good things about a new title a few years back called Knights of the Old Republic, I picked it up and started playing it. It was sort of a shooter, but it had a good storyline and was also kind of a choose-your-own-adventure thing, where how you responded changed the storyline of the game. You also earned points for all the bad guys you killed and all the accomplishments you made and you could spend those points to level up and add to traits like strength, dexterity, even force powers and better guns.

So one night I’m playing it and my wife walked in and asked me about it. I told her about the game almost verbatim what I just told you. Without missing a beat, she said:

“So it’s Dungeons and Dragons but with Star Wars.”

I laughed and said, “No, it’s more like…”

Then I screamed like a little girl and threw the controller at the television.

They almost got me.

So look, call me what you will. Call me a nerd in jock’s clothing, call me a seventh-level douchebag for raining on your funtime, I understand the ramifications of the position I’ve taken. It comes with the territory. You can hate me now, just remember to thank me six months from now when you wake up, get out of bed, stretch, smile at the sun, and realize you’ve never played World of Warcraft.


Joe Procopio trades in pop culture and tech culture, allowing him to poke fun at so many things. He's written for a number of online and offline publications from the late, lamented Smug to the fancy-pants Chicago Tribune and also for television. He's a novelist, a shredder, a joker, and a family man. Scoff at joeprocopio.com or follow on Twitter @jproco.

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matt kelley
5.1.09 @ 9:32a

It's ironic that your column appears right next to a banner ad for Civony (a massive multiplayer online role playing game). Wait, so you're saying WarCraft is bad? Erik! Let us slay Li'l Joe with our +6 Axes of Might!

mike julianelle
5.1.09 @ 9:52a

"Call me a nerd in jock's clothing..."

No one would ever call you that. Since when are jock's 5'2"? Except gymnasts and college wrestlers.

lucy lediaev
5.1.09 @ 12:35p

I'm telling my son-in-law that you bad-mouthed his source of income--he's one of the programmers responsible for WarCraft. He's a mild mannered soul, but when you attack his livelihood--watch out!


joe procopio
5.1.09 @ 12:44p

That's fine. You can all take it out on me. I totally understand.

daniel castro
5.1.09 @ 1:45p

"Call me a nerd in jock’s clothing..."

Story of my life. Except I've always been more metal-head than jock.

For better or worse, I've never played WoW and I have no desire to start doing so, either. I do have emulators on my computers to play old NES/SNES/PSX games, though.

robert melos
5.3.09 @ 12:54p

My life has always been full of Dungeons and Dragons, but one of my jobs is Realtor so the dungeons are sometimes referred to as "prime real estate" and the dragons are referred to as "pets". In either case, dude, it's not the size of your wand but the magick you create with it.

And Facebook is still a freaky place.

sandra thompson
5.4.09 @ 8:40a

Does Mah Jong count?

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