History of Social Games

by Jon on May 24, 2010

Social games aren’t new–they’re just games you play with other people.  Social games began about 5000 years ago.  With some help from the team at Disruptor Beam, we’ve put together a little chart that traces the history of social games from its origins in Ancient Egypt all the way to the present.  I’m using the term social network games to distinguish the type of social games (Farmtown, etc.) that are primarily played and distributed via social networks.

Note: the chart was updated based on some commenter feedback on May 25, 2010. Click image for full size poster:

Some of you might say that there are some items missing, or that I haven’t included everything.  For example, I know that there are good examples of what have become known as “casual games” that predate Bejewelled, but I think that is the game that best represents the category (and probably turned it into a large commercial success).  However, if you think there are big items missing, then I’d love to hear from you!

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A Brief Narrative History of Social Games

Ancient games have been found in archaeological excavations. Senet was a game placed in Ancient Egypt in 3100 BC, and the earliest set of dice (which represents luck–likely stemming from early concepts of fate and divine favor–which emerged from soothsayers who forecast the future from the casting of bones) was found in a Backgammon set. At the same time as these early boardgames were being created, people were playing sports; it seems likely that sports have an origin deep within prehistory, but one of the earliest recorded sports was Polo–which, like Backgammon–has its origins in ancient Persia. Polo was originally designed as a way to develop military skills. Somewhat later, early ballgames like Episkyros (in Greece) and then Harpastum (Rome) were played, which later gave rise to Medieval sports such as Shrovetide Football, a forerunner to most contemporary football sports.

Chess may have been originally thought of as an abstraction of military conflict, used to teach military strategy to generals. Over the years, it grew in popularity, and during the Enlightenment was thought of as a way to train the mind. Benjamin Franklin wrote a famous essay called the Morals of Chess, which he believed taught caution, circumspection and foresight. Similarly, other games had begun to emerge that were designed to teach moral values, including Leela, a game from 16th century India which was the model for the modern game Chutes and Ladders. Also during the late middle ages, one finds a profusion of card-games, starting with Tarot Cards, originally intended for use in games (although they later became associated with fortune telling). Games of chance, like luck, seem to be perennially associated with the occult.

1974 was perhaps the most important year in modern game history; this is when Dungeons and Dragons came to market. It integrated the ideas of abstracting tactical combat along with storytelling and a unique social aspect in which individual players used their imagination and creativity to contribute to the ongoing game. From D&D, you can trace a history through early mainframe computer games, to MUDs (multiuser dungeons) to MMORPGs such as World of Warcraft. Meanwhile, many people were looking to engage in asynchronous games that wouldn’t require groups to gather at set points in time, giving rise to play-by-mail games. The earliest implementations of online PBM games (aside from their manifestation as play-by-email games) were BBS “Door” games. Trade Wars is probably one of the most famous; and I wrote a game in this market called Space Empire a long time ago. A lot of these play-patterns are similar to what you’ll find in current Web-based and social-network games. Over this entire period of time, board games were also getting more sophisticated–spurred by the Spiel des Jahres competition in Germany, which popularized games like The Settlers of Catan.

Games that originally emerged in the hobby gaming market (such as Magic: the Gathering) laid the groundwork for virtual economies by showing that elements of games could be collected, traded and derive value from the intersection of their scarcity and utility. Most early MMORPGs built business models around subscription rather than virtual goods–which caused secondary markets to emerge for trading in items. Today, many games in the Free-to-Play (F2P) market have turned this on its head, by making virtual goods the way the game publisher monetizes; because this has become such a good way to attract players and monetize attention, this has become “the” business model of current social network games. Likewise, virtual reward systems and metagames such as the Xbox Live Achievement system prefigured the underlying mechanic of Foursquare and Music Pets.

The current social network game market is the confluence of several big trends: social gameplay, along with asynchronous play patterns and a virtual-goods business model that has been shaped by market forces. We’re only at the beginning of seeing how far we can take the genre. It’s my belief that the next wave of games will draw upon many of the elements we’ve seen work in the past: great storytelling, challenging decision-making and a sense of tribal belongingness that surrounds popular games. Did you enjoy this? Please share with your friends: Share on Twitter Share on Facebook:

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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Really?No Gravatar May 24, 2010 at 5:59 pm

Seriously?! Farmville as the pinnacle of gaming throughout the ages?

Since 3000 BC?



JonNo Gravatar May 24, 2010 at 6:08 pm

@Really: nothing in the chart is intended to suggest that something is the “pinnacle of gaming.” It is merely tracing influences up to the present day categories of games. As I’ve posted elsewhere (http://radoff.com/blog/2010/05/09/social-game-manifesto/) I think that current social network games have a ways to go.

D.A.NissenfeldNo Gravatar May 24, 2010 at 6:13 pm

Modern Pinball (late 1800s) might be predated by earlier games such as Bagatelle (REALLY early, 1500s), and could probably have Pachinko (1930s) as a child game.

RyanNo Gravatar May 24, 2010 at 7:03 pm

I appreciate that your chart is aimed to represent influence highlights rather than detail… But I was a little insulted that you chose Travian Games as the focal point for browser games. Sure, they advertise like crazy, but Star Kingdoms has been online since 2001. Ferion, 1999.

And where’s Anarchy Online? Surely we didn’t forget about those guys? :D

All in all, insanely useful. I hadn’t considered dice or chess social games, but they really are aren’t they.

Great post!

Nicolas WardNo Gravatar May 24, 2010 at 7:39 pm

Very much enjoying this series of posts Jon. I got into this thought very briefly on Twitter, but in my mind I see most non-gamers drawing a dotted line across that chart with games that are sufficiently old (I’d guess the metric is at least two generations of living memory, so in my case games that my grandparents would have played/witnessed as children/teens/young adults). That means games played with a standard 52-card deck, “classic” board games (see two-generation rule), and sports are all safely on the side of “real” games; fantasy football is kind of borderline because it is focused on a “real” game.

I think I’m using some overlapping but distinct descriptors to try and get at what’s clustered on one side of this imaginary line vs. the other, and it’s not entirely on the time axis. I’m using the word “real” to try to indicate the judgement being made by a non-gamer in dividing the world in this way. The other factors are things like complexity, necessity of special equipment (granted, pro sports has this feature, but casual pick-up games generally require not much more than a ball), accessibility, etc. It’s all about perception though… the fact that a game requires a computer as equipment somehow makes it more mysterious because computers themselves are still relatively mysterious outside of the relevant demographics.

Another factor that might be interesting to dive into is the “virtualization” of many of the established games. I play a lot of German strategy games on BrettSpielWelt, not only because the game sets are expensive (meaning I can realistically only own a few), but because the games move more quickly with automated setup and piece/card manipulation, allowing me to practice more strategies more often without having to convince people I know to play for hours on end.

Ernest AdamsNo Gravatar May 24, 2010 at 8:30 pm

You may not have room for it, but pinball was preceded by a wide variety of mechanical amusement devices in the 19th century, and they themselves by such games as bagatelle and shove-ha’penny, played with specialized devices or boards.

Also, the awari or mancala games almost certainly predate senet.

Still, very nice job!

BoolaNo Gravatar May 24, 2010 at 9:04 pm

You are missing the hex map board war games, such as Blitzkrieg, made popular by Avalon Hill in the 60’s and 70’s. These spawned the many hex map games that followed.

Harald KNo Gravatar May 25, 2010 at 2:29 am

Settlers of Catan is not influenced by Risk. Rather, it is the most famous representative of a school of boardgame design, German or Euro-style board games, that rose largely because of the “Spiel des Jahres” award – a critic prize in German-speaking Europe, that led board games to be taken seriously, and reviewed in newspapers side by side with music and film.

It’s also worth noting that the German tradition isn’t all German in its origins, among the most important inspirations were Sid Sackson and Alex Randolph – Randolph was a member of the German “game author’s guild”, and was one who lobbyed strongly for including desiger names on games there – an important reason for the quality of these games.

Sackson and Randolph in turn have close ties to a tradition of mathematical games, with Piet Hein, Martin Gardner, Elwyn Berlekamp and John Horton Conway as the prime exponents.

So, I suggest you strike the line from Risk to Settlers, make it go straight from “early commercial games” instead (as well as card games, which have influenced Euros a lot more than other modern board games). You could also add a group for 20th century mathematical games, feeding into “early commercial games” (the 3M line being famous examples).

OelitaNo Gravatar May 25, 2010 at 7:40 am

Thanks for pbem and web-browser games, generally forgotten ! I don’t understand why pbem (asynchronous) leads to network games (synchronous), though. I would have make the arrow go to web-browser games (asynchronous too).
You also could mention forum-based RPG.

JonNo Gravatar May 25, 2010 at 8:41 am

Thanks for the comments everyone! I am going to release an updated version of the chart based on a lot of input I’ve received.

@Nicolas: This tension between the real and the virtual is a really interesting one, and somewhat strays into the domain of thinkers like Umberto Eco and Baudrillard’s “Hyperreality,” and something I’d like to approach as a subject of its own in a future post.

@Ryan: It isn’t a history of MMORPGs (that could be a chart of its own), and in some cases I erred on the side of recognizability–or cases where a product might not have been *first*, yet seems to have been the one that resulted in commercial viability for the category.

@Ernest and @D.A.: Bagatelle (and its precursor, Billiards) will be added. (Ernest, I couldn’t turn up any convincing evidence of Mancala or Awari predating Senet, but would *love* to include some earlier prehistoric games if I can)

@Boola: The box called “Tactical Wargames” was intended to capture the idea of the sort of games you are referring to. Tactics wasn’t originally a hex boardgame, although you’re right that Blitzkrieg was. I’ll see if we can squeeze in some recognition of them within that box.

@Harald: You’re right. The Spiel des Jahres award should be given its own role in the chart. I’ll try and squeeze it in.

@Oelite: Good catch. PBeM should lead to BBS Door games. This is a mistake in the chart.

Rana HammadNo Gravatar May 25, 2010 at 1:06 pm

Thanx Jon, thanx for the nice post and update :)

JonNo Gravatar May 25, 2010 at 1:25 pm

The chart has been updated with the feedback I mentioned above. Thanks for the input, everyone!

Frederik HermundNo Gravatar May 25, 2010 at 2:22 pm

Interesting chart, although I disagree that gladiator games were actually games. The contestants were mostly slaves and prisoners – and rarely volunteers – so in my opinion it would be more correct to define these ‘games’ as a spectacular form of public torture and execution. I agree that they contained many game-like elements (martial arts, variable outcomes, betting, etc) but their involuntary nature seems a more significant aspect when defining them in a historical context.

JonNo Gravatar May 25, 2010 at 4:08 pm

Frederik, no doubt gladiator games were extraordinarily brutal and are not games in the way we think of them today. I include them not because they are games per se (similar to how “gold farming” is not a game, but a phenomena that is important to the development of games) but because I saw them as part of a progression through sports/entertainment that began as violent and bloodthirsty but became progressively less so over time, until today you have abstracted forms of the competition that no longer deal with violence.

I appreciate your point, however. I struggled with whether I should include it, but ultimately decided it was an important precursor to tournament-style martial games such as fencing, jousting, etc., which in turn is where a lot of aristocratic competitions find their origin.

OelitaNo Gravatar May 25, 2010 at 6:27 pm

Thanks for the update !

Mike UrbanNo Gravatar May 25, 2010 at 7:33 pm

“Social games” is a bit of a modern buzzword, and serves only to distinguish the games you are discussing from athletic endeavours. In other times, the term “parlor games” would have been used. It was a pretty superficial treatment of a large and complex subject; entire articles could be written about any of the “boxes” on the chart, and would actually be informative. The present article conveys very little factual information.

One specific observation about the chart: “play by mail” as an outgrowth of “tactical wargames” is hard to justify. Chess was played by post as early as 1804 (see the history of correspondence chess at chess.com). Among commercial games, the boardgame “Diplomacy” had postal play as a major part of the hobby, far more than “tactical wargames”.

Frederik HermundNo Gravatar May 25, 2010 at 8:54 pm

Thanks, but I think you’re equally wrong in seeing gladiator games as a sport or entertainment in any sane meaning of the word – still because of the involuntary trait. Sorry, it’s not just to be obnoxious, but I think it’s important that today’s game theorists know the difference between games and public executions, don’t you?

JonNo Gravatar May 25, 2010 at 9:49 pm

@Frederik I agree that would be true based on our contemporary standards, but certainly wasn’t true during ancient times. Even the more critical Roman observers like Seneca saw it as a form of entertainment, and his criticisms were limited to the spectacle itself and not the brutality toward the practice’s human victims. In addition, many gladiators included “paid volunteers” who may have comprised as much as half the population, so it is impossible to generalize it entirely involuntary. The purpose here isn’t to cast it in a positive light, but to view it in its historical context; the fact is that people were forced/volunteered to fight, and later they fought almost entirely voluntarily (e.g., melees in medieval tournaments), and later even that was outlawed and replaced with safer alternatives. I’m not worried about modern game theorists being able to draw the right distinctions.

@Mike I think lots of people have written about the individual boxes already, but little about the interrelationships and influences between them. Perhaps someone will notice a box on the chart that hasn’t been explored, and write more.

As you mentioned, PBM was a significant component of Diplomacy play, which is why it is mentioned in the subheading for that category. Correspondence chess is clearly another form of asynchronous gameplay, and chess is already an ancestor of that node in the chart.

Frederik HermundNo Gravatar May 26, 2010 at 10:33 am

Well, I’d like to propose that instead of seeing games as having become de-brutalized through history, we see games and brutality as two distinct phenomena that continue to coexist throughout history. One of them (games) is sometimes made the vehicle of the other (brutality) and the result is always a bloody tragedy – not a game. This still happens occasionally in modern times, for example when survival gameshows make use of waterboarding (torture), when hooliganism and staged fights become a part of sports, when happy-slapping videos become trendy, or even in the case of public, participatory stonings that still take place in some countries. I don’t think it’s completely safe to ascribe these current phenomena to a supposedly extinct moral standard.

I’m sure they had social games in the Roman empire that were actually both fun and voluntary, and that are therefore worthier and more direct predecessors of modern social games than the gladiator games. Those were mainly political manifestations of a patron’s wealth and power, and of his willingness to sacrifice slaves at the whims of his populace. As such, the gladiator games were a form of propaganda and state terror, a perverse display of power with a very clear message – embrace the military dictatorship and its virtues or risk its murderous wrath. This is not a certain ‘flavor’ of games, in my opinion, but a complete misunderstanding and abuse of them. Seneca called the gladiator games ‘pure homicide’ and there’s reasonable evidence that mainly the lower classes enjoyed them, along with the dictators whose power they manifested.

Alexander SorokinNo Gravatar May 26, 2010 at 11:32 am

Nice overview. It could be nice to have each “box” in the graph to be a link to a wiki page, where people can add their favourite ones (and maybe even vote for the top game in that category :) .

As far as games go, I’d suggest adding a new category – the ingenious games with a purpose by Luis Von Ahn (gwap.com). The games are played for fun and social engagement (e.g. ESP game), but they directly generate usable knowledge.

OkieNo Gravatar May 26, 2010 at 11:58 am

Great chart. Thanks for putting this together. As you acknowledge, I’m sure there are notable exclusions…but this serves to provide an intriguing history of gaming through the ages and I personally find it a great representation of the high points.

Very cool. :)

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