There is a strong trend in gaming towards socialization.
The era of single player experiences is said to be over. Game designers all over the world are finding ways to enhance the social depth of their games. For good reasons. One is because socializing is inherently rewarding. Another is because human interaction increases a game’s strategic complexity and gameplay depth. Humans are tougher competitors, more interesting team mates and can add layers to a game’s story and its surrounding content.

Online poker, considering how naturally social it is, should be at the front of this development. It’s a slow, time consuming multiplayer game featuring lots of strategic complexity where players spend a considerable amount of time (in close proximity of each other) engaged in game play that induces comments and conversation. That’s a good starting point.
But is online at the forefront of this trend? Does Zynga Poker, for example, represent the penultimate social poker experience? My answer to these questions is a resounding “no” and the intention of this blog is to try and briefly convey why I feel that way.

Social interaction, not social exploitation

The main reason why Zynga Poker or any other social platform based virtual currency poker game have not done that much to advance the sociability of online poker lies embedded in the term “social gambling”. It is confusing because it refers to the platform upon which a game is being a distributed, the means in which it is being monetized and how it uses players to virally spread. It doesn’t really account for the sociability of the game as in being full of human player interactions. Me being a (re)source of chips in someone else’s game doesn’t enhance my social experience much. Or the other player’s for that matter. We’re feeding off each other’s existance but not really interacting.

Kevin @kflow1776 Flood has written a good piece that discusses this important distinction between sociability of games and “social games”. And this Q&A featuring many of the opinion leaders in game design adds further light.  

To create genuine social interaction – which obviously is not the only good quality in a game worth pursuing – you don’t just stick a game on Facebook or make sure players can share their scores/results easily. You have to drill down into the game’s design and tinker with it. To create genuinely social game experiences, you have to cultivate certain player behavior, incentivize certain player behavior and even sometimes force certain player behavior.
This is true for almost any game. And it is certainly true for online poker.
I’m going to use a couple of examples to try and show why I believe there is more social power in online poker waiting to be tapped.

The poker trade

In my under development game design matrix Scream! I use something I call Player Relationships Mapping to handle social interactions in a game. I’m not going to cover it here but essentially a game can generate many different relationship bonds between players. Each bond carries unique characteristics that can be utilized to connect and engage players. Two I’ve already touched upon: competitors (Opponent) and team mate (Wing-man). A third is Buyer/Seller.
You got something I want, I got something you want. Let’s talk.
Board game geeks can testify to how powerful a social element trading can be in a game. In many MMORGP:s the art of the trade has been sacrificed at the altar of the grind. The friction of having to find a buyer, agree on a price, feel secure from being cheated, robbed or stabbed etcetera has been removed to allow players to focus on collecting items and harvesting resources The primal hunter gatherer in me can certainly understand this development. But other games, EVE is a good example, are based on complex player action driven supply/demand market mechanics. Although perhaps still lacking a bit of personal one-on-one interaction, it certainly adds a lot of dynamics to the game and a sense of society.

The reason I bring up trading is because it is an aspect of multiplayer gaming not normally associated with online poker. If it could be made part of the online poker playing experience, depending on how it is implemented, it could raise online poker’s sociability score.
And it can. At least in theory.
Online poker is ripe with a commodity that other players want. Namely information. Instead of letting third party companies exploit this commodity, online poker software designers can use/ could have created an in-game market for it. This would allow players to trade what they learn about other players creating a new layer of immersion and engagement in the game.
Yes, there are technical hurdles. And ethical questions. And yes, the idea as a whole might not even really work beyond the idea stage (haven’t given it further thought). But the existence of rogue sites like pokertableratings.com has already proven that there’s a viable market for this information. And why give that up to external companies when players themselves could enjoy and benefit from a bit of wheeling and dealing?

I’m-not-your-buddy list

My next example deals with a common online poke feature – the buddy list. A natural component of any multiplayer game, but how much sense does it really make in online poker?
The primary reason for implementing a feature that makes it easy for players to keep track of friends is to facilitate play between these friends. Something that in online poker isn’t necessarily particularly fun (you’d rather beat a stranger) nor allowed if you can’t keep that friendship at bay. Buddy lists aren’t worthless of course. Railing friends can be fun and being notified of their achievements is inspiring (and unfortunately they can often also be used to keep track of weak players). But it doesn’t really fuel player engagement.
Not like a nemesis list can.

Poker is a game the breeds and cultivates animosity. It’s not always a fair game. And its treacherous  Someone you consider a nice enough opponent one minute can be your mortal moron-calling, one-outing enemy one minute later.
You long to take revenge. Or at least watch karma do its thing. A small win can be huge victory if the player you bust is the right one. The evil one.
A nemesis list  that keeps track of the players that get in your way of victory coupled with some associated features could really expand social interaction in online poker.
In a chaotic game environment crowded with thousands of players it is vital for a game to find ways to establish relationships between players that didn’t exist before they started playing the game. Even bonds based on animosity. It is these bonds criss-crossing  the game space that breeds loyalty and commitment. It is these bonds that turn a solitary experience in a grey mass of other solitary experiences into something communal.

Team time!

My last argument is one I play on repeat. It baffles me that someone is yet to develop and launch an engaging team play poker format online. Game play rarely gets more social than when teams are involved (the social aspect is obviously not the only reason why team play makes sense).
Like with trading there are endless ways of designing team play. The competition format is just one aspect. How to form teams, how to manage teams, how to make team affiliation part of a player’s in-game persona are other important aspects. All with different consequences on the overall sociability of the game.
I like to keep my team play blueprints close, but until I or anyone else manages to see their vision come to life, the absence of a vibrant team play poker game online remains one of the clearest pieces of evidence that the occasional table chat and 2+2 might not be reach of online poker’s sociability.

In recent years the game of online poker has been innovated in ways which have elevated the social side of it. Pokerstars Home Games is a good example. It provides a platform for people with established social bonds to play together online and even expand their social networks through a friendlier game of poker. Webcam avatars is another (not as effective) example.
An innovation like fast fold poker on the other hand has sped up and anonymized opponents in a manner that decreases social engagement. How much, again, depends on the actual implementation.

What the “social poker” games like Zynga have done for poker in general should not be underestimated. I’ve written about it repeatedly over the years. The game is more widespread and more accessible than ever. And players are enjoying it for new reasons. But the examples I’ve discussed above are just the tip of an unexplored iceberg.

In my humble opinion, the king of true social online poker is yet to be crowned.