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Social Heroes: Games as APIs for Social Interaction

Adam Simon

Social Heroes is a game about social interactions and identity construction. Our brains are constantly creating and revising a complex series of mental models to help us understand our changing social relationships. By making the creation of these models explicit and playful, Social Heroes encourages experimentation in how we frame our relationships and identities.

Social Heroes is a ubiquitous game constructed as an API for social interactions. As formal systems of rules, games make it possible for us to learn how they work and to predict the outcomes of our interactions with them. This is unlike the real world, which has far too many variables and unknown rules, and it's part of what makes games fun. We learn to do this by constantly evaluating the game state, which is a snapshot of what's going on in a game at any given time. It turns out that we treat everything in the real world in a similar way, constantly revising our mental models of how they work and what's going to happen next. We mostly don't think about these models explicitly; it's just how our brains evolved to see the world. There are, however, some areas where we are more conscious of these models because, evolutionarily, it became important to keep them front-of-mind. One of these areas is our assessment of social situations, which is a critical evolutionary development for humans - we are phenomenally good at assessing our relationships with other people. Social Heroes attempts to line up our mental simulation of games with our implicit modeling of social situations by constructing a game about relational identity on top of our real world social interactions.

SFZero, Jane McGonigal, You Are Not Here, Portal, Roger Callois, Abarat, Clive Barker, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, V for Vendetta, Guy Debord, Jean Baudrillard, Bertolt Brecht, Michel Foucault, flash mobs, Jenny Holzer, Oblique Strategies, Snow Crash, Scott Westerfeld

My projects: Socialbomb, Three Houses, Rumplestiltskin, Sneaker Seed, When is Where, The Destiny of Rooms, Booty Dialer

User Scenario
You show up to ITP one day in unexpectedly dapper formal wear. As you walk past the front desk, Matt waves to you, and starts typing away at his computer. You see James napping under the solar tree, whip out your phone, and send a text to Social Heroes, giving James a lazy point (you've got some saved up from yesterday, and feel that this is a worthy expenditure). As you walk into the lounge, your phone buzzes in your pocket with a text message: Matt gave you a glamor point. You notice that Midori's tour group has been waylaid by some unexpected performance art in the lounge, and while you're watching the show, you begin chatting with a prospective student. Just as things are winding down, you get another text: Lesley gave you a flirt point. You look up and see her winking at you from across the lounge. She nods to the prospective student you were talking to, and you blush abashedly.

As the day progresses, you earn several more glamor points for your upscale threads, and, combined with the flirt point from Lesley (and your stronghold of flirt from the last TNO), you earn the Sexbomb achievement. Later in the week, your Living Art midterm gets you enough creative points to finally get you that Rockstar achievement you've been after, and, by the time the weekend rolls around, you've completed the first stage of Social Heroes and been granted your superhero identity: Captain Glam. As an arbiter of style, you can dole out unlimited numbers of glamor points to other players, as well as take them away from the particularly unstylish.

Social Heroes is built on top of Twitter, which is itself a native API, so the interface for the game is anywhere Twitter can be input to and output from, including websites, Facebook, instant messenger clients, and text messaging. Once signed up for the game, players send messages to Twitter, giving each other points in different categories (such as geek and flirt) based on their interactions and observations of each other. Points are combined to earn achievements, which in turn coalesce into superhero identities based on the trajectory of player scoring. There's an economy of points, so giving someone a flirt point costs you - either in unassigned points (if you have them) or your own flirt points. Players can also use points to purchase new categories with which to tag other players. Superhero level players can grant an unlimited number of points, as well as take points away from players, within their specialty.