This past Saturday I attended this year’s >play conference, sponsored by the Haas School of Business and my own group, the Berkeley Center for New Media. I should say, first, that I was only able to attend two panels, the first called “The Changing Face of Social Gaming,” the second called “Transforming Social Change.” This was also my first year at >play, so I can’t speak to differences between this year’s agenda and previous conferences.

Though I admit to being somewhat skeptical about social games going into the first panel, I found the entire session illuminating (well, as illuminating as an hour-long session can be), thanks largely to Roy Bahat (President, IGN Entertainment) and his thoughtful moderation. Bahat posed tough questions to these important players in the social gaming world (reps from Zynga, EA, Facebook, ngmoco, and ZipZapPlay), asking, for instance, about allegations regarding Zynga’s predatory “copycat” ways, and complaining (like I have myself) that many “social” games aren’t really social at all.

Other than the somewhat laughable defense that copying is not the same thing as “fast following,” the panelists continually trotted out the reassurance that social games are in their infancy, that any deficiencies are likely to be the product of the fledgling nature of the industry. I didn’t find this entirely convincing, but I will say that I appreciated every single member of the panel responding to my question during Q&A. This is basically what I asked: “In the American game industry, it seems like the “social” in social games generally refers to positive behavior–neighbors helping neighbors, passing on news and spare parts, cooperative, fuzzy wuzzy, feel-good, sociality. What do you think of examples drawn from other cultural contexts, for instance QQ’s Happy Farm, where sociality is more often than not a kind of negative sociality (neighbors stealing your hard-earned vegetables) and makes the compulsion to play stronger because you have to protect your virtual assets. Are these models you want to explore?”

While a few panelists expressed interest, mentioning by way of comparison Japanese company DeNA’s popular Kaito Royale game, which apparently requires users to continually acquire new things in order to defend past acquisitions, most expressed a desire to stay away from the potentially “dark” places to which we might go given such license (this makes me think of Casey Alt’s VacilLogix performance at SLSA 2009, subtitled “When Social Networks Go Sociopathic,” which he framed as a business proposition). Part of me has to wonder at the apparent cultural differences between games like FarmVille and Happy Farm, and this has been on my mind since Ernest Adams’s expo pass lecture at GDC 2010, during which he ranted against gamers behaving crappily to other players and used as an example a Chinese game developer’s presentation at an earlier conference and its lauding of a game item that enabled “public humiliation.”

Sadly, I have not much polite to say about the second panel on social change, which I found to be horrifically lacking in any level of irony or self-reflection. Let’s hope that future conferences will temper the business (read, profit) focus with some real social and cultural critique.