Social games

Turning an insight on its head: social as play

Stewart Butterfield is the chap who accidentally invented Flickr and then Slack. That alone makes him a pretty smart person. He also studied philosophy before deciding to get into software development. I know this because Jeremy Keith in my Huffduffer network liberated the audio of an interview with Ezra Klein from SoundCloud's silo and shared it. 1

The conversation was really interesting and very wide ranging, but one thing stood out for me. Butterfield talked about endless games -- the kind children are involved in when they're "just playing" -- which have no real point, in the sense that nobody actually wins or loses. You just play for the fun of it. And he said something about how Flickr in part grew up out of the messaging that was built into the first continuous game he and his partners were trying to develop. In essence, if I'm not paraphrasing him incorrectly, the social chit chat, the back and forth, was the most important part of the game.

Listening to that, it occurred to me that my favorite online social interactions are, in and of themselves, the game. That's what I love about the few people with whom I message one-to-one most frequently. It's what I loved about ADN. And it is what I love about 10 centuries, which is where I hang out to play now that ADN is almost of blessed memory.

It isn't that we're playing an actual game, with rules or anything. Rather that mostly we are being playful, which in my experience is not something that happens -- at least in my circles -- on any of my other social channels. Maybe Instagram, a bit.

Because I work alone at home much of the time, I really value these virtual sandpits. I've never been much of a gamer -- just can't see the point most of the time. And so I've never got into gaming to the point where I can have meaningful chat with fellow players. But I can chat playfully with friends without being involved in a game.

Butterfield said that his dad was a demon bridge player and that it was the context of a real game with real partner and opponents that made it worthwhile: the kibbitzing, the chat between hands, the shared history. For that reason, his dad never got into computer bridge. I'm exactly the same myself. I love playing, but if I can't play with people in the same room, I'd rather not play at all. But I'm happy to chat about it.


  1. And I'm blowed if I can find the original show anywhere other than there. So if you want to hear it outside of SoundCloud, you can pick it up from me at Huffduffer

General Podcasts

Next post Previous post