In GoPets we knew that generous players were sticky players - meaning that we kept them for a long time - and so we incentivized generosity in our player base. But because our generosity levers were "manual" - players had the ability to send gifts, and socially benefited from doing so, but there were no specific mechanical achievement or requirement structures around them - our community was more genuinely social and less frenetic than its social game antecedents. The basic concept held true: Encourage players to exchange valuable items and they'll create an atmosphere of positive assistance that will in turn bring them to associate the game with generosity and positive feelings.
And this, of course, generates the spam that non-players came to resent. One player's spam is another's treasure, however, and the exchange of these messages, quickly corralled into their own containers by Facebook, was utterly fundamental to the games' fabric. No one would be sending those messages if they didn't themselves both value receiving them and consider that the recipients would, too. What generated the spam impression was the platform's inability to easily distinguish receptive targets from non-receptive ones, and with more than half of Facebook visiting the site for games, it's no surprise that play is assumed.
What I didn't expect, as I dug into these games (and doubtless lost a few Facebook friends in the process - sorry, guys), was that they would change how I felt about the friends I played them with. For the most part, these were people I knew, since the games capitalize on your existing network and possess few mechanics for seeking out non-friends. I realized, somewhere around level 20 in each game, that I actually felt differently about the friends whose faces I saw every day via the game. I felt more connected to them, part of their various daily missions to build structures or achieve goals, and grateful for their cooperation in mine.
This is ultimately what "those people" understood about social games that I didn't, and that most of the mainstream game industry still doesn't: it's not about spam, and it's not a Skinner box (which, by the way, is exactly what scared psychologists call all games). It's an astonishing hyper-distilled interweaving of a number of organically developed online metagame mechanics - which might be why online game developers have been more sympathetic to social gaming than so-called "core" games. What World of Warcraft did to Everquest's mechanics - making them smoother, faster, and more elegant, and so earning unprecedented millions of players - FarmVille, though we don't like to admit it, did to World of Warcraft. FarmVille distills the active components of a game down to a handful of clicks, and massively leverages social and viral communication channels to create the feelings of shared mission and victory, all while carving out a player-expressed space in the online world. And while it's doubtful that even its creators would call FarmVille "elegant," it is the first step in a new evolution of games, new (and resented) the way World of Warcraft was in the beginning - and its mechanics are so powerful that it has compelled a head-popping number of new gamers even without being polished the way WoW was.