This idea, like so much about online societies, remains untested. But immersive 3-D environments, such as Second Life or the Croquet Project, may not be the best shopgame platform for the mass audience of the future. An equally promising venue is already here, and it already has over 70 million users.
Young people who have no interest in MMOGs will nonetheless flow smoothly through a lifelong pipeline of successive online networks. They can start young with Neopets; at age 13 they join Habbo Hotel; and soon they move on to MySpace. In high school, they might enroll in one or another niche SNS like Sconex. In college, they join Facebook, and after graduation, they jobhunt through LinkedIn. Whether or not these particular sites will continue to thrive is irrelevant; if they die, replacements will rise. Online networking feels natural to this generation, like Grandpa's Rolodex and Mom's Franklin Day-Planner.
The current SNS field is a bubble, crowded with hundreds of me-too sites. To compete, these imitators seek new reasons for community. Their solutions will include games. "Social networking for the sake of social networking just doesn't cut it," says doctoral student Fred Stutzman on his blog, Unit Structures. "If we're going to invest our time in a SNS site, make it worth our while. Make it a game, make it entertaining, make it useful - but don't expect us to come if you think it's enough to browse our friends' profiles."
These SNS hangouts already feel interestingly game-like. In the introduction to MySpace Safety: 51 Tips for Teens and Parents, authors Kevin M. and Dale G. Farnham write, "In one sense, MySpace is a massive online roleplaying game, probably the world's biggest. Each member makes a page that represents how the person wants to appear to their friends and (if their profile isn't set to 'private') to the rest of the world."
In Asia, some SNS communities have already added game-like features. South Korea's Cyworld, which gets 15-20 million visitors daily (out of 47 million South Koreans), has an economy of sorts, based around "wave riding." You have a graphical "minihompy" (mini home page) room you can decorate as you like; get decorations either by buying them with the Cyworld currency, "acorns," or by getting someone to add you to his "cybuddy" list so you can ride his wave (use his stuff). With your well-appointed minihompy, you attract visitors, give presents, and boost your ratings in Erotic, Famous, Friendly, Karma and Kind. There's no explicit goal, but it works like a game - a game of status, as surely as rising in level in D&D, maxing out your Slashdot karma or getting a Harvard MBA.
Asian social networks are also extending feelers into the real world. According to research group Pacific Epoch, Habbo in China "will offer a service that will allow Chinese users to purchase items that will be both virtual and physical items ... Through the service, users can purchase items such as flowers, clothes and movie tickets online in the virtual community and the physical items will be delivered to their homes the next day."
Eventually, advertisers will take these social games in-house. And shopgames will be here.
Game Meets World
As SNS communities continue to seep into physical reality and evolve toward true shopgames, how will they work?