Is Facebook The Next Big Game Console?

The most unexpectedly rewarding game-related thing I did in 2007 was also the simplest: I finally gave in and joined Facebook. Within a month, I was throwing sheep at people via SuperPoke, comparing film tastes using the Movie Compatibility Test and playing the Scrabble knockoff known as Scrabulous. Those games made me wonder whether the next great console would be not the Xbox 1080 or the Nintendo Frii, but rather a well-populated social network like Facebook.

The social experience has been an important aspect of videogames, but for much of the history of this young medium, these social experiences have been isolated islands of play, whether taking place on a single couch or within a single game. That changed when Microsoft launched its Xbox Live online service in 2002 (Sony and Nintendo have since followed suit), creating an overarching social experience centered on gaming—as long as all parties own the same console and the same game. But with Facebook, these distinctions disappear. You're on a Mac and I'm on a PC? No problem—we just both need an Internet connection and a Web browser. When I send you an invitation to play, you'll be asked to download the required app if you don't already have it. I've already got more "friends" there (382) than on Xbox Live (31). That's because Xbox Live and its rivals are gaming networks first, predicated on users playing against either good friends or complete strangers. Social networks, by contrast, are often at their most interesting when they operate as a social lubricant among people who are only casually acquainted. I've played Rock Paper Scissors and Scrabulous with acquaintances and friends alike, and it doesn't require a $279 console. Even better, games on Facebook are generally asynchronous: you play your turn when it's convenient for you, and I play mine when it's convenient for me.

Sure, Facebook doesn't support the lavish games of a modern console. But its rising ubiquity—it's the sixth most-trafficked site in the United States, with 58 million users—and its accessibility could make it a force to be reckoned with in gaming. Microsoft, now a Facebook investor, seems to understand this; it recently gave Xbox Live users the ability to browse their buddies' Friends Lists. We'll see in 2008 if Sony and Nintendo catch on.