The Socialistic Interview: Playmatics’ Margaret Wallace On Reality-Based Social Gaming

Shadow Government is a new “reality-based” social game being developed by Playmatics founders Margaret Wallace and Nick Fortugno in collaboration with Philippe Trawnika (formerly of the investment firm in partnership with the Millennium Institute. According to a description in TechCrunch, the game is a massive project that will “use economic and sustainability data, and government-modeling software from the Millennium Institute to give players a chance to build and run, or destroy their own virtual countries.”

Socialistic recently caught up with Wallace over email to find out what Shadow Government is all about, how modern games are blurring the line between reality and fantasy, and what her company has learned from the dramatic rise of Mark Pincus’s social gaming giant Zynga.

What is Shadow Government, and how will it work? What platforms will it run on?  Will it need a critical mass of players to work?
The Shadow Government game is initially planned as a social mobile title. We are looking closely at both iPhone and Android platforms.

Like any social game, Shadow Government will playable as a standalone but the experience can be deepened through the participation and involvement of friends and others along the social graph.

Because of Shadow Government’s partnership with The Millennium Institute, we can offer players something that (as far as I know) no one else can:  An entirely new form of social gaming based on the “gamification” of real countries, systems, and worldwide events. That’s because The Millennium Institute has created a real-world government modeling software that is astonishingly accurate. Until now, this tool for modeling and predicting world events has only been in the hands of governments and policy-makers to use and to test out how certain decisions impact the real world.  Now, for the first time, anyone with an iPhone or Android can ‘play’ at what it’s like to simulate running a real country.

I am absolutely fascinated at the idea of seeing if players of the Shadow Government game can do a better job of managing world events and outcomes than actual leaders in the real world.

Do you have other games in the pipeline once this is built out?
Well, the modeling tool we are using for Shadow Government is so expansive – it’s not going to all be encapsulated in just this one game iteration. That would potentially be too over-whelming, so Shadow Government has the unique possibility to foster an entirely new genre of gaming that is more reality-based that just about anything out there as far as I’m concerned. So, with our unique approach, I see these reality-based social games as spurring a new level of social gaming.

Zynga is obviously the big fish in the social media games space. How is what you’re doing different from what they’ve done? Are there any lessons you’ve learned from their quick rise?
No one can deny how brilliantly Zynga iterates and executes on IP. They have built a social gaming empire based on intelligent and efficient iteration, a keen focus on metrics-driven game design and an eye toward effectively leveraging the social graph to maximize engagement and brand loyalty. Zynga also benefitted from being “early in” on the Facebook platform.

One of the reasons social mobile is so appealing to us is that there is still significant room to make an impact on this platform. If I have learned anything in my time in tech and gaming, it is to be a leader and not a follower. That doesn’t mean Shadow Government will never be on Facebook – it’s just that, to me, the social mobile space is less crowded. It gives us the room to potentially stand out. Also, in terms of ubiquity and the increasing numbers of people from all age-groups who play games on their smartphones, it’s a more interesting proposition for Shadow Government to deploy here out the gate.

Are games inherently social?
It’s a cliché but it’s true that games throughout history have traditionally been social. With the advent of so-called “social” games, we are returning to where games have always been. As we’ve seen with the current crop of games that are on Facebook, for example, what it means to be considered “social” is very fluid. Social play can mean real-time multiplayer, but it can also mean having an asynchronous interaction with your friends in the social graph.

A friend once told me that the ultimate video game would be “just like this, with guns” — meaning a perfect simulacra of offline reality with enhanced abilities and fantasy. How close are we to that kind of thing? Is social gaming getting us there?
We are at the convergence of gaming and what we have currently understood as “reality.” I truly believe games like Shadow Government will continue to blur the lines between these two experiences. As a former media scholar from back in my graduate school days, it’s an inevitable human trait to merge “reality” with increasingly mediated expressions of that reality.

What do you think will be the next big thing in social gaming?  Are there any technologies that you think are about to pop?
I think we’re going to see leading social gaming and social mobile companies to leverage the social graph and what it means to be social in ways we’ve never even imagined. Given Shadow Government’s initial focus on social mobile, it’s probably pretty obvious that we are extremely excited about this platform and the potential here. Personally, I am also very inspired by the tablet marketplace, too.