Can Sports Close Facebook Gaming's Credibility Gap?

The coda for Facebook games, among serious gamers anyway, normally begins with a sneer at the idea and then an accounting of all the ways it's not a video game. Would a sports title make any difference?

Probably not. Well, not right now, anyway. Earlier this week PGA Tour Golf Challenge went live on the social network, the third offering from EA Sports on that platform. It's a recognizably new game - with three-dimensional graphics and gameplay choices analagous to what on e plays in the console versions of its PGA Tour products.

But reactions to it, in the comments of core gamers I read, reflected more of a deep distrust of Facebook games. This still is a branch of video gaming that, regardless of who's in it, serious gamers view as little more than reheated marketing, glorified advergaming, or a sinister con designed to separate bored people from their disposable cash.

"The reason Facebook games aren't taken more seriously as games is that most of them are pretty bad," said Ian Bogost, the noted games academic whose "Cow Clicker" application is a smart parody of the inanity found in most social gaming experiences. "Even the ones that aren't are swimming upstream against the reputation that preceded them."

But I think that sports gaming, by virtue of its recognizable brands and games that people innately understand without much tutorial, is a largely untapped genre with the best chance of being taken seriously.

"Perhaps the best promise for sports video games is that they haven't been very common on Facebook, and so they are less infected by the affliction of social gaming's early years."

EA Sports isn't the first to develop sports game applications on Facebook, but with its third offering, now has drawn a spotlight to them. Its first two, FIFA Superstars and Madden NFL Superstars, were bite-sized management simulations that for what they offered and intended to accomplish, got reasonably positive reaction. Even if they were modeled on the free-to-play, pay-to-really-play-it structure that everyone finds so sinister about Farmville, these weren't things embarrassing for guys to have in their profile.

Can Sports Close Facebook Gaming's Credibility Gap?

"It's something I call ‘Facebook guilt,'" said Mike Taramykin, the general manager whose On Demand unit of EA Sports took PGA Tour Golf Challenge online this week. "It's the sense that, they kind of feel Facebook games might be nice, but they're not real games."

Among the big-branded, big-funded, heavily played heavyweights on Facebook, PGA Tour Golf Challenge has the most serious claim to being a ‘real game' outside of, perhaps, Bejeweled Blitz. The rest are dominated by collection/development exercises like Mafia Wars, Café World and all the ‘Villes.

"This is one of those things that we feel comfortable saying no one's ever played on Facebook," Taramykin said. Taramykin is an executive with the company who made the game, but I think the claim has merit.

PGA Tour Golf Challenge is played the 3D perspective of console golf, and the strategic choices in that platform, shot placement, shot type, club, plus considering wind speed and lie, all factor in here too. There are virtual items for sale, but their purpose is to improve your ability to play a familiar game, rather than serve as collectibles or bragging-rights tokens.

Bogost is disappointed that PGA Tour Golf Challenge relies on a shot-rationing model that mimics so many other Facebook games. "It sports the same old time/energy mechanic. ... You're not really playing with your friends, as usual, you're playing with a countdown clock."

It is indeed a big bummer when you've saved up 10,000 "coins" for a full 18 holes at TPC Sawgrass and realize that it doesn't give you the strokes to play the whole thing at once. And extra shots may only be acquired ahead of schedule with real cash. Roughly speaking, they cost 20 cents you can get them in lots from 3 to 100. Still, if anything could mitigate the stigma of paying for virtual stuff on Facebook, a round of golf makes more sense to some than buying livestock.

But even if it's played against a clock, as Bogost laments, the compulsion is still there to play something, not to constantly manage a virtual city or restaurant. Many Facebook games have goals that become "a mirror image of work,"

"Some folks have used the portmanteau ‘playbor' to describe this phenomenon," Bogost said, "it alienates people from their leisure just as labor once did for work."

When I log in every morning to Facebook, however, the feeling hits me that I can play - important word - three holes of golf, free, and be done with it. I'll get a score. If I want to beat that score immediately, I can pay for that but I don't really want to right now. For what I get my sense is definitely one of playing a game. A video game.

Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays at 2 p.m. U.S. Mountain time.