|The Big Model|
Like or not, you're role-playing with other people. That means schedules, coordination, maybe travel ... basically, dealing with each other in all the ways that humans do. It's not just logistics, but emotions too. Someone likes someone else, or doesn't like them, a lot. One person doesn't like to be teased; another loves it. Bob and Diane are a couple, and James is crushed out on Diane. I could go on.
The Social Contract is whatever you people do that permits you to role-play, in the context of all this human stuff. The sting, though, is that even play itself is embedded in that social interaction - you can't escape it. You can't put it aside and then play, as if role-playing were some abstract act divorced from it all. You can't say, "These are the rules, but that over there is social." Using the rules is itself a social agreement, as well as how you use them, and what for. And if you're dealing with some rules which are tricky to manage, then how James thinks those rules apply to Diane's character ... starts to matter. A lot.
Don't blind yourself to reality and claim that your group plays without all that terrible social stuff messing it up. I call bullshit on that right here. Social Contract is the big beach ball, the biggest one, with everything else about role-playing inside it and affected by it. That's why endlessly debating about rules interpretations doesn't fix a role-playing group which is wracked by Social Contract problems - they're subordinate to it.
The take-home message is to have fun playing, do it inside a positive Social Contract and with a genuine desire to play this game, with these people, right now.
It's hard to imagine humans doing anything even nominally organized without a Social Contract of some kind, but unfortunately, not all of them are good.
Play this game - but people sometimes don't want to play this game, preferring another or perhaps not even really interested in role-playing ... with these people - but people sometimes confound mere membership in a subculture with sufficient reason or investment in genuine social commitment to one another personally ... to have a good time - but people are sometimes more invested in negative social outcomes such as bullying, marginalizing, identity confirmation, and dominance games.
As long as the group maintains the effort (or in some cases the delusion) to continue playing under such conditions, the Social Contract may include horrible features such as permitted bullying, emotional wrangling, back-biting, and worse.
All interactions and relationships among the role-playing group, including emotional connections, logistic arrangements, and creative expectations. All role-playing is a subset of the Social Contract.
If a Social Contract is itself flawed in some way, marked by forms of dishonesty or irresponsibility, or worse, then play itself will irretrievably fall into Dysfunction for one or more of the people involved.
Arguably some features of the actual Social Contract cannot be captured in verbal form. Therefore a Social Contract is not a written document or explicit agreement of any kind. When such things were employed among a group, they are a component and hopefully a facilitator of the actual Social Contract, including the statement "Let's abide by these."
Example of written pre-play agreement: Establishing social contract from invite onwards
Crucial: Five Geek Social Fallacies
Crisis in Social Contract: Pissed off Pendragon, The social agenda and the antisocial agenda, as I have experienced them, How I bowed out, [Point of Collapse Of munchkins and min/maxers], Bumpy Exalted game, Player Power Abuse, Mother-May-I and 20 Questions: Games GMs play
See also Sex & Sorcery, Adept Press