True Confessions: Anti/social Games

All in the professional interest of “researching” why the hell “social games” are so darn popular, I’ve spent the last few weeks playing a Facebookload of ’em.

All of them suck… yet brilliantly suck you in, each in their own special way. The one that sucked the most, sucked like a pornographic nebula, is Zynga’s Mafia Wars.

I dutifully drag myself back to the browser every few hours and do enough Jobs, Fights, Property Buys, and occasional Blacklists to up my points. In case you haven’t played the game, doing these actions doesn’t involve negotiating a rich 3D world, outstrategizing opponents, or carefully balancing a recipe of spells — but just hitting buttons.

Bap, bang, ka-pow. Energy down, experience up. No more energy? Wait.

Easier’n than a 2006 mortgage.

Why? Why bother playing this thing?

There’s the joy of earning more “money” each hour as I buy more rental properties, though most of the cash is stolen from me through an endless news-stream of fights and heists.

There’s the joy of becoming ever-stronger and upping my attack and defense stats, but that doesn’t matter since there are always dozens of people literally thousands of levels ahead of me who can pound me into the dirt at Internet speed. And the way the game is designed, those with the largest “family” of 501 pretty much always win.

But I return again and again, uppin’ those friggin’ numbers.

It’s the same thing that drives World of Warcraft addiction. Same thing that drives the stock market.

The same single-minded worship of numbers empowers corporate crime… or organized crime, for that matter.

Maybe it’s a guy thing, an analytical thing, a geek thing, perhaps even a core human thing. But in this game, all the numbers you need are laid out right there in the top interface. Upping those numbers is essential. It fills a deep, pathetic, very real need.

And so I play. I almost helplessly watch myself inviting the dregs of my Facebook friends list, kids from elementary school that I haven’t spoken to in thirty years. I hitlist. I read forums for tricks on maximizing the battle algorithm.

I play. I invite. The numbers go up. I play.

I find the game overtaking my very dreamlessness. I wake up fully alert and replay “strategies” in my head to up numbers faster, harder, stronger. I sneak to my laptop… why waste a late nite opportunity to level up?

Everything  about the game is shameful. It was birthed as crappy cloned product of a cloned Apple II game, unembarrassed about copying the very interface, nomenclature, point balancing, and algorithms from the game it ripped off. It inspired a culture of mockingbird copycatters: Mob Wars, Mobsters, Facebook Mafia, The Ultimate MafiaMafia, Mafia Cities, All in Da Family— which came first? who can tell them apart? who cares? Carbon-copying a winning game quickly and usurping more daily actives has seemingly become a badge of pride in Facebook development culture. It makes people feel so badass.

Zynga then went on to clone themselves, applying the same back-end code to ever-so-slightly skinned versions for fashion, car racing, pirates, vampires, special forces, knights and dragons, superheroes. There are various “innovations” in the design in some of these games, but they’re all the same story.

Play. Invite. Spend a bit. Up your numbers. Repeat.

Yeah, these social games do work. And I respect aspects of them. The back-end database stat-crunching is bulletproof, considering the tens of millions of active players per day. I know what it takes to architect and maintain that sort of system, and that’s impressive.

Some of the designs also do a nearly perfect job of balancing numbers and time requirements, making it ludicrous to not invite everyone you can to join in. And so, people recruit each other like gangbusters. Forumfulls of otherwise intelligent players post their e-mail addresses in the open, hoping that you will “friend” them on Facebook for the sole purpose of adding yourself to their mobs.

Zynga’s doing great, milking folks on microtransactions and spam-filled offers. I myself often battle the urge to visit the Godfather and plunk down a few Visa digits so that I don’t have to wait for that next essential number-upping.

Facebook must love the growth these games drive. But looking more closely at the game’s top players and it clearly seems to be strangers and fake accounts, all adding each other via botnets in hopes of maxing out mobs. That’s utterly artificial. That’s noise… It may make metrics sing, but it’s not real.

And it’s the same with most (not all) of these social games. Even if you do limit yourself to playing them with your real-life acquaintances and friends. You may be gunning to beat your friends’ stats. You may be “engaging” with your friends as you one-up their mobs or “help” them out on missions by clicking on that big “Help Friend” button. You may even toss your friends virtual gifts if you’re really feelin’ generous.

But is that social?

Social is Risk or chess or Go Fish or touch football.

These social games succeed at spreading.  They deeply compel you to suck more people in and perpetuate the artless addiction. But is viral the best we can do? Viral is Swine Flu. Chain letters. Zombie infestation.

Much of this “social gaming” phenomenon is anything but. It’s about treating the human beings in your life as multipliers in your spreadsheet. It reduces the social graph to one dimension — turning your connections into a list of slightly less predictable non-player-characters with irrelevant backstories and only marginally interesting faces.

These social games? They’re petty, they’re deadening, they’re devoid of meaning, they’re…

Dehumanizing.

Just numbers.

They’re interesting for now. But they won’t last.

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4 thoughts on “True Confessions: Anti/social Games

  1. Hey David,

    Excellent article. Jonathan Blow says these treadmill games are unethical. He may very well be right.

    However much I agree with your main point, I’m unfortunately afraid I disagree with your conclusion. They *will* probably last because operant conditioning has shown that schedules of reinforcement ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reinforcement#Schedules_of_reinforcement ) work. They just do. It may says something sad about the human condition but, as game designers, we should probably accept it as a fact…

    • Yeah even as I wrote that last line I knew I was just being an over-hopeful fuddy-duddy. I’d wager that you’re right about these games only getting worse, more basic, more intrusive as time goes on and technologies only get more social…

      These games steal the audience for more artistic and meaningful games in the same way an insurgency can upend a well-trained military might: They are wily and aggressive and relentless and don’t play by any rules.

      That said, I do think there’s hope that over time as players become more attuned the social games that become most popular will put some meaning and artistry behind the mindless mechanic.

  2. Okay. So they aren’t truly “social”. So pick a different label for them. But these game are still a new kind of fun we never experienced before and they are good for something.

    But I agree they should not replace truly social activities and game. I am excited about using tech devices (such as iPhones) to augment real social interactions. How could a bunch of people in the same room play Risk in a new and interesting way using their iPhones? Don’t play the game on the screen but use the screen to add a new dimension to the paper game. For example, it is a way to have private side channel communications during the game such as a truce agreement.

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