The Video Games of Video Games: Prejudices against Social Games verbatim copies of Prejudices against Video Games

[Updated September 1st to reflect that I was referring to the criticism that Ian Bogost was initially cited for, rather than his more in-depth post.]

Here is the point: Gamer prejudices against social games are verbatim copies of general prejudices against video games. Within video game culture, we have spent decades trying to make video games respectable, but now we are simply taking the prejudices against us, and regurgitating them at a new form of video game, looking down on social games the way that culture at large has been looking down on video games. We have made social games into the video games of video games.

In July, we had seminar at the NYU Game Center on the issue of social games. Aki Järvinen (a reformed academic who now works at Digital Chocolate) gave a talk on social game design, and on social game definitions. Ian Bogost gave his promised anti-social game talk, and launched his Cow Clicker FarmVille parody.

In some of the media coverage of Ian’s game, I ended up being cited for the following:

According to New York University games researcher and theorist Jesper Juul, social games are “brain hacks that exploit human psychology in order to make money.”

Which wasn’t my point at all. Let me explain. Consider this quote from a blogger that, building on Jesse Schell, presents this criticism of FarmVille:

… the primitive kind of manipulations you see in FaceBook games like FarmVille and Mafia Wars. … the ways in which these games exploit the psychology of adults and children.

And consider the criticism that Ian Bogost was originally cited for. [Update: Compare to his nuanced comments here.]

[FarmVille gives] experiences more like [Skinner] boxes, like behaviorist experiments with rats.

Now, doesn’t this kind of language sounds oddly familiar? Exploiting psychology, manipulating, and just being in it for the money? Behaviorist experiments? Here is a quote from someone critical of video games in general, exploiting children and so on:

… the video game industry hides behind a First Amendment veil in order to exploit children for the sake of corporate profit.

And in their 1983 book Mind at Play, Loftus & Loftus explicitly compared video games to Skinner boxes.

In other words, the standard criticism against social (and casual) games is identical to traditional criticisms against video games as such. Gamer culture hasn’t exactly invented a new language here, but simply copied the familiar prejudices of parents and of the Jack Thompsons of the world.

I think this is pretty weak. At the very least criticism should be specific. Do social games involve brain hacks any more than WoW does? Any more than BioShock does? Any more than Shakespeare? I am not so sure. How would any art form not involve human psychology?

Of course, this doesn’t mean that FarmVille is a Great Game, it just means that we should try to control our inner Jack Thompson echo machine a little. It also does not mean that we have to love Zynga’s business practices, but it becomes ridiculous when I hear people contrast social games with the traditional game industry by saying that the traditional game industry as such is all about experiences and art, but not about money. It’s a little more complicated than that.

It’s completely legitimate to dislike social games – we don’t have to like everything, but there is a reason why people are playing these games, and it’s not a mystery: It’s nice to grow things. It’s nice to do things with your friends. It’s nice to give and receive gifts. It’s nice to play a game that allows you to schedule your playing time. And so on.

I also find StarCraft II more exciting, but I think we can learn something by acknowledging that new games can be interesting by breaking with our expectations of what a game should be. I would like to hear some more advanced discussion of social games.

And we should also avoid assuming that we are clever and able to see through tricks, advertising, and so on, but that they (the people who play these strange games) are unreflected and naïve. I leave you with a picture of the fence hack in FarmVille, where the author’s avatar has been fenced in to fool the FarmVille pathfinding algorithm, speeding up many common tasks. This is a common trick. People will do complicated things in games – all games – if they feel motivated to do so.

7 thoughts on “The Video Games of Video Games: Prejudices against Social Games verbatim copies of Prejudices against Video Games”

  1. You think objections should be specific, and yet you cite a pull quote from an old article rather than the specific objections I raised at NYU and then in my Cow Clicker essay and expanded on in the Gamasutra interview.

    You call for subtlety but use the tired all-or-nothing comparisons to Jack Thompson and his ilk

  2. Jesper,

    1. Aren’t the criticisms you generalize from social games to video games generalizable to ANYTHING people are critical of? That is, these criticisms don’t seem specific to games. Calling someone a “Skinner boxer” is simply classifying that person as anti-humanist, unfeeling, and such. Thus, criticism of social games seems more rightfully a part of the set of criticism in general than part of the set of criticism of video games.

    2. I am most critical of social games in how the “social” (most particularly social pressures) within those games differ from the “social” in video games — and in the larger category of games in general. Doesn’t the manipulation of the social in social games offer an opportunity for a critique of social games that differs from a critique of video games?

    3. Increasingly, it seems there is some attempt to collapse all video games — heck, to collapse ALL things — into the social. If this collapse takes place, then the issues I raise above collapse as well. That is, if ALL games are rooted in the social then ANY criticism of games is likewise criticism of social games.

    Further, this criticism is then interpreted, by extension, as criticism of the social — with a curious set of consequences, including the labeling of social game criticism as anti-community, griefing, indicative of Asperger syndrome, Skinner-boxish, and such. This seems to me both unlikely and unreasonable.

  3. I, personally, agree with Jesper. I’m not a fan of social games either, but it feels, at the very least, weird, that we are, now, using the same criticism at which we used to frown upon when it were directed at other types of games. Jesper’s point, I believe, is not to keep social games from being criticized at all, as dmyers’ post seems to imply, but avoiding being hypocritical when criticizing them.

  4. This article hinges on the fact that there exists somewhere a quote about videogames in general (the comparison to skinner boxes) that is similar to the prevalent complaint about social games.

    The truth is that Jack Thompson or a clueless parent calling arbitrarily-selected high-profile games “murder simulators” is in no way similar to the current crop of complaints about social games coming from *game designers themselves* just because a psychologist called videogames a skinner box back in the 80s.

    Having worked in the past for a major social game company whose “game design playbook” makes way more explicit references to rats and levers and electric shocks than it does to actual human players and meaningful choice and learning game mechanics, I can confidently say that the criticisms about social games are not just sensationalistic prejudice but raise very valid concerns about the ethicality of their game mechanics.

  5. This is an important article regarding the evolution of mentalities with the introduction of new paradigms, and the human tendency to reduce change to what we’re seen of it in its infancy period. The point about Shakespeare is well taken, the novel was the first digital technology, and during its infancy was seen as a step down from oral tradition. We now take the novel for granted and highly value its contribution, and similarly, we should expect the social game to evolve and seek for such an evolution.

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