[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.
[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.