When NPR’s On The Media tweeted this article into my consciousness, I cursed Sam Anderson for poaching my final paper topic for a New York Times Magazine puff feature. Then I played a couple minutes of the embedded Asteroids clone, Kick Ass, blasted his name and the rest of the Times off the screen, and felt a little bit better.
Anderson tackles casual games from a few different sociological perspectives, though, luckily — and somewhat short-sightedly, in my opinion, given his paranoia over the corporate-gamification of our everyday lives — not in the one main way I’m most interested in.
Instead he’s most interested in their cycle of addiction. He says he quit videogames as a teenager when he realized he could easily devote his life to them in the same way that one might, in his words, to opium. I’ll resist un-boxing that excessive metaphor. He tells a sickeningly cute story about wooing his wife back to their IRL conversations with sweet-nothings and a totally non-sexual invention called the “iPaddle.”
It’s an interesting read, and he talks to some interesting people about the psychology and mechanics of game design. But, in my opinion — and this is where I plan to focus the bulk of my analysis of these casual (not “stupid”) games — he only skirts without engaging with one of their most interesting and socializing elements. When Anderson writes that FarmVille “is free but constantly nudges its players toward spending money…,” he leaves it at that.
Similarly, the realization that these models don’t resemble classic games as much as “gamified games,” or games that have been corporatized with monetization mechanics, is both brilliant and insufficient. How can Anderson be so afraid of “the dystopian future…[with] amoral corporations hiring teams of behavioral psychologists to laser-target our addiction cycles for profit,” without addressing the didactic capitalist underpinnings of these games? Well, because he’s more interested in this perceived “addiction” to games than their actual effect on people.
The title of this post alludes to the awesome Twitter handle @nytOnIt for this very reason. Calling these games addicting is both easy and pointless. (It’s also pretty insensitive to people who actually suffer from various addictions.)
Instead, I want to talk about what games like FarmVille tell us about the society we live in. But more importantly, I want to talk about how games like FarmVille teach us how to live in that society.
Specifically, I’m talking about the in-app purchase model, which is how FarmVille operates and has made Zynga the richest casual developer on the planet. These new games profit off a system of micropayments, where users buy upgrades, features, and “exclusive content,” as opposed to a macropayment system of one price for all of that bundled into the original game. It means the difference between buying a disc with all of the game content there to use, or playing a free Facebook game that motivates you to spend by limiting your resources.
After reading Anderson’s article, I was explaining this to my boss, and I think her reaction hit the nail right on the head. As the mother of two elementary school kids, she was worried that this system would teach her kids that, when you’re up against the wall, you can just buy your way out.