Many game designers seem to be discussing the rise of the social gaming phenomenon sweeping across the country. Social games, devoid of story and complicated game mechanics, are filled with highly optimized feedback loops and virtual goods accumulation and raising concerns about their ethicality. Since they “exploit psychological flaws in the human brain” to keep users engaged and paying for comparatively simple game content, is this leading to a motivational bubble that will eventually burst? Read more after the jump.
My fascination with social games is the byproduct of shiny virtual places and the fulfilling feedback I get from collecting money. My clicking skills are phenomenal, especially when collecting scattered coins. I’ve trained my mind to quickly collect and click on scattered gold coins and be on my way. It’s a part of my daily routine and integrated in my schedule as I collect my coins twice a day. That’s amazing. I don’t even check that much. I feel truly rewarded!
The game makers know about me and how often I like to come back. By implementing the right reward at the right time intervals, I succumbed to the might of psychology. Accompanying the satisfaction of the feedback I received, the infamous coin collection sound specifically, were achievements. From badges to ribbons, I no longer needed to memorize long Shakespearean verses to impress my literature aficionado neighbor who consumes Hamlet the way I consume crops.
I know Zynga knows me – I’m a part of their statistics and they’ll be able to better understand me shortly as they begin working with Tableau Software to get more from their data then ever before. But something is changing. The same coin sound isn’t as appealing anymore. The notifications that once welcomed me to Facebook with their little digits with a red background no longer appear but my mind knows that I have to go attend to my crops. The way 2pac mastered the concept of ‘Machiavelli’, Zynga’s brand impulse has fully warped my agrarian nature into a skinner box.
There’s research out there now that suggests giving people extrinsic rewards for completing tasks decreases the subject’s genuine interest in the actual task. A 1973 study “Undermining Children’s Intrinsic Interest with Extrinsic Rewards” by Mark Lepper and others shed light into this issue. The authors hint in the introduction of “the possible side effects and long-term consequences of powerful systems of extrinsic rewards.” The macro-effect of powerful reward systems are key to the growth and retention companies like Zynga experience. The question is, will it last? Welcome to the era of the ‘motivation bubble‘, as David Berkowitz calls it. With power analytics and metrics available, game design is being meticulously showered with calculated extrinsic rewards and achievements. There is no doubt that social games on Facebook are fundamentally ‘games’, and the social motivations that industry executives gleefully worship are a smokescreen for the sinister ploy of milking the consumers. But what’s more important than making as much money as possible?
What worries me is Zynga’s valuation and whether its games will make the leap to fun game design. Are social games really fun? I’m not here to make statements nor am I qualified to discuss the molecular architecture of game design, but I know that personally my interest in these games is weaning. Despite the radiance and charm of new user interfaces and themes social game developers bring my way, I feel like I’m being duped by extrinsic motivators that are masking dull tasks and encouraging me to exploit my friendships for positive gain. Inviting neighbors in Farmville is almost a necessity since visiting neighbors yields money and experience points.
Chris Remo, states in his pristine post that, “the heart of games is not points, but process. Games have the capacity to persuade us because they can depict perspectives on how things work, and they can give us insights into the complex and often ambiguous connections between them.” Instead of immersing us into the wonderful world of natural living, farms are becoming like an etch-a-sketch that we momentarily awe at and covet without knowing why. This gives me a sort of circus like feel where I look at clowns and they are there to make me laugh but inside I think at night they come to life and scare people.
The same way investors were hyped during the dot-coms, this carnival of appointment based mechanics is inflating a motivational bubble right under our noses. Unlike an economic bubble, this bubble isn’t intertwined with other systems and is akin to a virus turning users into zombies for which one day a valiant soul, represented by ‘fun games’, will spread a cure. But you know viruses, they adapt against vaccines, so who knows if the future will bring about an extremely subliminal mind-control technique that powerful corporations will use to puppeteer us. In any case, this post is not to discourage traditional game developers to venturing into the social sphere, it’s almost an economic necessity unless you hold popular IP and can manage to be more strategic in your approach. But I and others urge others, including Zynga, to avoid the ‘nightmare scenario’ and make games that truly games and, although it sounds crazy, entertain people and help our beautiful planet.
Azam Khan is a social gaming consultant and analyst for the social gaming industry. You can find him discussing the latest on social games right here on SocialTimes.com and tweeting at twitter.com/AzamKhan