Sean Carey recently posted a column about why Farmville is a game that should be embraced, instead of scorned. While he raises some very valid points, Farmville is the symptom, not the disease.
Many of Sean's points are accurate - Farmville isn't about to bring the industry to its knees. Hell, even looking at it on a bigger scale, Zynga (Farmville's developer) isn't going to kill anyone. They're a smart company that is doing a bunch of stuff right (especially if bottom line is your primary focus as a developer), but they're not necessarily evil. I met a few people from Zynga at GDC, and I left San Francisco with my limbs intact and my wallet as full as it was when I got there (totally empty).
He's even right that Farmville isn't going to ruin modern society as we know it. Of course, this is where it gets more interesting, though.
I'm sure many of you have heard the term "social gaming" at one point or another by now. It's a very popular buzzword, and one that is seemingly inescapable. The "social" aspect of most of these games seems to be remarkably anti-social (updates on your Facebook page asking for/giving out specific items to try to get more people to play, a staple of Zynga's game library, is the primary example of this), though. You would think that that game of Modern Warfare 2 with your friends you played last night would be "social gaming," but that's not at all what people are talking about when they use that term. "Viral gaming" might be a better way of putting it, but that's too negative (whereas "social gaming" is too positive in my mind).
And yes, you will see Twitter/Facebook integration pop up in traditional gaming (Uncharted 2 comes to mind), but Sean is absolutely right: programmers aren't about to suddenly put down their knowledge of Python, perl, C++, or whatever else just to pick up Flash because social gaming is currently a cash cow.
(On a slightly tangential note, the iPad not supporting Flash makes me happy. At one of the panels I went to at PAX ("The Death of Print"), while they were discussing video game websites, someone in the audience yelled out, "Stop using flash!" The entire audience erupted in the loudest applause of the panel.)
Of course, I'm agreeing with a lot of Sean's points, here, but where he loses me is his discussion of external rewards. Again, Sean is right that external rewards have been around for a long time (and the DICE example of the Toyota Prius is only a very current example), and they've even been around in video games for longer than perhaps you're aware. Take, for example, one of my favorite games: Diablo 2.
Playing through Diablo 2 that first time is always fun. You're seeing the quests, hopefully enjoying the story, and trying to build a character that 1) is enjoyable for you to play 2) can adequately allow you to overcome every obstacle in your way (a lot of people seem to forget point 1 when they build their character, which is a shame). What happens after you've gone through the game, though? Well, some people will just shelve it forever. A very common reaction, though, is to go balls-to-the-wall collecting the evilest of evil substances known to man: loot.
Loot has become a bullet point over the years on games (a lot of people pitched Borderlands to me by using the loot argument, especially since my love of Diablo 2 is no secret), but it isn't necessarily a good thing. I can't tell you how many times I killed Mephisto on nightmare because he had a good loot table, and it was remarkably easy to kill him and kill him fast
(especially as a sorceress). At this point, I wasn't actually having much fun. Really, what I was doing was playing a slot machine.
Godly Item X of Godliness had a X.X% chance of dropping (much like you have an X.X% chance of triple 7's showing up on a slot machine). I wanted that item. I kept killing Mephisto in hopes of getting that item. The longer I tried to get that item, the more frustrated I'd get. However, knowing that unless I'm the unluckiest person in the world, I'd eventually get that drop kept me going. This is similar to an experience grind that you do in just about any RPG ever, but you have no idea when you will gain that next level. It might be after one kill, it might be after several thousand.
Why did I do it, then? That notion of external rewards. I cite this example not to make a point that Sean basically agreed with, but to depict that achievements aren't the only example of this, but rather, just one of the more recent ones. I could cite a few more examples, but I'd rather not have this entry be several thousand words that no one reads (it's much better when it's several hundred words that no one reads!)
Sean is right - we shouldn't have a kneejerk reaction to achievements by banning them outright. We could ask developers to use them a bit more responsibly (by, y'know, making it so that the achievements represent an actual achievement
instead of 'collect a billion items that have zero bearing on the game and are near-impossible to find without looking it up on the internet or buying an expensive strategy guide'), but even that is a leap of faith.
Why is Farmville scary to me, then? Because developers are getting smarter at playing the psychological game. Loot still has some life left in it as a way to create addiction without any sort of creative gameplay (or more commonly, very standard gameplay with loot tacked on), and achievements are still popular, albeit easy to mess up (Here's lookin' at you, Final Fantasy XI). What Zynga has done is just another example of this, with even more positive results (to them). Using Facebook as a distribution method proved to be a massive success. I've been saying for awhile now that Facebook now is essentially what America Online was in the 1990s (except less limiting), so using that to their advantage was a smart move.
What's going to happen after this generation, though? I certainly agree that psychological mind games aren't going to bring society to its knees (well, unless Mike Judge was right in Idiocracy, and the current political field doesn't strike me with a ton of confidence in that regard), but I feel it's going to get worse before it gets better. I have a friend who registered an account on World of Warcraft, and we literally didn't see him in the real world for over two years (dropped out of school, quit his job, basically just fell off the radar entirely). We tried, but he got sucked into that game like no other. This will never happen to everyone (I think), but I'd prefer if it didn't happen to anyone.
Of course, maybe the fact that people are
talking about this kind of thing now is a step in the right direction. Maybe we've gone too far into the obvious that now we can begin to examine the subtle closely. I'd rather not have the fun sucked out of games, only to be replaced with addiction.
Now, if you'll excuse me, my crops are dying.
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