Gaming's Human Element

A few months back, I linked to an article about gamification, an idea stemming from applying powerful risk/reward dynamics in video games to 'real life' pursuits, resulting in increased personal and professional productivity and success. Even if gamification ends up as a footnote in gaming culture, there is a potent psychological element at work behind what keeps humans returning again and again to massive multi-player online games, online stock portfolios, Facebook, and structured online activities in general.

Arguably, Zynga is at the forefront of capturing these psychological impulses and bottling them. Witness their stunning success as proof. People pay money for virtual items, but not under just any circumstances. It takes an ingeniously structured online play experience - a kind of self-perpetuating microcosm - to motivate players to pay.

It took me three years to get myself to play a Zynga game, but it only took me three minutes to get completely hooked. The art style is crisp, clean, uncluttered and colorful. The list of goals to achieve is ongoing and infinite, like a 'chores' list posted on the refrigerator. You grow items. These items can be crops, buildings, 'units' of people, soldiers, facilities, or other items that, in turn, generate user content like virtual money, virtual power supplies, and even virtual oil. It's super-addictive, and satisfying to play, at least, until you run out of units and are prompted to buy more. This is where things get sticky.

See, Zynga games aren't merely comprised of growing acres of products to harvest. There are always promises of better, more complex virtual items to obtain. Reaching that goal is almost always predicated on two conditions.

First, pay to play. There is no free.

If you want to play free, you must severely limit your daily exposure to the game, extending your overall time spent with the product. Timers erupt around the game board continually, forcing the player to wait a set amount of time, anywhere from five minutes to a full day, to continue progress.

Zynga has calculated the length of these timers based on the value of the item(s) involved, and this 'algorithm' has been scientifically modeled to get players coming back at set intervals. These set intervals maximize user interaction with the Zynga game, and ultimately, maximize the potential for user purchases. One must revisit, and revisit, and revisit, to see the fruits of virtual labor, and even then, the consequence of returning to reap rewards is the promise of more rewards at some later time. With Zynga, there is no 'end' to this process. It's a cycle of virtual goods acquisitions that can go on forever. Zynga is always designing new items and gameplay elements that keep even veteran users coming back.

Second, get your friend to join or you atrophy.

You MUST interact with your Facebook friends in the game in order to make any real progress. This means either recruiting friends who have not joined the game, or making requests of friends with whom you are connected through the game already. This could mean fulfilling the goal of doing commerce with a friend in order to proceed, or attending to the care and maintenance of a friend's virtual facilities, or staffing your own facilities.

I am in no position to criticize what a successful, groundbreaking company like Zynga is doing. Their business model is a runaway success. Their founders will never want for anything, ever again.

Products like Mafia Wars, Farmville, Cityville and the rest take gamers' real world motivations - their connections with Facebook friends, their need to reach out to others  - and apply those motivations to a virtual universe.  In other words, gamers' social energy is siphoned into a virtual space, rather than virtual energy being poured out in the real world. Consider it a kind of 'reverse gamification.'

I think that Zynga - to be fair - considers their products a model for a better society. Gamers are urged to recruit others, and to structure their time and money into maximizing their virtual worth. No doubt, companies as ambitious and flush with success as today's social network gaming giants feel that their games train gamers to be better humans.

I couldn't shake the sensation, while immersed in Zynga's latest effort, that by playing, I was not helping myself but rather helping the developers - promoting the product, dutifully logging in every time the 24 hour timer expired to collect my virtual coins and crops. I felt like I was playing by someone else's rules the whole time, without a whole lot of flexibility afforded the player unless I plunked down regular installments to purchase items to speed up those timers.

Big console video games often artificially extend game play by forcing the player to backtrack through a level, or by having the player embark on fetch quest for random items scattered throughout the game world. These sorts of artificial game extenders are typically not excessive, and ultimately, any game containing them doesn't overdo it. Big console titles, essentially any game that can be found on the Steam service, asked for a set, finite amount for the entirety of the game experience (extra downloadable content notwithstanding).

In the realm of virtual goods and the building of virtual spaces, however, those amounts are no longer set, no longer finite. It feel that entire game - for instance, a game like Farmville - is one big artificial play extender, with no end in sight for the amount of money it takes to stay ahead. This scares me.

The majority of the population is not scared. Most of them are already hooked on the Zynga formula. I was, but as a longtime gamer, I already had gaming preferences that were bred into me at an early age that run counter to what Zynga is doing. Doesn't mean I don't appreciate where this is headed.

This is only the beginning. Games like these will get better and better. Isometric farmscapes will give way to three dimensional virtual spaces. The already lucrative MMORPG (Massive Multiplayer Online Online Role Playing) market will adopt Zynga's genius, and the ubiquity of virtual spaces will only increase. I just hope that companies like Zynga make the pivotal decision to grant more choice, flexibility and control to the players, abdicating some of their restrictive and manipulative formulas to give gamers a greater sense that they are in control, playing for themselves, and not just for the smart men with the charts and formulas who gladly take their money for just one more virtual flower bed.


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