Another look at Zynga

Travis's recent post on games taking advantage of evolutionary psychology reminded me of a conversation he and I had a few weeks ago. I had recently read this short article in Wired Magazine, and it brought up some interesting questions I'd like to get out on the blog. I don't have any answers here, but I'd to offer my $0.02 and get some input from you guys.

The Wired article is quite short (really just a blurb plus a few quotes by game industry types, to be honest), but it echoes the points discussed by Travis and Jim in terms of some game developers tapping into players' reward mechanisms in ways that may not be all that ethical. Nothing in the piece takes an evolutionary psychology perspective per se, but suggests - in alarmist fashion - that "some traditional game developers think the rise of Zynga is a sign of the end of days...in terms of game making." Zynga, for those unfamiliar with the company, is the studio behind the poster-child of the new wave in game design that's been taking so much flak lately: Farmville. Also in Zynga's click-happy, collect-all-you-can-and-get-your-friends-to-do-it-too, social network gaming crown: Mafia Wars, Café World, and...oh yeah...a $100 million dollar investment from Google.

It goes without saying, then, that Zynga's games and the business model behind them form a veritable cash cow. If the numbers are anything to go by, people love playing these games, and are willing to spend money in the process. But wait, say the critics, people don't actually love these games. What's "really" going on is that the tricky game developers are sneaking digital nicotine into the game experience, hijacking our dopamine pathways and squeezing money out of us as we we buy new virtual seeds and virtual livestock for our virtual farms, all the while encouraging our Facebook friends to start playing so they can do the same.

Okay, so that's an obvious exaggeration, but it does reflect why I'm wary to come down on Zynga as hard as some others have. Don't get me wrong - I have trouble seeing the fun in games like Farmville as much as any "hater", and I do think game design ethics matter, but there's something else going on here. Games have been making money off our neurological reward mechanisms for as long as they've been around; they're fun, and that's why people are willing to pay money to play them. Ethical questions have abounded in game design for years, with respect to in-game violence, or players' propensity to game addiction. I'd even say there's a valid ethical question to be asked about EA Sports' releasing a new, often only slightly-improved version of Madden football every year that players are seemingly compelled to trade sixty hard-earned dollars for the chance to play. I'm happy to see that the rise of Zynga has led people to pay more attention to ethical issues as applied to game design in general, but what is it about games like Farmville in particular that has people so riled up, even within the game industry? It's not just the game's popularity or the revenue it generates (though these are both pretty staggering), but rather the nature of the gameplay itself. To quote Chris Hecker, of Spore fame:

"When you’re playing Counter-Strike or even just throwing a Frisbee, the thing you’re doing is fun in itself. In Zynga games, you’re just trying to get more stuff. You’re caught up in this junkie behavior, and you have to keep upping the dose. That has me terrified."

This seems to be the crux of the problem people - especially within the game design community - have with Farmville. By the standards of most modern games, Farmville's gameplay is incredibly simple (and, many would argue, NOT in a good way), yet millions of users are compelled to log onto Facebook and play it every day. It would seem the game's ability to tap our reward mechanisms is transparent in a way that it is not in other games. But visible or not, I'm hard pressed to believe that Zynga's tactics are actually all that unique. Take a game like Modern Warfare 2 (a game I have more experience with than I'd care to admit). Here we have a first person shooter that would presumably meets Hecker's definition of a game that "is fun in itself", but a huge part of what makes it motivating to play (and I'm speaking from experience here) is its intricate leveling and challenge system. Playing the game online, you progress through 70 levels (from Private all the way up to Commander), all the while earning different titles and emblems that you can incorporate into your publicly visible gamertag. This entire 70-level process can be repeated ten times (each pass through the 70 levels is appropriately named a "prestige" and has associated rewards), motivating players to spend far more time playing the game than they would otherwise. This taps two fairly primitive drives - social prestige (advertised through your gamertag) and the desire to accumulate resources (titles and emblems) - in much the same way Farmville does. Collecting stuff and bragging about it to your peers are fundamental human activities (my lab at IU has done considerable work on foraging behavior, so I admit I have a vested interest in the topic). I would argue that these twin drives are pervasive across many modern games across widely varying genres, forming the backbone of their player reward systems.

Now I won't delve into too much more detail here, since Jim just recently talked about similar ideas in the context of gamification, but I'm curious as to how big a part of what makes a game fun is driven by the twin drives of accumulating resources and advertising them to others. Of course it matters how fun the gameplay itself is (and here I'm echoing Jim's distinction between outcome-oriented and process-oriented forms of motivation and engagement), but it's only part of the picture. I'm glad Hecker used the example of Counterstrike - I remember enjoying the game considerably, but getting bored with it because there wasn't a larger motivational structure encouraging me to play for more than a short while at a time. The gameplay was fun, but not enough to really hook me in the way games with a developed reward system could. Perhaps the fact that the Zynga approach, which focuses almost completely on the reward system instead of the quality of gameplay itself, is so effective has something to tell us. Maybe extrinsic motivation has more to do with the real definition of fun in the game context than we once thought, and so perhaps the backlash against Zynga is less warranted than it may seem. I'm not taking a hard line here, but I think this an open question that deserves more consideration than its been given. Thoughts?

Another look at Zynga by Jared Lorince, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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