Are social games abusing evolutionary psychology?

City of Wonder Unfortunately, I don't have a lot of time. So hopefully Jared and James will comment on this phenomenon as well. A couple recent articles have been released that discuss the ethics of game design. These articles seem to be the result of the business practices of the social games space. The claim is that social games are taking advantage of evolutionary psychology to manipulate players.

Brendan Sinclair - Gamespot
Michael Fergusson - Gamasutra

This is certainly the case, however, it is not something new to the world. Fast food, marketing research, retail sales, grocery store placement these are all things that are specifically designed to maximize revenue. In the realm of games collectible sports cards, Magic the Gathering, Hero Clicks, and Games Workshop games all use micro-transaction strategies that target psychological mechanisms. Then there is Las Vegas, where data mining and real time surveillance are used to keep people on the floor. Keep them spending. Keep them gambling.

So what is differentiates social network games like Farmville or Social City from these other psychologically motivating business models? Are we seeing the same thing that we have seen may times before being repeated? or are we entering a new era?


Jim's Response

I think everyone involved – whether developer or player, advocate or accuser – would agree that there is an intentional hooking of players through specific design mechanics. What seems to vary across the responses these parties noted in the pieces you’ve linked is (a) the perceived innocence of these developer intentions and (b) the assumed nature of the user.

Some of the developers essentially stated that it’s okay to make games as compelling and irresistible as possible because the goal of developers is to make games that are as compelling and irresistible as possible. This logic is circular and does not actually address the accusations of bad ethics hurtled at designers and producers. While Meier and his sort do come off as intending no harm, they also strike me as coyly naive – that is, stating that intentions are intentions in no way addresses questions about consequences.

But at the same time, I don’t think a game’s design needs to be grounded top-down in prosocial benefits (HealthSeeker’s modeling of healthier behaviors for those with diabetes, or Evoke’s more general aspirations of saving the world) in order to be deemed ethical. For example, Fergusson’s (second article) article implicitly aligns “socially responsible” games with “ethical” and and all other games with “unethical.” But I take issue with this dichotomy for a few reasons.

For one, even if well-intentioned, the science needed to validate that the notion that such socially responsible games persuade real world behaviors is still young and relatively untested. Indeed, though research has shown that med students, gas station employees, and other target groups can learn useful real world skills through game-based training, such studies have yet to face the same rigorous resistance and demands for replication as those studies which argue that more violent, less socially responsible in-game behaviors transmit to real world scenarios (a la Anderson and the General Aggression Model). To paraphrase the post of one commenter on Fergusson’s article: if violent games don’t make me more violent, would a health game make me healthier? Don’t get me wrong – Fergusson’s threading of concepts (modeling, neuroplasticity) to reason that prosocial games can lead to real results is plausible (and I personally think it true), but the proof is still lacking. Bottom line: If good intentions don’t actually lead to good results, so what? And even if it DOES lead to the intended results, is it then any more ethical to take advantage of the brain’s workings?

Secondly, these pieces portray players as either unwitting consumers or psychologically ill addicts with little autonomy over their play experiences and how those experiences impact and balance with their daily lives. However, there is a qualitative difference between engagement and addiction, between conscious enjoyment and unchecked compulsion. Modern media effects research is grounded in the notion that media’s influence is not just unilaterally etched upon the minds and behaviors of users, but rather, at least partially contingent upon the attitudes and faculties that the users bring to the table. Along this line of thinking, I’m compelled to note that games are still a far, far cry away from a magic bullet with a uniform and reliable effect (good or bad) on players, and thus discussion of the effect of a given design mechanism (micro-transactions, gifting, etc.) should not fail to consider the free will, motivations, and external social reality of players.

Personally, while I agree some cases are extremist and do call for consideration, generally speaking, players are prone to other, more immediate circumstances (social [offline], financial, etc.) existing well beyond the game. It is when a player cannot properly prioritize these pressures that there is a problem. In my opinion, such an inability is more likely the fault of real world pressure than the fine tuning and calibration of the game to player cognition.

With this perspective, I think the answer to your question of whether these games are different than other psychologically engaging business models is “It depends on the assumptions we make about developers and players.” If developers are seen as consciously predatory and users are thought incapable of resisting their hooks, then we’re talking about a high-tech Big Tobacco. But if developers are seen as innocently providing bursts of fun (which I think at least some are) or users are seen as something more than fleshy automatons (which we are), then as their worst these developers are on par with casinos, who themselves are typically legally and socially sanctioned to leverage the weaknesses of consumer psychology.

Are social games abusing evolutionary psychology? by Travis Ross, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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