A new disturbing trend has been infiltrating what was once an idyllic utopia populated with alien invasions, monsters, zombies, and incredibly fast hedgehogs. Yes, I'm talking about the world of gaming.
Gaming has traditionally been a world of escape and fantasy. We derived joy from saving maidens, fighting ghouls and infiltrating enemy lines. The pleasure centers in our brains would light up with delight by completing tasks, gaining points and leveling up. But an ugly plague as beset this garden of digital delight: social games.
Social games like Farmville, Social City and Mafia Wars have changed the gaming world forever—not for the better. These games function in fashions that—for the most part—go entirely against good game design.
So what makes a game "good?"
I am not a game designer, so you'll have to forgive my over simplification:
Gameplay - Regardless if we are talking about an interactive puzzle, platform jumper or first-person shooter, the player must have control but also must be constantly and continually challenged as their skill increases.
Storyline - While not applicable to all games (Sudoku, board games, etc.), games that have a plot, characters and context are more compelling.
Flexibility - There are rules to every game, and those that allow players to develop strategies and tactics while still keeping the overall experience challenging are more engaging.
Rewards - Not just points or badges, but relevant rewards that effect and enhance gameplay add value to the experience.
How social games fall short
Most Social games have no real gameplay, story, flexibility or reward to speak of. To quote Ian Bogost—game designer, philosopher and critic:
"These challenge-free games demand little more than clicking on farms, restaurants, cities and things at regular intervals."
That's it. There is no strategy other than showing up and clicking—and doing it when the goddamn game tells you to. And your reward for this mundane interaction? More obligation at more regular intervals! The tedious and quite frankly insipid game mechanics found in the majority of social games have inspired me to coin the term that titles this blog post. Games are meant to be fun and social. And obligation-based games are neither. Sure they are touted as being social, but other than sharing the workload of these click-orientated tasks with other players in a stilted and impersonal fashion, there is no meaningful social interaction. In fact, social game developers' tendency to implant senseless "task broadcasting" mechanics into these games, actually create negative social tension between players and non-players in the social platform. For example: How many of you have unfriended someone who filled your social news feeds with worthless game-action announcements?
While these social games have spawned many critics, it's the parody of their game mechanics that are really worthy of mentioning. A perfect example of one these parodies is Ian Bogost's Cow-clicker, a Facebook game about Facebook games.
"You get a cow. You can click on it. In six hours, you can click it again. Clicking earns you clicks. You can buy custom "premium" cows through micropayments (the Cow Clicker currency is called "mooney"), and you can buy your way out of the time delay by spending it. You can publish feed stories about clicking your cow, and you can click friends' cow clicks in their feed stories. Cow Clicker is Facebook games distilled to their essence."
Commentary like Cow Clicker strips social games of what little veneer they have and exposes them for what they really are: pointless.
It started with a toy
Now social game developers aren't the first purveyors of obligation-based game dynamics. In 1996, Bandai—the Japanese toy making megalith—released the Tamagotchi; the first digital virtual pet.
Players were tasked with the raising of their Tamagotchi through its entire lifespan. Attending to and maintaining their virtual pet's growing needs: feeding, playing games, cleaning up it's excrement, disciplining, praising, medicating it when it get's sick (from lack of attention) and even turning the lights off when it's time to sleep. If the Tamagotchi is uncared for, it will quickly die. Wow, doesn't that sound like a bunch of fun? Nothing like having all the ugly tasks of maintaining a pet without any positive reward other than keeping the little demanding digital demon alive to pester you further. Of course, since their release, Bandai has sold over 76 million of these annoying toys—probably to a throng of children and adults who were unable to have a real pet—and has spawned Tamagotchi's own virtual world Tamatown and a host of psychological repercussions.
An uncertain future
Now I would be a fool if I said that the obligation-based gaming model wasn't successful. Between Zynga and Bandai we know that it can be. Obligation-based games make the players feel needed. Players are responsible and integral to the survival and success of whatever game they are interacting with. And unlike other games that will pause while you're away, social games live and die in your absence. This is their power. But at what cost? Can we really say that it is a healthy interaction when players are setting their alarms to wake at 3am to harvest their virtual crops or feed their digital fish? Life is already beset with real responsibilities and stress. Games were originally conceived to be an escape from our mundane lives—to make life more enjoyable. With companies and marketer's scrambling to add gamification to their products and services, I begin to worry about the psychological ramifications of blending the worlds of work and play in this manner. Life is about tension and release. Work is tension. Games are release. If games lose the ability to let us escape what will happen? It is too soon to tell, but just to be safe, let's do the world a favor and keep games fun.
Our happiness may depend on it.