At its best, a video game can transport its user to another world, have them see that world through a perspective that may not be their own, and provide satire or social commentary with a tactility not offered by television or cinema. Many may scoff at the notion of a game as a piece of art. But as the industry has progressed, the focus is now less on technical breakthroughs and more on storytelling and relevance. The number of famous actors who have lent their voices to video games is symptomatic of this cultural shift.
At its worst, though, a video game is little more than a dressed up Skinner box. Players are given positive reinforcement for their actions, no matter how simplistic the action, and are thus encouraged to keep playing to receive further reinforcement. Very little skill can be involved in some games, and decision making can be entirely superficial in many cases. This kind of base level input/response mechanism underpins one the of gaming world’s most cynical sects: social gaming.
Social games began on - but are now not exclusive to - social media channels, casual games based more on dedication and patience than on skill or strategy. Generally there are never any victory conditions, the gameplay is asynchronous (players don’t have to be online at the same time), events unfold in real time (hence the element of patience), and they require grinding (the need to repeat simple actions over and over again for incremental gains).
The company most synonymous with the genre is Zynga. Founded in 2007, Zynga is responsible for the wildly popular FarmVille, FishVille, and CityVille. FarmVille, the company’s most famous offering, was the most popular game on Facebook for over two years following its release in 2009. It peaked at over 20 million daily active users, with a sequel released in 2012. The game was incredibly casual, essentially involving planting crops, waiting for them to grow, harvesting them, selling them on to earn more money for more crops. The game is cyclical and is essentially grinding with a superficial element of design.
The inherent cynicism in this kind of social gaming isn’t perhaps immediately obvious, but it lies in the monetization structure of the games and the way in which they encourage user acquisition. Across social games, users can generally use in-game money - accrued over time by playing the game - to buy either competitive advantage or elements that otherwise take time to acquire. They can also use real money, though, and social games exploit the desire to accelerate gratification and encourage relatively small but frequent payments. Often, certain in-game items are only available to a paying customer, a feature that means no user can ‘complete’ the game without parting with cash.
The problems with Zynga’s model are numerous. Because the set up of the game is so intimately tied to its monetization strategy, the company have found it incredibly difficult to replace popular games once their appeal wanes. What are fundamentally the same games have been rehashed time and time again with a new skin, a model that will only lead to disillusionment among an initial user base. It has also been accused of spamming social media users, thanks to the fact that its gamers can receive in-game bonuses for inviting their Facebook friends to play the game, for example, only further adding to the of sullying of the company image.
Zynga’s failings are best exemplified by an alleged quote from co-founder Mark Pincus, reportedly said to a former employee. ‘I don't f***ing want innovation,’ he is quoted to have said. ‘You're not smarter than your competitor. Just copy what they do and do it until you get their numbers.’ Perhaps he should have considered allowing his staff to innovate. The company’s stocks have plummeted along with its user base since the company’s pomp. From a peak of 72 million average daily active users in Q2 of 2012, the company was down to 18 million in Q3 of 2016. Analysts have questioned the long-term viability of a company that could be described as a one-trick pony.
Video game researcher and philosopher Ian Bogost found fame in 2010 as a result of his game Cow Clicker. The game satirizes and deconstructs the medium of social gaming itself, having users click on a cartoon cow every six hours only to earn more clicks (and a moo of appreciation). Users can buy the game’s thinly veiled premium currency ‘Mooney’, with which they can make cosmetic changes to the cow itself or skip the waiting time in-between clicks. The frivolity and futility of the game serves as a commentary on other skill-free games that offer little but cosmetic gratification. Interestingly, though, Cow Clicker became modesty popular, peaking at 56,000 players. The game’s reviews suggested that only some were in on the joke. Others thought the point it made was stupid, while the satire apparently passed some by entirely, with Wired citing a review that simply read: ‘Ok, not great though.’
When the ironists dropped off, Bogost was left with a user base of actual players who had missed the joke, who ‘were making demands [and] wanted things that [he] wasn't giving them in the game,’ the developer said in an interview with NPR. In this sense, Cow Clicker was more successful a satire than Bogost could’ve initially hoped or expected. It proved that even at its most bare faced, the formula of the social game appeals to the most base of the human desire for gratification and people will play it. Zynga’s founders knew this, and the company has extracted money from its users since by exploiting it. Zynga’s user drop off suggests that, ultimately, cynicism can’t trump genuine innovation over an extended period of time, even if it can deliver overnight success.