Thursday, May 6, 2010

Are Social Obligation Games Psychological Malware?

Years ago I played a game called Dark Age of Camelot (DAoC). It was my first foray into the MMORPG genre of video games. While the game had its fun moments where strategy and some thinking was required, many parts of it were very repetitive. Leveling up was one of these boring repetitive tasks that you had to do in order to progress in the game. Players lovingly called this process grinding. Over time I found myself playing the game more and more even though I dreaded logging in. I had become addicted to the game much like Everquest players had become addicted to it in the past. When I stopped playing I tried to figure out why I had played so long.

I used to think that I was addicted DAoC through classical conditioning. This works by rewarding the player often early on and slowly spacing out the rewards to require more and more time to complete them. Eventually you can get a player to play for days and days in order to accomplish a single task. My friends and I used to jokingly refer to the process as 'give me the pellet' referring to science experiments where rats are rewarded with food pellets for completing some mundane task. Something always bothered my about this analysis though. I have played games throughout my life and never had a problem before with playing too much. Was this classical conditioning response on its own enough to keep my playing?

The other main game mechanic that makes MMOs different from other games is that you play in a persistent world with other people. To accomplish anything worthwhile in these games you generally need to befriend and group with other people on a near constant basis. As you progress in the game the people you group with become more and more important and you start feeling obligated to log in and help your friends that you have made in game. The game plays to an individuals social responsibility to keep people coming back so as not to let down their friends.

In DAoC and other traditional MMOs I don't believe this social aspect is a blatant attempt to keep people playing. There really is an underlying game that can be enjoying to play, and I think the social aspects are there as another avenue to make the game more enjoyable. In the last few years though a new category of game has arisen and it turns out that its primary draw is from the social obligation to play.

Farmville is currently the most popular game in America with between 70 and 80 million people playing through their Facebook accounts. I hesitate to call it a game since it really isn't much of a game at all. An excerpt from this article best describes why people play Farmville:

The secret to Farmville’s popularity is neither gameplay nor aesthetics. Farmville is popular because in entangles users in a web of social obligations. When users log into Facebook, they are reminded that their neighbors have sent them gifts, posted bonuses on their walls, and helped with each others’ farms. In turn, they are obligated to return the courtesies. As the French sociologist Marcel Mauss tells us, gifts are never free: they bind the giver and receiver in a loop of reciprocity. It is rude to refuse a gift, and ruder still to not return the kindness.[11] We play Farmville, then, because we are trying to be good to one another. We play Farmville because we are polite, cultivated people.

Where traditional MMOs addicted geeks with a combination of gameplay, competition, and social obligation, Farmville has dropped all other aspects of game play and ropes in its users by entangling them in a complex network of social obligations. Much like a con man plays to our human nature to generally trust others, Farmville is using our basic nature to be nice to others and reciprocate kindness in order to keep people playing.

In my mind a couple questions then arise with respect to Farmville and software design in general. First, is it ethical to design software in such a way that it provides little value to users other than locking them into a web of social obligations? I'm guessing many users do not even realize what has occurred when they are planning their day around planting, harvesting, and making sure their friends also do their planting and harvesting. At what point does a game like Farmville cease being a game and become a type of psychological malware for the users players?

Second, even if people agree that Farmville's use of social obligations may not be ethical, could there a social benefit in other types of software applications. Software is not written in a vacuum, and without users it is essentially useless. Could adding more social obligations to useful software be beneficial to users by getting users to use the software. Could the introduction of social obligations somehow get users to better maintain their computers by staying up to date with patches and virus software?

Ultimately while I think Zygna is a company preying on peoples good nature, it does not automatically mean that keeping users through a social obligation is ethically wrong and it must be looked at on a case by case basis.

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