I just read my friend Max Gladstone’s excellent post, which in turn references Tim Rogers’ essay on gamification. I think Tim makes an excellent point about how behavioral economics and psychology have ushered in a new generation of video games that are less fun, less artful, less genuine if you will than games that came before. Like Max, I’m not sure the mechanics of these games should be applied outside of the game industry; like Tim, I’m not sure these are even Good Mechanics, in a moral sense. There is an element in games like Farmville that encourages us to become addicted, and to do something that we don’t ultimately enjoy.
However, I do not believe the situation is as clear-cut as (in Tim’s words) “videogames killed videogames.” There is nothing inherently wrong with creating digital objects, or digital spaces, not directly connected to the physical. These spaces allow us to construct narratives that, in turn, allow us to escape from other parts of our lives. Further, these narratives can be enjoyable in their own right, beyond escapism. Games like Farmville constrict these objects to ones that feed into behavioral mechanisms that get us to pay more and play more, but they also lower the barriers for participation, sharing, and building. It doesn’t take a hundred million dollars of special effects and 3D rendering to build a Farmville, to deploy it on Facebook and share it with your friends. We can build on the platforms these games are creating to build new social games that are more like stories and less like Skinner boxes.
The counterpoint to “we can do it too!” used to be – yeah, but it won’t be profitable. That counterpoint, however, is only relevant in a context where it’s only ever worth it to build something profitable. When costs are high and resources (skilled developers, server space) are limited, this context applies; as costs shrinks and resources become ever more bountiful, we enter a new context – one where it’s worth it build a story just to entertain your friends, or maybe your friends and a few other other people. The value proposition is the smiles and the excitement and the shining eyes that come with being in a fun story, not the currency (of whatever form) derived from a virtual space. I would argue that social games, wittingly or not, are taking us one step closer to that context of freedom. It’s not all a world where we’re sitting in our underpants in front of our computer looking at avatars sitting in their underpants in front of their computer. It’s also a world where we can hack up a game like this, or this, over a long vacation or a few weekends, send it to our friends, and play it together. I think that’s a good world.