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The Ethics of Social Games 75

Posted by Soulskill
from the push-button-for-endorphins dept.
Gamespot is running a story about the ethics and morality of the social games market, which in recent years has exploded to involve hundreds of millions of players. Between micro-transactions, getting players to recruit friends, and the thin line between compelling games and addictive games, there are plenty of opportunities for developers to stray into shady practices. Quoting: "The most successful social games to date have used very simple gameplay mechanics, encouraging neither strategy nor dexterity but regular interaction with the game ... Although undeniably successful, the existing social game framework has been the subject of much debate among game developers from every corner of the game industry, from the mainstream to the indie community. Some, like Super Meat Boy creator Edmund McMillen, are particularly strident in their assessment. 'Social games tend to have a really seedy and abusive means of manipulation that they use to rope people in and keep them in,' McMillen said. 'People are so tricked into that that they'll actually spend real money on something that does absolutely nothing, nothing at all.'
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The Ethics of Social Games

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  • by RogueyWon (735973) * on Thursday November 25, 2010 @08:03AM (#34341616) Journal

    There's something to this as far as MMOs go. People like to talk about how MMOs tickle the reward centres of the brain with their level-up/upgrade cycles and so on, but I suspect that this wears thin fairly quickly. Certainly, as somebody who has been heavily "into" and then got out of two MMOs (FFXI and WoW) over the last year, the social side of the game has been the biggest deterrent to leaving.

    MMOs, of course, get to sting you twice in this respect. Not only do you get a social circle within the game, but if you're not careful, they also start pulling you away from your real-life social circle.

    I remember I found it a bit disconcerting when I decided to stop playing WoW. I'd stopped enjoying the game about 4 or 5 months beforehand, and while I had friends within the game, I was finding the sheer tedium of playing the game itself increasingly unbearable. When I quit, I decided to go cold turkey, which was a pronounced contrast to the gradual drift-away I'd had with FFXI. For the first two weeks or so after quitting, I found it very difficult to fill the time I suddenly had. I'd gotten out of the habit of going out and doing things on weekday evenings and it took a while to get back into it.

    This isn't to say that MMOs are entirely bad. I mostly enjoyed my time with FFXI and WoW. And while only having an online circle of friends is hardly ideal, it's still a step up from having no social life at all. I don't think I'd go so far as to accuse MMO developers of being outright unethical. But I do think that the MMO market is one where the principle of "caveat emptor" is relevant in some fairly unusual ways. I didn't touch MMOs during my student days, because I knew I would find them engrossing and I didn't want to take this risk until I had steady employment. It's probably worth thinking about your ability to stop playing before you get too heavily into an MMO.

    • It's probably worth thinking about your ability to stop playing before you get too heavily into an MMO.

      I agree. Luckily I have this coupon code that you can use. Just try it for a few minutes! I will take care of your laundry and garbage for the next few days while you get acclimated to the game environment.

    • by ultranova (717540)

      MMOs, of course, get to sting you twice in this respect. Not only do you get a social circle within the game, but if you're not careful, they also start pulling you away from your real-life social circle.

      Please define "real life social circle", and why it is bad to give more weight to your online social life than that? Because, to put it bluntly, I very much doubt that most casual acquaintainces care about you more than the people who chat with you on the Internet, and many even less.

      • It's strange how people think that just because you communicate with someone only over the internet, it isn't somehow valid.
        • Social relations over the internet is valid for what they are. The danger about developing social relations inside a video game with a monthly payment plan is that the social circle might become the reason you keep on paying a gaming company. There's nothing wrong with online friends - however, it could be argued that there's something wrong with paying a 3rd party for creating the artificial boundaries for you to interact with your friends, rather than paying to play a game that you find amusing. And it co
          • by dave562 (969951) on Thursday November 25, 2010 @02:44PM (#34344224) Journal

            The danger about developing social relations inside a video game with a monthly payment plan is that the social circle might become the reason you keep on paying a gaming company.

            Re-write this...

            The danger about developing social relations at a coffee house with a per cup payment plan is that the social circle might become the reason you keep on paying a coffee house.

            Feel free to replace coffee house with any "acceptable" (non-Internet) based "social circle" and see if it really matters anymore.

            • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

              by Bigbutt (65939)

              Yea, but at least you're getting coffee :)

              [John]

            • The danger about developing social relations inside a video game with a monthly payment plan is that the social circle might become the reason you keep on paying a gaming company.

              Re-write this...

              The danger about developing social relations at a coffee house with a per cup payment plan is that the social circle might become the reason you keep on paying a coffee house.

              Feel free to replace coffee house with any "acceptable" (non-Internet) based "social circle" and see if it really matters anymore.

              Well, if I tell my RL friends that I am tired of our normal coffee house, they will usually be willing to try another with me. Or maybe just hang out somewhere else entirely. Because we share more than our enjoyment of coffee in common (usually) and are not roped into that particular coffee house with the 50hours we spent leveling up and making our powers symbiotic.

              Coffee houses, bars, whatnot are places you go to meet friends, but usually not the reason you have and keep friends, unlike a game, where your

        • by Duradin (1261418)

          It's not strange. Making internet relations less valid or invalid makes their bar relations more valid.

      • "real life social circle" = people regularly interacted with in a face-to-face manner. People that you would consider friends even if doesn't say so on Facebook.
        It's bad to give more weight to online social life than real life social circles, because otherwise, you might find yourself grouping your acquintances into "online" and "casual", and completely miss out on the rewarding experience of doing actual stuff in the physical world with real friends.
    • by Nyder (754090)

      There's something to this as far as MMOs go. People like to talk about how MMOs tickle the reward centres of the brain with their level-up/upgrade cycles and so on, but I suspect that this wears thin fairly quickly. Certainly, as somebody who has been heavily "into" and then got out of two MMOs (FFXI and WoW) over the last year, the social side of the game has been the biggest deterrent to leaving.

      MMOs, of course, get to sting you twice in this respect. Not only do you get a social circle within the game, but if you're not careful, they also start pulling you away from your real-life social circle.

      ....

      Any social thing will do that.

      Work, sports, etc.

      The truth is, you need to decided how you spend your time, and who with.

      I never got into going out with people i worked with for beers, or whatever. While I liked most the people good enough, they were work mates, not friends.

      I play everquest 2 alot. I like the people in my guild, but in the game. I don't send them emails, text messages or anything else out of game.

      Here's another shocker for you.

      People that get married and have kids, start hanging out at ho

    • by mattack2 (1165421)

      And while only having an online circle of friends is hardly ideal, it's still a step up from having no social life at all.

      John Bender: So it's sorta social, demented and sad, but social. Right?

  • by Huntr (951770) on Thursday November 25, 2010 @08:17AM (#34341674)
    He said

    'People are so tricked into that that they'll actually spend real money on something that does absolutely nothing, nothing at all.'

    The same could be said of so much of what we do, particularly entertainment-related spending. Whether or not something is "worthwhile" is a very personal decision. People spend millions on non-social gaming and what do they get from it? The entertainment experience, same as with social games, same as with gambling, same as with watching sports or movies or observing art. You don't end up with anything tangible, but the experience is worth every penny to you. Some endeavors are more accepted as worthwhile by society or have generally agreed upon benefits, but the perception of value still varies from person to person. JMO.

    • but the experience is worth every penny to you.

      Unless you spent those pennies on Dragon Age.

    • by Purity Of Essence (1007601) on Thursday November 25, 2010 @09:11AM (#34341944)

      Edmund McMillen is right on the money. This topic (along with the GameSpot article) fails for not mentioning an insightful and informative talk Braid creator Jonathan Blow gave at Rice University a couple of months ago. Unlike other diversions, these "social" games are not at all about providing fun or entertainment. They are entirely about separating you from your money using sophisticated psychological tricks. You might be right in saying there is a perception of value, but these systems create that perception in a very devious manner. If you were to take away the tricks, you would find there is no game -- or rather, the only game is the system creators gaming the players for all the money they can get. People don't play these games because they are fun or challenging. They play them as a conditioned response to a variable ratio reinforcement schedule, in the same way a caged rat hits a trigger for a pellet.

      Watch or listen to Jonathan Blow's talk:
      Games and the Human Condition [the-witness.net]

      Social Games (aka Skinner Boxes):
      Operant Conditioning Chamber [wikipedia.org]
      Reinforcement [wikipedia.org]

      • by Huntr (951770)

        People don't play these games because they are fun or challenging

        People find getting the pellet fun and entertaining. You don't, I don't, others do. That's why it's a personal judgment.

        • The argument here is that they are unable to make a personal judgment due to the game companies "using sophisticated psychological tricks".
          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by Huntr (951770)

            They are entirely about separating you from your money using sophisticated psychological tricks.

            The only difference between social games and any other form of entertainment is sometimes the tricks aren't all that sophisticated. Entertainment is all about separating the consumer from his money. I don't think the MPAA is a "better" content provider than Zynga simply because they use movie posters and TV spots.

            • by delinear (991444)
              And no reason to tie this down to entertainment, either. Marketeers in all walks use numerous psychological tricks to encourage people to part with their money. If one becomes addicted to these kinds of game and feels it is a detriment to their lives, they should seek help, just like someone who becomes addicted to shopping. For the vast majority of people it's not an issue - we all know the tricks and we largely live with them already. It's only because the medium is new to a lot of people that this is eve
      • by hyphz (179185) * on Thursday November 25, 2010 @10:56AM (#34342566)

        The problem is that if you start looking at things that way, every game fits into the same category. Super Meat Boy is _all_ about skinner-box conditioning of reflexes and observation. Yes, it's tremendously satisfying when you finish a new level by pulling off moves you'd never have though possible, but what you're experiencing there is the result of operant conditioning on muscle memory.

        Thing is, skinner boxes provide something that we need. Here's a quite from David Wong of Cracked that sums it up:

        "As shocking as this sounds, a whole lot of the "guy who failed all of his classes because he was playing WoW all the time" horror stories are really just about a dude who simply didn't like his classes very much. This was never some dystopian mind control scheme by Blizzard. The games just filled a void. Why do so many of us have that void? Because according to everything expert Malcolm Gladwell, to be satisfied with your job you need three things, and I bet most of you don't even have two of them: Autonomy (that is, you have some say in what you do day to day); complexity (so it's not mind-numbing repetition);and connection Between Effort and Reward (i.e. you actually see the awesome results of your hard work).

        Most people, particularly in the young gamer demographics, don't have this in their jobs or in any aspect of their everyday lives. But the most addictive video games are specifically geared to give us all three... or at least the illusion of all three.
        [...]
        The terrible truth is that a whole lot of us begged for a Skinner Box we could crawl into, because the real world's system of rewards is so much more slow and cruel than we expected it to be."

        Part of the problem is that economics has reached the point where going for top jobs actually involves irrational behaviour. Tim Harford wrote in The Undercover Economist that the incredibly high wages in top jobs are not just to reward the people in the jobs, but to incentivize others into working to try and get them. The idea is that if I offer you $100 for a job or $200 if you work hard, you'll probably work hard, because the reward is right there. If I offer you $100 for a job or, if you work hard, a 1% chance of getting $200 , you won't work hard. But if I offer you $100 for a job or, if you work hard, a 1% chance of getting $1bn, your brain will tell you to work hard because the reward is so high that any slender chance is a good thing. Problem is, 99% of the time, you don't get the reward no matter how big it is, so that decision making process turns out to be an irrational cognitive bias.

        And that process has trickled down over time and become embedded in our collective psyche. Why were computer games seen as so dorky in the 80's? Because it was really easy to believe that there was a better alternative. Now, society has started to realize that it is being sold a pup. Yes, I could spend that time learning guitar, or learning to draw, or learning another language. But I know that the vast majority of musicians, artists, and translators are unemployed or sporadically employed or even working for free. Furthermore, most people in those fields will tell you that if you don't enjoy just the process of playing guitar (or whatever), there's no way you'll do it often enough to get really good. So why shouldn't I just do what I enjoy instead?

        Don't look at the games. Look at the society.

        • So people are unhapy with their lives/jobs and thus susceptible to psychological manipulation. Consumers ripe for the picking. What could possibly be wrong with taking advantage of that and fooling the weak minded into handing over their cash for the promise of "doing what they enjoy"?

          • by hyphz (179185) *

            Um, they can pay to get to do what the enjoy (as an illusion, but that's the best society can do), or not pay and carry on being miserable (it's not the game makers' fault that they are miserable). How is that immoral?

        • by mounthood (993037)

          Clay Shirky suggested that society was "drunk" on TV because of all the free time we had, but didn't know what to do with. Change TV to Solitaire or Minesweeper or "online social games" and just looks like the same pattern: there's a void to be filled.

        • by Z8 (1602647)

          The problem is that if you start looking at things that way, every game fits into the same category.

          No, it doesn't. The Jonathan Blow video in the post you're responding to addresses all this through some interesting thought experiments.

          The differences between chess and a slot machine are matters of degree to some extent—so what, chess is still a deeper game. People choose to consume both cocaine and vegetables—there is still a very important difference between drug dealers and organic farmers

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Dr. Spork (142693)
        So I just watched the whole talk by Jonathan Blow, and I'm pretty impressed with his analysis. As someone who teaches ethics and loves gaming, it's a bit humbling to be blindsided by some of those ideas. ("Why didn't I think of it that way before I heard the talk?") The point that hit home is the idea that commercial game design is inconsistent with a respect for the valuable projects of the user. If the goal is to appeal to the evolutionary weaknesses of the human character to trick them into forking out m
      • by hyphz (179185) *

        Also, how many times did Jonathan Blow manage to basically say "I'm better than you" during that talk? :)

    • Re: (Score:1, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      The same could be said of so much of what we do, particularly entertainment-related spending. Whether or not something is "worthwhile" is a very personal decision. People spend millions on non-social gaming and what do they get from it? The entertainment experience, same as with social games, same as with gambling, same as with watching sports or movies or observing art. You don't end up with anything tangible, but the experience is worth every penny to you. Some endeavors are more accepted as worthwhile by society or have generally agreed upon benefits, but the perception of value still varies from person to person. JMO.

      I disagree.

      When was the last time you ever heard someone playing an offline game, or gambling, or watching or playing sports, or watching movies, or observing art or anything refer to "the grind"? The very term is an admission that you're not having fun, and gamers will readily acknowledge this, too (although they will then also claim that they're only doing it to have fun at a later point, one that, in my experience, never comes).

      Now of course, the same thing exists in the offline world: a professional ath

  • Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Arancaytar (966377)

      But is it enjoyment if you feel compelled to waste that time?

      There are people who literally pay other people to handle their Farmville account while they're on vacation. That doesn't sound like time enjoyed wasting.

      • by Rhaban (987410)

        There are people who literally pay other people to handle their Farmville account while they're on vacation. That doesn't sound like time enjoyed wasting.

        The one spending time is paid for doing so, and the one with the account does not spend his time with the game: There is no wasted time in that case. Money, however...

  • weather from personal experience or from how the media talks about the difference, there is a much bigger gap in MMOs and social games like the ones you find on the iPhone and Facebook, this hole in the story is Plot. if you sit down and play farmville or mafia wars, you are only there to press buttons and talk with friends and collect rewards from those around you at the time. In MMOs like WoW or the soon to be released Starwars The Old Republic, you get a community of people who play the game for the sa

    • I don't see the distinction at all. The plot may not be of the same depth however if you are not playing the game for the plot then this is a meaningless distinction.

  • Hypocritical? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by rekrowyalp (797421)
    'People are so tricked into that that they'll actually spend real money on something that does absolutely nothing, nothing at all.' Well duh, surely buying 'normal' non-social games falls under that category too...
    • Or movies, TV shows, or books for that matter? The one I'm reading at the moment tickles some bit of my brain into letting it do nothing but take up time I should otherwise be spending programming, seeing friends, doing housework and sleeping. (Not necessarily in that order, honest)
      • by Culture20 (968837)
        Does your book require you to invite 5 friends to buy a copy before you can read the next chapter? Near the end, do your friends have to accept your invitation before you can read the climax?
        • by delinear (991444)
          I have a feeling the constraint here is the medium, not the benevolence of the people behind it. If it was as trivial to put such a system in place with books as it is with online games, I guarantee someone would already be doing it. There are unscrupulous people in all industries, but really if you get into a game like that knowing what's required and you lack the willpower to walk away, that's only partly the fault of the person who made the game.
        • by Criterion (51515)

          Maybe the book is popular enough that I can easily find 5 people to share the story with already. If we are all ready for the end chapter they are all there, ready and waiting to accept the invite, we don't invite people who like to constantly re-read the parts about standing in fire, and everybody already knows to loot the corehounds (oops.. spoiler).

    • Re: (Score:1, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Have you ever tried FarmVille? Within the first few minutes you will see stuff like:

      * offers to complete web surveys to gain more in game money (some of those have been frauds tricking you into expensive subscriptions)
      * constant offers to buy more in-game money with real money if you run out of in-game money
      * constant offers to spam your friends
      * random daily rewards when you start the game

      On top of that FarmVille runs in real-time, so your plants will die when you don't come in on a regular basis. Regular

  • by fantomas (94850) on Thursday November 25, 2010 @09:15AM (#34341972)

    "People are so tricked into that that they'll actually spend real money on something that does absolutely nothing, nothing at all"

    Sounds like a general damnation on a lot of modern consumer society to me. Social media games - do nothing for you. Game console - doesn't improve your life. Clothes with logo that's considered desirable, no more efficient at keeping you warm or dry - made in the same factory in Cambodia / Vietnam as the value-label clothes probably, both made by people in terrible working conditions for a dollar a day. Special paint job on your auto - does absolutely nothing. Buying new matching table crockery or wine glasses instead of picking up second hand ones / using the ones your parents gave you from their old set - no more functionality.

    Functionally, you're probably better off investing your money, buying property, buying further skills training, putting into a pension plan. But folk love spending "real money on something that does absolutely nothing".

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by RazorSharp (1418697)

      There is a major difference here. Movies and books, for example, have the ability to make one think and provide culture. MMOs make one NOT think. Clothes with nifty logos have two major benefits over ones that do not: quality of aesthetics and quality of materials. Lets face it, cheap clothes don't last long and are ugly. They aren't made in the same Cambodian factory as your Wal-Mart sweatpants (they're made in a different Cambodian factory -- the laborers are still treated like shit but the materials and

      • There are things that have value, including video games. But MMOs -- WoW, FF, Everquest, City of Heroes, ect. ect. -- these games (and their predecessors such as Diablo -- once an addiction of my own) don't do anything but turn the brain off. They get us to zone out. It's no different than reality TV, it's an utter waste of time. At least, when I play chess, I'm bettering myself.

        This is nonsense. Top-end raiding in these MMOs requires a high degree of teamwork, co-operation and strategy.
      • by DeadboltX (751907) on Thursday November 25, 2010 @03:57PM (#34344732)
        So playing chess, which is just memorization of moves and move possibilities in advance, and the ability to change strategy on the fly, is bettering yourself; but playing a video game, which is just memorization of moves and move possibilities in advance, and the ability to change strategy on the fly, is not?
      • by ukyoCE (106879)

        I think you've confused the article with MMOs. The article is NOT talking about MMOs like WOW, the article is talking about Farmville and the like.

        WOW is a mix of the elements you laud from games like Starcraft and GTA and the "turn brain off" accomplishment reward from games like Farmville. The biggest draw to WOW isn't even the accomplishment-reward addiction, it's the social "hang out with friends" aspect.

        Comparisons can be drawn between WOW and Farmville for sure, but don't conflate the article's disc

    • Jackson Pollock's "no 5, 1948" sold for $140,000,000. About $151 million in 2010 dollars. It just sits there, and does nothing. It's not even a picture of anything. The idea that spending real money on something that does absolutely nothing is bad means all art should be eliminated. After all, it does nothing, and why waste time on things that are of no value?
      The whole idea that non-functional things are inherently valueless is a farce.
  • I thought they were talking about those games called "elections" between teams called "Republicans" and "Democrats".

    That last line in TFS rang true though: 'People are so tricked into that that they'll actually spend real money on something that does absolutely nothing, nothing at all.'
  • I like that they talk at length about Cow Clicker, the only Facebook game I actually "play." It's a hilarious parody of other Facebook games with its ridiculous "reward" system that almost requires you pay money to get more clicks (1000 clicks for a Bronze cowbell!) and to make progress. Ian Bogost captures the whole psychology behind these kinds of level grinding games perfectly:

    Why not get some mooney and go buy a new cow? Don't you want to collect them all? That's the sort of thing people seem to do. The available cows will change over time, thus there's some chance you might miss out. How would you live with yourself?

    Bogost has also posted a funny send-up of the Wikipedia donation advertisements that have been popping up as of late:

    I was led to believe that social games on Facebook were also sure things, money-printing machines that make piles of riches for their asshole creators, creators who demonstrate as little or less care for craft and experience as I have tried to do. Yet, where's my fleet of holstein-spotted Teslas? Where's my new sub-basement with walk-in freezers for endless sides of Kobe? Where's my closetful of bespoke calf leather suits? Damn you all, you cheapskate bastards... Please consider foolishly spending real, hard currency on Cow Clicker.

  • Social or not, a game is selling entertainment. How do you put a price on fun ? Sure, you can try to compare one source of fun with another, like say a $20 game vs a $60 game, but ultimately it all boils down to what you feel like doing at that point in time.

    Myself, I still play WoW, very lightly. I pretty much show up for the guild's two weekly raid nights and that's all. I'm not collecting achievements or farming trade goods, I just get in, spend a few hours with a handful of people I've gotten to kno

  • This predates MMO games. Pokemon ("Gotta Catch 'Em All") produced the same mindset. There were predecessors to Pokemon, but it was the first one to get huge. Arguably, Wizards of the Coast introduced this genre with "Magic, the Gathering" in 1990. Collectable cards have been around for about a century, but they were usually tied to real-world sports. Wizards of the Coast detached them from that world and made then stand alone.

    Wizards of the Coast, however, managed not to be slimeballs. Zynga (Farmv

  • by jaryd (1702090)
    "A fool and his money are soon parted" -- PT Barnum
  • Yeah, so we set out to do something about it. We spent 20 months building Fantasy University on Facebook (now in open beta).

    One of the things we did was decide we'd make a game first, and layer on only the minimal trappings of social game mechanics. There was a gnawing feeling all along, coupled with data from those who knew better, that this would be a tough road.

    The good news is we did create a game that's got tons of depth, serious game play mechanics and great content that can be entertaining all by i

  • Gambling is better (Score:4, Interesting)

    by chord.wav (599850) on Friday November 26, 2010 @12:13AM (#34347398) Journal

    Somehow, Farmville and the likes, managed to be more addictive than gambling, with less excitement and absolutely no chance of getting your money back by exploiting every cognitive error or bias they can.

    For example: Same thing the Lost series did with many. You watch 3 seasons and the quality of the episodes start to decay really fast. Yet, you keep watching it until it ends, cause you don't want to "lose" the "invested time".

Money doesn't talk, it swears. -- Bob Dylan

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