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Social Networks Games

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 @07:03AM (#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.

  • Re:Someone said (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Arancaytar (966377) <arancaytar.ilyaran@gmail.com> on Thursday November 25, 2010 @07:57AM (#34341860) Homepage

    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 hyphz (179185) * on Thursday November 25, 2010 @09:56AM (#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.

  • by RazorSharp (1418697) on Thursday November 25, 2010 @11:14AM (#34343170)

    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 machinery are better). Special paint jobs on a car have an aesthetic value. While, for the cost, it does seem like an absurd thing to spend money on unless your car actually needs new paint, it doesn't suck up all your time (even if you paint the car yourself, you'll spend less time than getting to lvl 80 in WoW. You'll also be practicing a real skill and actually be doing something).

    A table has functional value, buying a matching one makes sense b/c it's the type of item you keep for a long time. Wine glasses have a functional value as well, and just like the table you buy ones you like b/c you plan on keeping them around.

    The point of the article is that people once spent money on video games for the experience of playing video games. Starcraft and chess provide a great mental exercise involving strategy and intuition. Metal Gear Solid combines strategy, action, and great storytelling -- after completing one of those games there is much to think about (so much more than "I won!"). Sim City is educational and helps to exercise one's ability to think pragmatically and logically. Gran Turismo can be hooked up to a quality steering wheel and teach one to be a better driver. Grand Theft Auto forces one to examine American culture from a critical perspective through satire.

    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. Human beings, unlike any other animal, have the ability of will. What distinguishes us from animals is our ability and decision to utilize our vast intellectual capacity. When you put 50+ hours a week into a MMO or a FPS, you're just grazing on their pasteur, willfully making yourself livestock for their farm.

  • by Dr. Spork (142693) on Thursday November 25, 2010 @01:49PM (#34344258)
    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 money, that really isn't more moral than any other blatant con. Motives matter in ethics, and it really seems (judging from the product) that the motives of Farmville designers are based around farming money from the players, rather than giving them an experience that would be fun or in any other way worthwhile. They're not thinking at all about doing right by the user, and wouldn't be bothered if the most profitable game mechanic caused pain rather than pleasure, because pleasure was never their goal. That's a classic example of treating people as a means to an end, and there are interesting and deep reasons why we should suspect that it might be straight up immoral. Blow is a revolutionary because he aims explicitly to make games that respect his users, but the real question is: Why is something that should be considered morally obligatory also considered revolutionary? Maybe this is just how capitalism works. Maybe we'll all buy EA's neural implants and humanity's last generation will be a bunch of blissful wireheads [wikipedia.org].
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday November 25, 2010 @02:20PM (#34344482)

    I decided to go cold turkey

    Right there is where you referred to it as an addiction. If you have to "Cold Turkey" something, you were addicted to it in the first place. Look it up if you don't believe me.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday November 25, 2010 @02:51PM (#34344694)

    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 athlete, a professional chess player etc. will all have to "grind" and train to slowly and painstakingly become better. But here's the key difference: they get paid for it (or hope to). Gamers, on the other hand, PAY FOR the priviledge of being bored.

  • Gambling is better (Score:4, Interesting)

    by chord.wav (599850) on Thursday November 25, 2010 @11:13PM (#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".

ASHes to ASHes, DOS to DOS.