Are Social Games Evil?

Not everyone is the biggest fan of Farmville, Frontierville, Cityville and the like -- at the very least, if you don't play them, you've almost certainly hidden them from your newsfeed to avoid the constant requests. But one indie developer, Jonathan Blow, creator of the innovative platform/puzzle game "Braid", takes this idea a little bit further. In an interview with PC Gamer magazine , the developer described the way social games on Facebook ask you to tap your friend list as an in-game resource as "evil."

"There's no other word for it except evil. Of course you can debate anything, but the general definition of evil in the real world, where there isn't... the villain in the mountain fortress, is selfishness to the detriment of others or to the detriment of the world. And that's exactly what [most of these games are]," Blow told PC Gamer.

And he's not talking about the players -- they're more like smokers, while developers like Zynga are more like Phillip Morris. "It's trying to take the maximum amount while trying to give the minimum amount. So that's an ethics of game design question," Blow said. "To me it doesn't matter if people feel like they're having fun or feel like they want to play the game, because the designers know what they're doing."

Blow's comments are making the rounds on gaming blogs, often without a great deal of context. But at the core of his message is an important truth, not just for game developers, but for all marketers. Social games are in a very nascent state right now, and developers can get away with asking players to do a great many different things for advancement, including evangelize the games to their friends lists for in-game advantages. But consumer opinions will eventually turn against that behavior, as it has against many other forms of marketing.

The only real way to steer clear of being "evil," as Blow puts it, is to ensure that the experience you're creating rewards in equal measure for what it asks from them. This means, for example, when you ask for a consumers' attention with a TV ad, it needs to be at least entertaining enough for them not to feel like their last 30 seconds was a complete loss. When you're building a Facebook fan base or a Twitter follower base, your messages can't be constantly promotional and lacking in consumer value. Any action a marketer asks consumers to take needs to be rewarded, or they'll simply ignore your message in favor of marketers who have something better to offer.

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1 comment about "Are Social Games Evil? ".
  1. John Jainschigg from World2Worlds, Inc. , February 18, 2011 at 4:37 p.m.

    Not that I necessarily think it's a good idea to toss around the E-word, but I'm with Blow. And I think the philosophical value of his statement deserves closer examination.

    Any business (any market) operates in a minimax mode: the definition of business efficiency is to seek solutions or sources that offer maximum benefit at minimum cost. The evil part comes in when someone figures out how to game the system -- in this case by tying into addiction mechanics to compel extended consumption in exchange for smaller payback. Tying in social, as Blow notes, adds another dimension of evil, analogous to peer-pressure in getting teens to smoke -- it encourages people to treat their friends as things.

    It's interesting to note that this (I think, highly-useful) general definition of evil harmonizes both with classical morality (i.e., evil is that which ostracizes and sets man apart from man and God, as in the Biblical definition), with 20th century apologetics (e.g., Hannah Arendt, C.S. Lewis, et al., who spoke of evil as being both instrumental -- i.e., treating people as objects -- and banal) and with postmodern thought, which approaches, from various directions (cf. Philip Zimbardo), the contrast between Heroic Imagination (that which personalizes) and the Hostile Imagination (that which instrumentalizes and objectifies).

    In the realm of popular thought, this notion of evil is perhaps most familiarly advanced by Terry Bradshaw in his Discworld novels -- specifically by the character of Granny Weatherwax, who memorably says that "Evil begins by treating people as things."