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"Sitting down and playing a board game with friends at a party is a way more social game."
February 15, 2011 6:55 AM   Subscribe

PC Gamer: Do you still think social games are “evil” then?
Jonathan Blow: Yes. Absolutely. [T]he general definition of evil in the real world, where there isn’t like 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].
posted by Rory Marinich (133 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite

 
Zynga is evil. I'm not so sure about the genre.

And Zynga's not much more evil than your typical rapidly expanding web startup.
posted by mccarty.tim at 7:01 AM on February 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


Your favorite lifestyle sucks.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 7:01 AM on February 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


Yes. Farmville is the antichrist. Especially that lost lamb.
posted by crunchland at 7:02 AM on February 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


And Zynga's not much more evil than your typical rapidly expanding web startup.

I don't disagree with this statement, but I'm curious which web startups you think fit this mold. (Facebook? Yeah, possibly. But I would nominate the guys behind Dropbox for tech sainthood.)
posted by Rory Marinich at 7:03 AM on February 15, 2011 [9 favorites]


Using that question to frame the post means everyone is going to talk about "evil". It's such a loaded word that it really beggars any reasonable discussion, especially since most casual gamers don't see the world with the same polarized goggles as a game developer would.
posted by Burhanistan at 7:04 AM on February 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


I think a better word than 'evil' is probably 'unhealthy'. I think Jonathan Blow is a genius, personally, and he's well worth listening to.
posted by empath at 7:05 AM on February 15, 2011 [6 favorites]


Maybe he considers them "evil" as they lower the bar for what can be considered a game? I mean, they're basically compulsion loops with pretty graphics.
posted by mccarty.tim at 7:08 AM on February 15, 2011


For the uninitiated, Jonathan Blow is one of the main developers behind Braid. (Much) previously, he worked on Wulfram, which was a sort of (very) early MMO.

He occasionally writes about his work.
posted by schmod at 7:08 AM on February 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


So the question about these games and WoW is what distinguishes them from a slot machine, in terms of how they impact peoples lives.
posted by empath at 7:09 AM on February 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


I think a better word than 'evil' is probably 'unhealthy'. I think Jonathan Blow is a genius, personally, and he's well worth listening to.

I'd like to understand why. I don't really get his argument. Particularly his focus on "social" games as evil. Is he saying the act of playing a social game is evil? Is that like saying any form of non-productive time-occupying activity is evil because it's not, like, curing cancer or something?
posted by londonmark at 7:10 AM on February 15, 2011


If we're talking about Farmville, then replace "evil" with "rubbing your face in dog shit and eagerly waiting to see others do the same".
posted by Burhanistan at 7:10 AM on February 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Ugh. While I agree on some fundamental levels with most of everything this guy says in interviews and whatnot, I absolutely despised Braid, and every pretentious gumdrop that spews from his mouth makes me more and more annoyed that I agree with him.

I'm so conflicted! Maybe I should play some Harvest Moon to get my mind off things. That's probably not thoughtful enough though. I should play Harvest Moon and ruminate on the meaning of wintertime strawberries!
posted by Mizu at 7:14 AM on February 15, 2011 [6 favorites]


In general, it's a really poor idea to conflate morality with asethetics. Something can be boring / meaningless / ugly / shitty / lame without being evil. For that matter, there are necessarily and important gradations of viciousness or immorality. Playing a bunch of Farmville or obsessing about food in restaurants might be sloth and gluttony, respectively, but post-Middle Ages, we all need to rally around the idea that sloth and gluttony are hardly on par with the deplorable human actions we label "evil".

I think it's to your benefit and the benefit of those around you to stop playing social games. Still, it's pretty far on the "shrug" side of my moral outrage scale.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 7:15 AM on February 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


Designers know what they are doing. They know when they show up in the office – “My goal is to degrade the player’s quality of life”

From the photo this guy looks why too young to be a crazy old coot.

The idea that cigarette companies and Zynga are ethically the same is nonsense. Like crazy ass nonsense. Cigarettes are physically addictive, will stain your IRL house with sticky goo, and cause cancer. In real life. Like for real. Farmville is trivially easy to quit, has no health effects at all (or *any* effects frankly), and costs less than other trivial crap like a daily Starbucks.

Any dipspork who seriously uses the word "evil" for Facebook games is only worth listening to for the entertainment value. Maybe that's the point. He just wants attention, but his games suck.
posted by y6y6y6 at 7:15 AM on February 15, 2011


If this doesn't turn out to be the best thing I read today, itll be because today I got on a lucky steak in what the web gave me. This is memorable stuff. thx
posted by scunning at 7:16 AM on February 15, 2011


I'd like to understand why. I don't really get his argument. Particularly his focus on "social" games as evil. Is he saying the act of playing a social game is evil? Is that like saying any form of non-productive time-occupying activity is evil because it's not, like, curing cancer or something?

Did you read what he said?
I go at it from the designer’s side and I ask “Are you trying to take advantage of your players and exploit them? Or are you trying to give them something?”

Some kinds of games are very clearly made [to give something] – like Dwarf Fortress is definitely trying to give the players something and not exploit players. That’s very obvious to me in the way that it’s made. [Most of these social games are] the opposite of that. It’s trying to take the maximum amount while trying to give the minimum amount. So that’s an ethics of game design question. 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.
...

what these designers do – and this is why I always go to it from the design standpoint – they very deliberately design the game to not give the player everything that they want, to string the player along and to invade the player’s free time away from the game.

Designers know what they are doing. They know when they show up in the office – “My goal is to degrade the player’s quality of life”. They probably won’t think about that exact phrase. But [will think], “My goal is to get people to think about my game and to put more money into my game and get other friends to play my game to the exclusion of all other games and all other things that they might do with their free time.” That is the job description of those designers. And that’s evil. It’s not about giving people anything. It’s about taking from people.
posted by empath at 7:17 AM on February 15, 2011 [15 favorites]


londonmark, social gaming is a euphemism for those games that exploit human's social instinct--which is possibly our most powerful instinct.

y6y6y6, do you claim a materialist perspective here? Do you think people cannot become addicted to gaming because games (vis a vis the mind) are immaterial?
posted by kuatto at 7:19 AM on February 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


He just wants attention, but his games suck.

Braid was tremendously financially successful and critically acclaimed. He also used the money to start a company financing other indie developers. He doesn't need to be controversial.
posted by empath at 7:20 AM on February 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


Is he saying the act of playing a social game is evil?

No, as he says, his focus is on the game designers.

When they approach the design of these games, their goal is to consume the player and to get that player to pass the game on — so that it can consume them. Providing benefit to the player is the furthest thing from the designer's mind.

In that designers are creating something that's only purpose is to exploit others while propagating their creation, the act of creating these games fits his definition of evil.


(It's worth noting that he separates WoW and its ilk from the discussion, which shares many many traits with social games. It sounds like, in the case of MMOs, he sees some type of reward to the player in the ability to actually socially interact.)
posted by pokermonk at 7:22 AM on February 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


Oh that reminds me, I have to click my cow.
posted by The Devil Tesla at 7:22 AM on February 15, 2011 [21 favorites]


I know this post is framed on the LOLFARMVILLE angle but I was more interested in his take on adventure games:

Adventure games are still what they used to be. And what the core gameplay actually is, is very different from what the designer intends. The designer wants it to be, “It’s going to be cool puzzle solving. There’s going to be a story and stuff.” But really what’s actually going through the players head in adventure games is, “I don’t know if I should be clicking on this thing” or “I don’t know if this is a puzzle” or “I don’t know if I need an item to solve this that I don’t have yet, or if I’m just not thinking.”

Adventure games are all confusion. If it’s text, it’s “Why doesn’t the parser understand me still?” So the core gameplay of adventure games is actually fumbling through something, right? And that’s true with modern [versions]. All the episodic stuff that’s coming out. And there’s a whole community that makes modern interactive fiction games and all this stuff. And it’s true for all these games.


This is a really unfair characterization of IF games and the modern IF scene, along with adventure games in general. The core mechanic of adventure games is that you don't quite know what you are supposed to be doing (hence the term puzzle), but there are plenty of well designed adventure games that guide the player through the world and don't devolve into a struggle against the parser. And modern IF is especially inventive with regard to puzzles (a game like Galatea doesn't have any traditional puzzles at all), and rarely have the same sort of "guess the verb" problems that the Infocom games that Blow is talking about had. His arguments make it sound as if he is just not very good at adventure games and thinks that the puzzle aspects need to be dumbed down in order to make it a viable form of game.
posted by burnmp3s at 7:23 AM on February 15, 2011 [5 favorites]


Did you read what he said?

Yes, and I had hoped to have it explained, rather than just re-quoted. Never mind, I'll go with my first reaction then, which is that this is incredibly sanctimonious and pompous for a game designer. It's like Salman Rushdie sneering at Mills and Boon. Yes, some entertainments are better than others, but it's a sliding scale of quality and taste, not a question of ethics.
posted by londonmark at 7:23 AM on February 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


Using that question to frame the post means everyone is going to talk about "evil". It's such a loaded word that it really beggars any reasonable discussion

But I think that's the most interesting idea of Blow's, and I thought this was the most concisely he's ever put it. He's talked before about how he designed Braid to be almost a more "humane" Mario. The reason you reverse time and can escape death is that he didn't want to adhere to the arcade-style "lives" system, which was originally implemented to get more coins out of the player. He replaced Mario's meaningless coins and points with his puzzle pieces because he felt that coins were initially only methods of convincing a player to care about the world, and he didn't want Braid to rely on similar rewards systems.

The gist of his "Zynga is evil" argument, for those of you who are new to Blow, is this: Designers, he argues, should be aware of the intents and motivations behind their game. A board game is intended to be a fun social experience; as board games have evolved, they've developed new ways of engaging the players without being frustrating, which is why something like Settlers of Catan is less likely to piss off my friends than a game of Monopoly. But designers are more-than-willing to exploit known human weaknesses, like their desires to gain (arbitrary, meaningless) points even when the process of winning these points is completely dead and soul-draining.

He's been voicing his concerns about World of Warcraft for years, because WoW is a grinding system that demands hours of your life that might not necessarily be "fun" hours if your goal is to get to level 60, and because (he argues) WoW doesn't offer you enough in terms of beauty and incredible to make getting to level 60 worth it. Once you're there... you keep grinding. But he's willing to admit that WoW is at least a social game; you talk to your friends on it, meet new people, etc. It might not be the best way to be social with a group of people (hi, MetaFilter!), but at least it's social.

Zynga specifically designed Farmville to abuse players in a lot of ways. It's made so that you can't do it well unless you convince your friends to do it. You have to return multiple times daily in order to grow quickly and you're punished if you don't do so. The process of growing your crops is arduous and time-consuming. There's nothing to the gameplay beyond building a player's anxiety and playing on these blind spots of his to keep him coming back, earning Zynga its money. And they don't even give you that much that's worthwhile for your effort.

(Braid isn't my favorite game, but it's up there, and my absolute favorite thing about it was how visually, musically, and gameplay-ally it always rewarded me for going on. Every level was gorgeous; the puzzles were extremely clever and made me feel good about myself; the soundtrack is one of my all-time favorites. I never felt compelled to beat it, but I did so anyway because I simply wanted to see more.)

Playing a bunch of Farmville or obsessing about food in restaurants might be sloth and gluttony, respectively, but post-Middle Ages, we all need to rally around the idea that sloth and gluttony are hardly on par with the deplorable human actions we label "evil".

Blow isn't calling people who play these games evil. He's calling the people who designed them evil. Evil for deliberately exploiting people and making them unhappier in order to make money.

I'm not 100% sure that I agree with him — but I want to think about this. As a designer, I worry a lot that some of the things I make (like free blog themes) are simply encouraging people to spend more time in front of a screen and less time actually enjoying their life. Certainly I think that other designers are guilty of the same. Sometimes unconsciously, other times deliberately in order to make a quick buck. And I don't ever want to make anything, whether it's design or poetry or music or whatever, that I feel is just ripping people off.

To draw a parallel: Watching Glenn Beck doesn't make you a bad person. But if Beck is deliberately fostering anger, paranoia, and ignorance to sell his show, then is he being a bad person for pursuing such shallow goals at the cost of genuine hurt? (Or, drawing on a more personal gripe, are the assholes who write those shitty books of "love haiku" deliberately simplifying and ruining a beautiful meditative poetry culture to sell books to people too ignorant to realize what they're missing? And if so, can their actions be considered "bad" because they're making another part of culture less accessible?)
posted by Rory Marinich at 7:25 AM on February 15, 2011 [50 favorites]


Yes, some entertainments are better than others, but it's a sliding scale of quality and taste, not a question of ethics.

Well, that's according to your ethics, isn't it?
posted by Foci for Analysis at 7:25 AM on February 15, 2011


The trick is to take the power of intermittent variable reward (and the addictive properties therein) that power social games like Farmville, and turn them to your advantage:

I present Habit Judo:

You get RANDBETWEEN(1,10) for each habit you complete for each day. You log these on a spreadsheet that you update daily. Every at certain point levels that occur every ~3 days you get a self-determined reward. At point levels that occur every ~10 days you level up. I use a judo belt system. I'm now orange/green. I symbolize these by wearing a silicone wristband (e.g. the livestong bracelet type) of appropriate color for the relevant belt I'm at.

I began with 3 easy habits

1. Keep a ubiquitous capture device with you
2. Keep a to do list
3. Check in with the spreadsheet every day.

For every belt you level up, you get to add another habit.

I've since added: daily meditation, daily weightings, daily exercise. And I stick to them! It's incredible (and somewhat ridiculous) the sense of accomplishment I feel slipping on the new wristband.
posted by leotrotsky at 7:26 AM on February 15, 2011 [160 favorites]


His arguments make it sound as if he is just not very good at adventure games and thinks that the puzzle aspects need to be dumbed down in order to make it a viable form of game.

In this interview it sounds that way, but I don't think that's really true. Braid seemed very IF-like in its puzzle construction to me—the time-mechanics puzzle is a classic IF trope at this point, e.g. Spider and Web and All Things Devours. I think he might be trying to make the point that IF has become very insular and requires that you learn to think in a certain way before you can really enjoy an IF (or adventure) game, and this is why the genre doesn't really sell anymore. I've been playing IF too long to be an impartial judge as to whether that's really true or not.
posted by enn at 7:27 AM on February 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


I'd like to understand why. I don't really get his argument. Particularly his focus on "social" games as evil. Is he saying the act of playing a social game is evil? Is that like saying any form of non-productive time-occupying activity is evil because it's not, like, curing cancer or something?

His stance as a game designer is that you design games for people to have fun. Presumably you profit from this, but part of that "contract" is that you are trying to sell games that are fun.

With social games, his argument is that these games strip away any sort of strategy, skill, or learning - there's no actual game there, but an illusion of a game, propped up by game-like reward systems and the illusion of a social experience. Instead of selling people a real product (and, in this case "selling" is mostly in return for time and exposure to advertising rather than direct sales), it's easy to create pseudo-product for profit.

Blow's previous talk at Rice, he was pointing out that when your cost is time, and you're giving people not a real game in return, it's not like spending $50 on a game and realizing, "oh this sucks" and then doing better things with your time, it's that the very goal of the design is to take up time, as much time as possible, and to keep stringing people along as long as possible. In his view, time is worth more than money, and that's a pretty terrible service to one's customers as a designer.
posted by yeloson at 7:29 AM on February 15, 2011 [9 favorites]


Also! Question! I have Frotz for iPhone — it's a text adventure simulator. I tried playing Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and its parser frustrated the SHIT out of me. Can anybody recommend IF for the literate-but-IF-naive layperson that will be fun to play and/or mindblowing? I do feel like this is a genre I've avoided for too long.
posted by Rory Marinich at 7:30 AM on February 15, 2011


Trolling: the underappreciated indie marketing technique.
posted by b1tr0t at 7:32 AM on February 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Sorry, I’m choking on this croissant. It’s very dry.
posted by chavenet at 7:33 AM on February 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


Or, drawing on a more personal gripe, are the assholes who write those shitty books of "love haiku" deliberately simplifying and ruining a beautiful meditative poetry culture to sell books to people too ignorant to realize what they're missing?

Or Thomas Kinkade. Is Thomas Kinkade evil?
posted by steambadger at 7:36 AM on February 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Is Thomas Kinkade evil?

Is that even in dispute?
posted by enn at 7:38 AM on February 15, 2011 [22 favorites]


Thanks Pokermonk, Yeloson, it's clearer now. I admire his passion for quality and value, but I don't see why there isn't a place in his world view for cheap, disposable entertainment. I don't see much value in Farmville, but I neither do I think low-value escapism equates to exploitation.
posted by londonmark at 7:40 AM on February 15, 2011


Londonmark, with a "regular" game, you pay your admission fee, and you have your experience, which hopefully contains some quantity of fun. Maybe in a couple years, you buy the sequel if one exists. If it takes you a day to complete, or a year, it doesn't really matter to the publisher. They'll try to make their game as fun as they can - to give you as much fun - as they can manage in order to maximize the chance of getting to make - and persuading you to buy - that sequel.

By contrast, these social games are designed to keep you playing the game as long/much as possible, usually to maximize ad impressions or to get you to buy things in-game with real cash. They also incentivize you to get your friends to play, often with some in-in game bonus or currency. The games are *extremely* simple, so the net they're casting is as wide as possible. They don't have as much story or narrative as most other games. The goals they give you are designed to take forever to complete, in other words - they want to provide minimal rewards over the maximum amount of time.

They want you to want to get your friends to play to increase somewhat the rate at which you get those rewards. They do lots of leaderboard style ranking of you vs. other players, so you can get that "I'm better than X, Y, and Z" hit, while still dangling A, B, and C in front of you so you keep trying to catch up.

Instead of fun, provided as effectively as they can manage to given the time and money they had to build the thing, they mine their players for time and cash, doling out just enough "rewards" to keep you feeding into their ecosystem.
posted by dvorak_beats_qwerty at 7:41 AM on February 15, 2011 [5 favorites]


Leotrotsky, that's...that's...genius.
posted by LN at 7:48 AM on February 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


The language is loaded but I more or less agree. I've played games and had a great time playing games and had shallow but ultimately satisfying experiences. I've also played games where I was sort of grimly propelled forward by mechanics that have a structured accumulation of power as a reward for just showing up. I think that's bad and I think it is worse in a way when you can exploit that desire and have people pay impulisively for a skinner box treat. I also think seeing every user as a potential pusher is also pretty shady.

Having said that I think there are powerful things we can learn from farmville like games. I think the games demonstrate in just how powerful reliable positive feedback is and it would probably be possible to apply the same kind of crass incentive structures used in farmville to educational or personal development software. Or something. I mean there's nothing fun about waking up early to click on twelve potato patches but I've found myself doing that I bet it would be possible to create a word processor program where you have to hit a word count every day to unlock better magic powers for an avatar. Or an exercise bike where you can watch your stats improve and unlock more challenging courses. Or something.
posted by I Foody at 7:53 AM on February 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Zynga farms players for advert impressions and paid upgrade content. They do so to the extent of everything else, player enrichment, enjoyments, even quality of life. They're exploiting a human weakness for the hope of continuous improvement, but deliver only enough satisfaction to keep players grinding. Even more, they've also figured out a way to get people to recruit their social network, causing a rapid spread for their games.

The comparison to slot machines is apt. Zynga is the facebook equivalent of video lottery terminal company, those machines in bars that are responsible for sucking billions of dollars out of people's pockets every year. Zynga's not that evil, they're not able to go after your kid's college fund, but they do destroy your time. You can just walk away from VLTs or slots or poker at any time too, but somehow these "games" are serious problems for quite a few folks.

Zynga is on the same spectrum, in my opinion, as any company that exploits and cultivates gambling addictions. They're legal (which is why I'm certain they haven't gotten into true gambling), but less than perfectly ethical.
posted by bonehead at 7:53 AM on February 15, 2011


LN: yeah, I'm pretty happy with it. It seems like it'd be pretty amenable to a web app, android or iphone, but I just don't have the the technical know-how to implement it. Hence the spreadsheet.

It's sort of a generalized 'chore wars' but I think my system is more appealing. For most folks, having a 'black belt' is cooler than being a 60th level dark elf.
posted by leotrotsky at 7:57 AM on February 15, 2011


It's made so that you can't do it well unless you convince your friends to do it. You have to return multiple times daily in order to grow quickly and you're punished if you don't do so. ... arduous and time-consuming.

My mom plays Treasure Isle - it was the reason she got a Facebook account. She convinced me to play and I did it, considering it to be a way I could share in Mom's interests. Before long, she had convinced my Grandma to sign up, and when Grandma didn't want to play anymore, Mom took over her account. Then she did the same for two other Facebook games, to the point where my mom was playing three games under two profiles each: ie: from the time she got home from work until the time she went to bed (I stuck with one Treasure Isle).

The worst thing was, when I would talk to her about it she didn't even seem to be enjoying herself. I understand that, because as much as I hated Treasure Isle, I found myself scheduling my other activities around when it was time to go harvest my gem tree. I added dozens of strangers as "friends" because none of my real friends played and you have to have "neighbours" in the game. I hated the damn game so much, but definitely got sucked into the loop.

Eventually, when I learned that my mom didn't even like playing the game, I quit. She has since quit playing my Grandma's profile and only plays her own. Neither of us spent any money on the games, so Zynga didn't win after all. I kind of resent the time I spent on that stupid hateful game, and am frustrated that I could get sucked in so easily.

I've always been interested in the gender balance of video games. "Core" games that rely on a lot of time investment and skill building (sports games, RPGs, war sims, etc) tend to be very male dominated while casual games that can be picked up and put down easily (whether or not they are) tend to be female dominated. Of course, there are men who play The Sims, and women who play WOW, but in general the point stands. Both the Sims (or Farmville, Treasure Island) and WOW involve huge amounts of grinding, pattern recognition, and specialized knowledge, and arguments have been made that defining some as casual games and some as core games is arbitrary and maybe even sexist.

From Women's Glib: "... a tatutological little package. Women aren’t real gamers because they play casual games, and casual games aren’t real because women play them. It’s easy enough to debunk the former, but the latter, to me, is similarly pernicious, especially because, as far as I know, more women do play casual games than men (according to this paper, the casual games sector is something like 71% female, compared to 38% for the games industry as a whole.) Compounding this is the fact that without the gender stereotypes, there’s little reason to consider casual games a less important part of the gaming landscape. They provide a different experience, certainly, but if arcade games like Pac-Man can be considered part of the serious gamer experience, why not casual physics-based iPhone games or resource-management games on Facebook?"

Anyway, I know we weren't even talking about gender, but I think that when talking about casual games, you can't really avoid it. Maybe they are evil (at least the Facebook incarnation of them) but there is something to them that seems to really appeal to women more than men. What is it that either a)women really like and/or b)men really dislike. How can we include that part that women like in a package that isn't so exploitative?
posted by arcticwoman at 8:00 AM on February 15, 2011 [9 favorites]


He gives a much, much more detailed talk on the subject here.

His essential point is that games have the ability to elevate people, instead of merely entertaining, and he wants more game designers who want to do that. His audience is mainly game designers, but speaking for myself, I would love if game players would demand more sophisticated games as well. I wouldn't exactly call a game like Bulletstorm 'evil', personally, but I kind of think we, as an audience, and as adults, should demand better games.
posted by empath at 8:08 AM on February 15, 2011 [4 favorites]


Boy am I ever glad to hear that other people didn't like Braid. I was really worried that I was the only one!
posted by paisley henosis at 8:11 AM on February 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


One of the things he talks about with Zynga in that talk that I just linked is the A/B testing that Farmville does, where they test out small changes in the game on subsets of the players to see what improves profitability.

Games are about learning, right? The designer creates a system of rules, and your job as the player is to learn the rules, and to learn how to manipulate the system created by the rules to achieve a goal.

So the people behind Farmville are actually playing a game themselves -- manipulating the rules of human behavior and Facebook by tweaking the code of the game to maximize their score (money). And the game that Zynga is playing is vastly more profitable and rewarding than the game that they are selling. Every round of A/B testing is a game turn, and you either get a good score or a bad score, then you do the next round and the next and so on.

And absolutely no consideration is given to the people who are playing (and being played by) the game they are selling, except as tokens.
posted by empath at 8:15 AM on February 15, 2011 [6 favorites]


I don't see why there isn't a place in his world view for cheap, disposable entertainment.

Oh, there's tons of space in the world, and I'd guess in Blow's world specifically, for cheap disposable entertainment. Kongregate is teeming with the stuff. Go, play for a bit, get a bit of amusement or not, move on with your day. It's like hors d'oeuvres at a party: you weren't looking for a meal in the first place, you just wanted a snack. Never having read word one by Blow about his feelings about light gaming, I am willing to basically guarantee you that he's done more of it than most of the people in this thread, because he's a game designer and a game enthusiast and it's basically like breathing. He's in it and of it.

The problem with stuff like Farmville is that how disposable it is doesn't match up with how easily disposed of it is. There's not much there, which, okay, fine: but it's designed to keep you there anyway. Instead of crackers on a tray at the party, it's crackers laced with a chemical addictant. You don't keep coming back to the crackers because they're worth it, you come back for them because they've been designed to get you to keep coming back to them regardless of their quality. You buy 'em in bulk, you feed 'em to your friends. Cracker sales are booming but none of you are actually particularly enjoying eating them so much as anxious, by design, about going cold turkey.

Part of the nasty brilliance of Farmville is that it's so accessible to non-gamers, and has such a primo delivery vector to non-gamers. Anybody can figure it out—and get exposed to the reward structure—very quickly; and if you're on Facebook, you have a dozen ways to get exposed to it. And there's a lot of folks on Facebook.

It's hardly the first game to take this model of time-matters, attached-at-the-wrist gameplay approach. I remember playing some little MMO web property-management game of the same mold ten years ago, and if you want to really get into it we can look at BBS door games from 20+ years back. But the context here is significant: in those cases, mostly what you had was gamers playing these games. People who, all else aside, sort of knew what they were getting into. Farmville is targeting a much broader and less savvy group of non-gamers and casual gamers who haven't already learned one way or the other some of the nasty bootcamp lessons of gaming risk and reward.
posted by cortex at 8:16 AM on February 15, 2011 [10 favorites]


Wow, a judgemental nerd. Never met one of those before.
posted by Ad hominem at 8:18 AM on February 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Please someone actually defend Farmville and Zynga as games worthy of the amount of time that people spend playing them. What possible benefit do people get out of it? The most insidious part of it, to my mind, is that it plays on people's altruism, their natural instinct to help others, when what they are doing is completely valueless and helps no one.
posted by empath at 8:23 AM on February 15, 2011 [4 favorites]


Interesting comments on gender and gambling in this report (Heater et al., PDF):

Interestingly, within the past decade, gambling has become more feminized and socially acceptable for women. ...

Men and women also differ in their reasons for gambling. Women have been traditionally designated as escape gamblers; that is, they gamble to escape their problems.... Women prefer
games that maximize their playing time (e.g., EGMs) and on which they will spend less money. ... It has been suggested that women’s motivation to gamble primarily comes from boredom, loneliness, and isolation, which may explain why women prefer playing games that maximize their playing time.... The longer women spend gambling at a sitting, the less time there will be to be bored and to notice feelings of isolation and loneliness. Men, however, have been traditionally designated as action gamblers.... Men are more likely to report that their attention to gambling is based on the need for excitement (sensation seeking and risk taking) or a misguided effort to make money.


Click through for the reference citations I've removed. There's an interesting discussion in there about how keno and bingo are more attractive to women as well due to the social aspects of the games.

If it's true, that women mostly gamble to relieve boredom; men gamble for excitement, then, these "social games" seems to be targeting a predominately female demographic. They certainly fit the profile Heater et al. develop: long play times, social element, low cost.
posted by bonehead at 8:23 AM on February 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


There also seems to be this feeling among 'traditional' gamers that 'casual' gamers will, at some point, grow up and start to play more traditional games. When they don't, the blame can either land on the casual player or the casual game. Since the traditionals wanted the casuals to join their ranks in the first place, it's much easier for them to just blame the game.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 8:25 AM on February 15, 2011


His critique has nothing to do with casual games. Most indy gamers love casual games.
posted by empath at 8:31 AM on February 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


Cigarettes are physically addictive, will stain your IRL house with sticky goo, and cause cancer. In real life. Like for real. Farmville is trivially easy to quit, has no health effects at all (or *any* effects frankly), and costs less than other trivial crap like a daily Starbucks.

A psychological addiction is no less self-destructive to your life than a physical one. Ask someone who has wrecked their relationships, social life, health (food/sleep/exercise), and career because of a gaming addiction. I've known a few.

Zynga realized that a game does not have to be flashy, fun or expensive to turn into an addiction. They became the gaming industry's crack dealer. Unlike other commonly cited addictive games (WoW, for example), Zynga's games have no actual entertainment value. They manipulate people into doing stupid, tedious, boring shit by taking advantage of feelings of social obligation, and get rich doing it.

Sounds pretty sleazy to me, if not actually evil.
posted by chundo at 8:44 AM on February 15, 2011 [6 favorites]


but the general definition of evil in the real world, where there isn’t like the villain in the mountain fortress, is selfishness to the detriment of others or to the detriment of the world.

So I guess it's safe to say Mr. Blow isn't a Randian.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 8:46 AM on February 15, 2011 [4 favorites]


He's been voicing his concerns about World of Warcraft for years, because WoW is a grinding system that demands hours of your life that might not necessarily be "fun" hours if your goal is to get to level 60, and because (he argues) WoW doesn't offer you enough in terms of beauty and incredible to make getting to level 60 worth it. Once you're there... you keep grinding. But he's willing to admit that WoW is at least a social game; you talk to your friends on it, meet new people, etc. It might not be the best way to be social with a group of people (hi, MetaFilter!), but at least it's social.

I live in a house with a couple of former WoW addicts and one current. I played for awhile, but found the game too damn boring for my tastes, and subsequently quit before reaching getting to level 80 (tops at the time). One of my roommates was playing and grinding simply to get the achievements in the game. He spent over 40 hours/week playing WoW just to get achievements. For those who are unaware, WoW added an achievement system some time ago where you get achievements for things you do in the game. Some are for completing certain quests, others are for accumulated actions, etc. I found it nuts, because achievements are no different than the silly rewards you get in a game like Farmville. Since he quit WoW several months ago, he's moved on to Farmville, and Cityville, and probably three or four others. He has no less than 10 Facebook accounts.

When he was playing WoW, I posed this question: "What if there were a quest that involved having to walk from one end of the map to the other repeatedly, where you could not use any fast mode of transportation, only walking and the quest took roughly four hours to complete. The reward would be an achievement and an utterly useless token item. Would you do it?" My roommate's response: "Yes."

"Okay, let's say it were eight hours. A normal working day. Would you do it?" Answer: "Yes."

That's ridiculous I thought to myself. "Okay, how about 16 hours. A normal waking day to sit there and just walk. No killing things, no real gain for your character, would you do it?" Answer: "Yes."

"How about 24 hours?" "Yes." "How about 40 hours?" "Yes."

"Okay. How long would it have to take to make it so you would no longer consider doing this quest for a pointless achievement and a token item that has no value whatsoever in the game?" Answer: "I don't know, probably around 250 hours. I mean, I've probably been on this game 3,000 hours as it is."
posted by Mister Fabulous at 8:46 AM on February 15, 2011 [9 favorites]


Yeah I get it, Farmville pushes the compulsion buttons the way slot machines do. But does he have a problem with collectables? WOW? achievements? liquor? He has an aesthetic issue with these games and chooses to cloak it in a moral argument.

Zynga's games have no actual entertainment value. They manipulate people into doing stupid, tedious, boring shit by taking advantage of feelings of social obligation, and get rich doing it

For you maybe. Who are you to judge how people choose to spend their time.
posted by Ad hominem at 8:47 AM on February 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Farmville is trivially easy to quit

If
you are not the one addicted.

It's an addiction to be sure. The subject of the addiction is less harmful than cigarettes but what isn't.

Addictions can be dealt with but denial and dismissal are harmful and it would be better for the world if you would show some compassion.
posted by Bonzai at 8:48 AM on February 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Please someone actually defend Farmville and Zynga as games worthy of the amount of time that people spend playing them. What possible benefit do people get out of it? The most insidious part of it, to my mind, is that it plays on people's altruism, their natural instinct to help others, when what they are doing is completely valueless and helps no one.

I can't, I find them utterly devoid of value. But then I look at myself watching re-runs of Buffy and surfing Reddit and remember why I haven't invented anti-gravity slippers yet, or debunked religion. It may not be in our nature to understand why people fritter away their lives in the way they do, but I think most of us do the same thing, in our own separate ways. I find the moral judgment distasteful because it's too simplistic. If there is an evil cause for our need as a species to escape our lives with (literally) mind-numbing activities, it doesn't start with Facebook games.
posted by londonmark at 8:52 AM on February 15, 2011 [4 favorites]


I would love if game players would demand more sophisticated games as well. I wouldn't exactly call a game like Bulletstorm 'evil', personally, but I kind of think we, as an audience, and as adults, should demand better games.

Blow's mostly talking about design and structure, but the unsophistication of games also extends into their plot and characters. I've been watching my roommate play Red Dead Redemption recently, and it's ridiculous how much of the game is just you shooting hundreds and hundreds of people on the word of some obvious scam artist/lunatic just because they asked you to. Meanwhile, I've been playing Far Cry 2, which features half a dozen missions that end with you assassinating an unarmed minor government official to further the ends of either a murderous dictator or your borderline psychotic "buddy". I think both games work in spite of the lame motivations, but it's a little embarrassing that something like Shadow of the Colossus constitutes a major milestone (and one seldom followed up on) in terms of interrogating the morality of the PC and NPC quest-givers. In fact, keep expecting games like Red Dead Redemption and Far Cry 2 to point out how incredibly horrible the PC has been forced to be so far and give you an out at some point to some other, more moral motive, but so far, there's nothing.

Sophistication is a high bar, but most games, even good ones, aren't particularly close on a whole number of levels.
posted by Copronymus at 8:53 AM on February 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Who are you to judge how people choose to spend their time.

People can spend their time however they like. As someone who has frittered away an awful lot of his life playing video games, I've learned a fair amount about perceiving clearly which gaming situations I have actually liked vs which I've just felt compelled to do, though. Insofar as I love good games and good gaming experiences and want other people to be able to have good gaming experiences as well, I care that someone doesn't end up spending their time playing games they don't actually like.

Many of us are speaking not from a position of ignorance and judgement but of experience and empathy: we've played the shitty games because we didn't really know better. We'd rather other people don't have to do the same thing so much.
posted by cortex at 8:53 AM on February 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


robocop is bleeding: There also seems to be this feeling among 'traditional' gamers that 'casual' gamers will, at some point, grow up and start to play more traditional games. When they don't, the blame can either land on the casual player or the casual game. Since the traditionals wanted the casuals to join their ranks in the first place, it's much easier for them to just blame the game.

On the contrary, it's the "casual games" that can be played in a reasonably short session with relatively cheap parts that have been "traditional" with centuries of history, literature, gambling, and professional play. Sure, there were RPGs and massive strategy games before the home computer, but they were market outliers.

Which is why I've grown to hate the whole "casual game" label. It's unwarranted elitism around something that wasn't commercially viable 30 years ago. And there's a strong argument to be made that the whole "casual game" definition has to do with how much pink is on the box than actual gameplay.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:53 AM on February 15, 2011 [4 favorites]


Please someone actually defend Farmville and Zynga as games worthy of the amount of time that people spend playing them. What possible benefit do people get out of it? The most insidious part of it, to my mind, is that it plays on people's altruism, their natural instinct to help others, when what they are doing is completely valueless and helps no one.

My dad used to come home from a full day of Catch and Release fishing with his friends to say "Is that all you're gonna do all day is play video games ?"

Shut up, dad.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 8:58 AM on February 15, 2011 [7 favorites]


Can anybody recommend IF for the literate-but-IF-naive layperson that will be fun to play and/or mindblowing? I do feel like this is a genre I've avoided for too long.

One valid criticism of modern IF is that it generally assumes that you as a player are very familiar with conventions of IF games. So generally games take it for granted that you know the core mechanics (examining everything, knowing the common verbs, etc.). This will necessarily add a bit of a learning curve, but if you read the great beginner's guide at Brass Lantern you should be able to get up to speed pretty quickly.

As for what games to play I would suggest taking a look at the Xyzzy Award winners, and picking games that won awards that appeal to you (puzzles versus NPC characters or just all around good games), and reading the descriptions there. All of the games there are among the best modern IF games around, so you can't really go wrong. Also, don't be ashamed to use a walkthrough to help you when you get stuck. If the choice is to use a walkthrough or just give up in frustration, it's better to get some help and move on.
posted by burnmp3s at 9:00 AM on February 15, 2011 [5 favorites]


The concept of a social game isn't evil. But the popular implementations definitely are.
posted by delmoi at 9:00 AM on February 15, 2011


Many of us are speaking not from a position of ignorance and judgement but of experience and empathy: we've played the shitty games because we didn't really know better. We'd rather other people don't have to do the same thing so much.

Ok thats cool more minecraft less farmville. But evil is really pushing it.

My dad used to come home from a full day of Catch and Release fishing with his friends to say "Is that all you're gonna do all day is play video games ?"

I spent hundreds of hours learning how to juggle and do yoyo tricks. Mindless repetition that simply passed the time.
posted by Ad hominem at 9:03 AM on February 15, 2011


> I spent hundreds of hours learning how to juggle and do yoyo tricks. Mindless repetition that simply passed the time.

Well, you can always put that skill to use in the streets. No one's going to make any change busking Farmville.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:10 AM on February 15, 2011


In general, it's a really poor idea to conflate morality with asethetics. Something can be boring / meaningless / ugly / shitty / lame without being evil. For that matter, there are necessarily and important gradations of viciousness or immorality.
It's not the aesthetics, it's the compulsions. And not only that, but compels your friends to join up by hijacking their natural empathy and desire to help their real life friends. That's what makes it worse then WoW, which is pretty bad but at least not venereal.

At my highschool reunion this girl was talking about how she became a complete WoW addict, would basically get home from work, get on WoW and play until falling asleep. Then get up the next morning, go to work, etc. She didn't sound very happy about it and had quit playing it as much but it was still a compulsion for her.
Farmville is trivially easy to quit, has no health effects at all (or *any* effects frankly), and costs less than other trivial crap like a daily Starbucks.
Is it? It may be easy for some people to quit, but more difficult for others to. It also wastes a LOT of time.
posted by delmoi at 9:10 AM on February 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Wow, a judgemental nerd. Never met one of those before.
posted by Ad hominem at 4:18 PM on February 15 [+] [!]


Eponypropriate.
posted by Drexen at 9:13 AM on February 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


Zynga can be evil for lots of different reasons.
posted by milkrate at 9:14 AM on February 15, 2011


Who are you to judge how people choose to spend their time.

Umm, don't we as a society do this constantly? If someone is physically or mentally addicted to something, we (using the greater "we") almost always try to get people to stop. Alcohol, drugs, erratic behaviors, compulsive eating, gambling, etc. We go so far to as to call it all disease. IIRC, South Korea is now treating gaming addiction specifically as a disease.

I'm not in the camp of calling social games "evil." But to say that Zynga didn't know at some point exactly what they are doing would be naive.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 9:16 AM on February 15, 2011


Alcohol, drugs, erratic behaviors, compulsive eating, gambling, etc

These have actual, objective, real life repercussions - up to and including death.

Gaming.... not so much.

Sure some people take it a bit too seriously, or use them as a way of avoiding problems or otherwise procrastinating. People are, you know.

But to lump Gaming in with drug addiction is.... beyond hyperbolic and well into stupid.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 9:22 AM on February 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm no gamer, but I think this fellow's definition of what constitutes evil is either lowering the bar by quite a stretch or, possibly, in and of itself an evil misuse of hyperbole.
posted by blucevalo at 9:27 AM on February 15, 2011


I hated Braid.

That's not entirely true. I resented Braid. I resented that this charming, clever, lovely game, which I really really wanted to experience all of, was so intent on being MADDENINGLY DIFFICULT. I know I'm supposed to get a satisfying glow of achievement from beating the puzzles. That's my reward. Triumph over adversity and reach the next level, unfurl the story, unlock the next ever-so-clever nod to games gone by, see how my expectations are to be subverted this time.

It seemed so... well, SMUG.

So I get why Blow loathed Farmville and its ilk. He doesn't want just anyone to be able to show up and bask in the ding of leveling up or the warmth of reward (or whatever the hell one does in Farmville; I've never played it and have no intention of doing so). No, to Blow, it must be EARNED, never GIVEN. If you get a moment of joy, an ephemeral reward, an endorphin spike just for showing up, well, gosh, anyone can just show up! We can't have that! You must WORK for that reward.

It's like sneering at fast food. Yes, it is terrible for you and no, you shouldn't make it a regular part of your diet and yes, it is designed to be addictive with no concern whatsoever for nutritional content or consequences. So here, have a salad. It's fresh and colorful! Yes, it is. And I like salad. But you know what? French fries, fresh out of the oil and tossed in a bit of salt? They're freaking delicious. And I resent being judged because today I chose French fries over a salad.

And that's how Braid ultimately made me feel. Like I just wasn't good enough to play it. And that's a deliberate design decision. It's the velvet rope to the back room where all the cool kids are. Because there are plenty of diffiicult games that didn't make me feel that way. Super Meat Boy, for instance, and Limbo. Very different games, very different design principles, but both encouraged me to keep trying, to keep experimenting. Not by appealing to my pride or my gamer ego, but because it was FUN.

Braid, though, adjusted its glasses and sighed deep within its hoodie and told me never mind, you've probably never heard of the solution anyway.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 9:27 AM on February 15, 2011 [7 favorites]


But does he have a problem with collectables? WOW? achievements?

Yes. He also has a problem with narrative, loot drops and experience points. The link to the talk I posted above goes into all of that in more detail. It's worth considering his points, even if you don't ultimately agree with him, if you at all care about game design.

He believes that games should try to improve the player, instead of the character. Games with 'character advancement' give a false sense of achievement that is only related to the time you spend playing the game, rather than any real increase in skill, for the most part.
posted by empath at 9:29 AM on February 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


I hated Braid.

That's not entirely true. I resented Braid. I resented that this charming, clever, lovely game, which I really really wanted to experience all of, was so intent on being MADDENINGLY DIFFICULT.


It's not a game for everyone, nor should every game be for everyone. For what it's worth, I had a really hard time early on, but once I got that it wasn't a Metroid-style game, that everything I needed to get all the pieces was already there from the beginning of the level, and the only thing stopping me from getting them was my brain, it clicked for me.

Usually I solved the hard puzzles while I wasn't even playing the game, like when I was in the shower the next morning, thinking about it.
posted by empath at 9:32 AM on February 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Neither of us spent any money on the games, so Zynga didn't win after all.

They won a bunch of ad revenue.
posted by dfan at 9:35 AM on February 15, 2011


Gaming addiction is a legitimate thing. People tend to brush it off like it's some kind of crazy TLC special or a symptom of lazy spoiled lifestyles, but how do we accept that gambling addiction is a real thing, and gaming is not? Gamblers don't do it for the money, they do it for the thrill and the game and the mental environment.

Games, the sorts one can easily become addicted to, all have highly structured reward systems, repetitive, ritualistic actions, and immersive sensory components that can become just as necessary to the player's continued functioning as smoking a cigarette or having a drink.

People are fragile, we can become addicted to all manner of things. Our minds really like to form patterns for us, and it takes a level of self awareness that many people lack to control which patterns form and which do not. Gaming addiction can fuck you up just as bad as anything else that we would shout "see a therapist!" to a querent on AskMe for. I've seen marriages end, PHD dissertations abandoned, bills go unpaid, jobs lost, poor health gone unchecked, all due to game addiction among acquaintances.

It can vary - I mean, sure, some people are more prone to it than others and if it wasn't the nightly WoW raid it probably would have been the nightly half a bottle of whiskey. But saying that it simply cannot be on par with other accepted addictions because it's primarily mental is discounting a lot of people with a lot of problems who can be helped by treating their issue like the illness it is.

I don't think, however, that a game designer should hold the hands of the people who are prone to becoming addicts. It's atrocious to punish the player for not spending daily, regular time on the game like Farmville does, but I also don't think we need a social gaming prohibition enacted.

Sorry for my little soapbox rant, had to get that off my chest.
posted by Mizu at 9:47 AM on February 15, 2011 [5 favorites]


These have actual, objective, real life repercussions - up to and including death.

But that's never, ever happened with gaming.

Other behavioral addictions seem to have real life repercussions as well. Gambling addiction is a behavior with no chemical dependence that results in a very empty wallet. Sexual addiction is a behavior that results in possibly hundreds or thousands of sexual partners, and a much higher risk of STDs.

But to lump Gaming in with drug addiction is.... beyond hyperbolic and well into stupid.

I'm not saying that video game addictions are near the level of drug addiction. But to disregard it entirely and state that there are no real life repercussions is hyperbolic and stupid.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 9:55 AM on February 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


Gaming may be an addiction, but there's a pretty huge grey line there between self-correctable behavior and something that is genuinely a clinical issue.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:55 AM on February 15, 2011


Gaming addiction can fuck you up just as bad as anything else that we would shout "see a therapist!" to a querent on AskMe for.

You are correct that some people can develop compulsive behavior related to games. The problem isn't the game itself. It's not a "game addiction". There was a "hoarders" or whatever episode that featured a nice lady totally obsessed with collecting rocks. She didn't have a "rock collecting addiction".

What those people have is an anxiety disorder and the gaming, or the rock collecting or the hoarding is the symptom. It's not the problem.

So yeah, I fully agree - people should be more free to seek help with the problems they can't solve themselves. People with compulsive disorders need help and understanding.

Blaming video games misses the mark by a country mile, however.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 9:55 AM on February 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


arcticwoman: Neither of us spent any money on the games, so Zynga didn't win after all.

dfan: They won a bunch of ad revenue.



This is really what (for Blow) makes Zynga "evil" and I'm sort of surprised Blow doesn't come out and say it. He objects to a business model based largely on ad revenue that requires a "parasitic" user experience -- one that rewards the host mostly for infecting his or her friends. That business model doesn't make for good games, because the developer's greatest incentive is to frustrate the user into adding more players, not to "aim for player pleasure", which should be the first rule of game design. Is that "evil"? That depends on how you feel about milking your player base and probably how you feel about advertising generally. It's pretty clear how Blow feels.

It's useful, in these discussions, to remember one of the most important comments ever made on MetaFilter: If you are not paying for it, you're not the customer; you're the product being sold.
posted by The Bellman at 9:58 AM on February 15, 2011 [4 favorites]


No, to Blow, it must be EARNED, never GIVEN. If you get a moment of joy, an ephemeral reward, an endorphin spike just for showing up, well, gosh, anyone can just show up! We can't have that! You must WORK for that reward.

I can totally appreciate if Braid didn't work out well in the balance department for you. Games don't always get it right—or more to the point can't always get it right for everyone because the audience for games is huge and mixed and we all have different things that work for us and things that we're not so great at.

I love the idea of RTSes but can't play the goddam things to save my life because I just don't enjoy trying to micromanage that shit in real time. I loved playing through Dead Space 2 recently but I had to put the fucker down and walk away for a couple days after hitting my head against a sequence in the final chapter too many times in a row. I never finished the original Metriod Prime because the very final segment of the final three-part boss fight kept kicking my ass and I got tired of replaying it again and again.

It sucks when something about a game you like doesn't click for you and gets in the way of you getting the enjoyment you want out of a game.

That said, the stuff quoted above is invented silliness that imagines Blow as a clueless villain for no reasonable reason. Designers in general aren't sadists, Blow seems like no exception, and it does not require a person never to make a hard game for them to believe that people can get legitimate joy out of easy ones. Blow's objection appears to be to predatory design, not to casual rewards.
posted by cortex at 9:58 AM on February 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


Evil should be encouraged in games: think Blakean energy & delight, the gleeful joy of freedom, Bataille, etc. Maybe GTA is touching this but is too bound up with symbolic transgression. There's a positive way to think of games as excess and exuberance. Farming games are all about lack, debt, guilt, frustration: all the old whips and carrots of morality are deployed, not evilly but cynically, crudely. Quoth Mark Pincus, Zynga CEO: "I did every horrible thing in the book too, just to get revenues right away." I don't want to play games to learn something, to improve my character, to satisfy a need — give me a festival, a way to sacrifice my abundance, a nonproductive luxury.
posted by mbrock at 10:01 AM on February 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


> give me a festival, a way to sacrifice my abundance, a nonproductive luxury.

Well, hyperbole aside, this could be said about just any video game regardless of its content.
posted by Burhanistan at 10:03 AM on February 15, 2011


Rory Marinich: "He's been voicing his concerns about World of Warcraft for years, because WoW is a grinding system that demands hours of your life that might not necessarily be "fun" hours if your goal is to get to level 60, and because (he argues) WoW doesn't offer you enough in terms of beauty and incredible to make getting to level 60 worth it. Once you're there... you keep grinding. "

This line of reasoning suggests to me that strip clubs (and gambling) are "evil" for similar reasons: they tease people into pushing a lot of time and money into a demanding enterprise for which they will get, at best, a small portion of what they really want. In general, we as a society have decided this means only adults, who ostensibly have a developed ability to make conscious choices, can participate in them.

To my point above, we should be careful not to confuse ethics with aesthetics here and go after manipulative video games because they're part of this broad art called video games and the other two examples aren't. Dancing is an art too, but we (at least most of us) don't label stripping evil because it draws its audience with manipulation instead of beauty per se.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 10:10 AM on February 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


You are correct that some people can develop compulsive behavior related to games. The problem isn't the game itself. It's not a "game addiction". There was a "hoarders" or whatever episode that featured a nice lady totally obsessed with collecting rocks. She didn't have a "rock collecting addiction".

What those people have is an anxiety disorder and the gaming, or the rock collecting or the hoarding is the symptom. It's not the problem.


Do you not think there is an ethical problem with designing a game that is specifically designed to exploit the weaknesses of people with psychological problems? Forget the legality or the idea of designing games. I don't think anyone wants to ban Farmville. But we should at least point at that the people designing these games are harming people for profit.
posted by empath at 10:21 AM on February 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


This line of reasoning suggests to me that strip clubs (and gambling) are "evil" for similar reasons: they tease people into pushing a lot of time and money into a demanding enterprise for which they will get, at best, a small portion of what they really want. In general, we as a society have decided this means only adults, who ostensibly have a developed ability to make conscious choices, can participate in them.

You're wrong, because people, when asked, will admit that they enjoy gambling or strip clubs. An extremely common feature of bad game design is that people who play the game a lot do not enjoy it.

I know that this will seem ridiculous on its face if you're not acquainted with the phenomenon, but I guarantee you there are hundreds of thousands of WoW subscribers in the world who hate the way the game makes them feel daily, but can't stop playing because it's a scary little operant conditioning machine. People don't enjoy these games - that's what Blow objects to. They are pseudogames, like yeloson mentioned, which look like a game and have the feel of a game, but are not actually.
posted by TypographicalError at 10:21 AM on February 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


It wasn't my intent to cast Blow as as a "clueless villain". And I agree with his assessment that Farmville-type games rely on predatory design principles. And that sucks. But I also think that Blow's model of game design, as exemplified by Braid, is ultimately one of exclusion instead of inclusion. Not every game needs to appeal to everyone, of course. Like you, cortex, I've given up on RTS games because they seem way too much like work, and I've certainly set aside games which I've otherwise enjoyed because of frustrating boss battles or sheer don't-give-a-fuckness.

But here's the question: will adopting Blow's principles lead to more people playing good games?

Certainly Zynga's designs have lots of people playing bad games. That's not good.

I don't think that emulating Blow is the answer, either. He seems to me, a non-game-designer, to be at the other end of the spectrum: making niche games that find deep, but narrow audience segments.

In the middle, perhaps, are designers like Rockstar, Bioware Bethesda and even Notch (you knew this thread couldn't run its course without a mention of Minecraft!). Games that embrace large audiences and rely neither on sphexish design nor hermetic abstruseness to appeal.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 10:24 AM on February 15, 2011


He's been voicing his concerns about World of Warcraft for years, because WoW is a grinding system that demands hours of your life that might not necessarily be "fun" hours if your goal is to get to level 60, and because (he argues) WoW doesn't offer you enough in terms of beauty and incredible to make getting to level 60 worth it. Once you're there... you keep grinding. "

This tells me that he's missing the mark as far as WoW's appeal goes. Firstly, although, yeah the original was pretty grindy, it was a vast improvement over what came before. WoW has gone through three expansions since 60 was the level cap however, and the questing is better, the storylines more polished and the grinding far reduced. It is very much a different game than it was in 2006.

That said, WoW's particular genius is that it's basically a sandbox game - What you do in it is really up to you, and it supports a very wide array of game play within the same game client. It's not a video game in the way most people understand games - like Super Mario Brothers or Farmville. It's much more like Elite.

I enjoy WoW, especially end game raiding, because of the theory crafting and analysis involved in Min/Maxing and the skill requirements to succeed at it. But thats why I liked D&D, and Battletech, and Warhammer 40k and pretty much everything ever by Avalon Hill.

That's not for everyone, however - and Blizzard has done an amazing job of creating a game that can encompass a variety of skill levels and abilities and whims.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 10:26 AM on February 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


I don't think that emulating Blow is the answer, either. He seems to me, a non-game-designer, to be at the other end of the spectrum: making niche games that find deep, but narrow audience segments.

If you have enough people like him, then you'll have a deep rewarding game for every niche.
posted by empath at 10:27 AM on February 15, 2011 [7 favorites]


Do you not think there is an ethical problem with designing a game that is specifically designed to exploit the weaknesses of people with psychological problems?

No.

A creator of a work has exceedingly little control over how a work is used by the consumer. Judas Priest didn't make those kids kill themselves. Beavis and Butthead didn't make anyone burn down their trailer.

This is the same idiotic moral panic that lead to the PMRC and Comic Book Commissions.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 10:31 AM on February 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


While we're soap-boxing:

Pogo_Fuzzybutt: What those people have is an anxiety disorder and the gaming, or the rock collecting or the hoarding is the symptom. It's not the problem.

I agree with this. For lots of people It (games, sex, shoplifting, gambling, eating, collecting, whatever) is a compulsion and that makes it a real and serious problem.

At the same time, I get frustrated seeing compulsions labeled as addictions. You don't get the DTs if you don't put another coin in the slot; you do it because of a mental compulsion, not because of a biological urge, it's compulsive behavior not addictive. It is a real problem and you deserve my help and support and understanding. But "addiction" isn't the word for it.

empath: Do you not think there is an ethical problem with designing a game that is specifically designed to exploit the weaknesses of people with psychological problems? Forget the legality or the idea of designing games. I don't think anyone wants to ban Farmville. But we should at least point at that the people designing these games are harming people for profit.

I couldn't agree more. They aren't literally pushing heroin, but praying on people's compulsive urges to take advantage and money from them is only a difference of degree, not type. Gambling should be legal, but I hope people don't patronize it, ditto these types of games.
posted by paisley henosis at 10:31 AM on February 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


A creator of a work has exceedingly little control over how a work is used by the consumer.

Bullshit. If Farmville is played as intended by the company, it's destructive and harmful. We're not talking about some people taking it too far against the wishes of the company. They're using it specifically as it was designed. We're not talking about unintentional side effects. We're talking about specifically designing a product to prey on the weaknesses of people and to lower their quality of life.
posted by empath at 10:33 AM on February 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


Yeah, you know, I'm not really getting why so many folks are so down on this guy. You may not have liked his game, you may not agree with his opinions, you may think there is value in these social games he is decrying. But the fact is that he actually gives a shit about making games well (regardless of whether or not you agree with his formulation of what "making a game well" is), he is thoughtful about how he builds games, and—again, regardless of whether you agree with his conclusions—he is sincerely interested in providing a valuable experience for the player, not just sucking money out of them. This guy sincerely loves the craft and art of video games and wants to build high quality stuff, and he is fundamentally on the side of the player, of the consumer. We need more people like this in every creative field, and it's saying something that it's such a big deal that this guy even is approaching video games like this—I mean, seriously, if this guy was a filmmaker we wouldn't be having the same debate at all; maybe some people would be like "you know, I really enjoy a bad Uwe Boll film once in a while, what's this guy's attitude?" But most folks would not be fixating on that point (of course, this post was framed this way, but still...)

The game dev world seems so rapacious and repetitive and anti-intellectual. This guy is a breath of fresh air.
posted by dubitable at 10:36 AM on February 15, 2011 [4 favorites]


Meh. One of the things I learned about myself from WoW (which I should have realized from EVE, and play-by-web chess) is that I really can't stand being forced to play on someone else's schedule. If I can't finish it in an hour or walk away from it for a week, it becomes highly unfun for me.

WRT grinding in WoW, different strokes I suppose. I liked exploration for the little bits of surprising fun and color that you could find in the weirdest places. While I found endgame encounters to be fun and entertaining, grinding for gear and herding cats to get in there was substantially less fun. The itch for big cinematic save-the-world triumph is easier scratched by dusting off an old save game.

I think WoW really shines when people exploit it in interesting ways, like a 40-man PvP raid of dancing ogres.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:37 AM on February 15, 2011


I don't actually have a problem with making addictive drugs available. I don't think that selling heroin per se is a problem, actually, or selling beer or making slot machines. But there is a difference between making a product available and actively making it as addictive and compulsive as possible and specifically marketing it to the people who are most vulnerable to it. At some point there is an ethical boundary that is crossed.
posted by empath at 10:38 AM on February 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think these games are a tremendous waste, WoW included, and I do think that's inherently negative. I've said a lot before about the relative emptiness of easy, no-fail, pay-to-play games like WoW. Farmville and the like are a pure expression of that concept, so they're even worse.

That said, Zynga-style games can't hold a candle to the massive black hole that represents most people's experience with television (a five-hour-a-day time sink for the average American). Part of what makes the "evil" here so noticeable is the fact that these games are new. What we need to examine isn't why so many of us feel compelled to play these particular games, but why we feel compelled to engage in compulsive behavior in the first place.

It's not just conditioning and it's not just disease-model addiction, because we cannot explain why these "diseases" happen to some people but not to others, and often even to the same people during different phases of their lives. I suspect TV, Farmville, spending hours and hours online (hi, my name is vorfeed...), etc. are symptoms of something else, not diseases unto themselves.
posted by vorfeed at 10:39 AM on February 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


"So the question about these games and WoW is what distinguishes them from a slot machine, in terms of how they impact peoples lives."

Both involve wasting your life away in front of a machine all day, but one only costs $14.99 a month.
posted by Jacqueline at 10:45 AM on February 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


A creator of a work has exceedingly little control over how a work is used by the consumer. Judas Priest didn't make those kids kill themselves. Beavis and Butthead didn't make anyone burn down their trailer.

I think you're missing a big point, here. Judas Priest didn't write their songs based market research into what chords, themes and lyrics would be most likely to make kids kill themselves; and as far as I know, Mike Judge didn't write his scripts after consulting with experts on how to trigger pyromania.
posted by steambadger at 10:46 AM on February 15, 2011 [7 favorites]


I wonder if it's possible to come up with a Code of Ethics of what games should be allowed to demand of their players and how you manipulate them.
posted by empath at 10:49 AM on February 15, 2011


A creator of a work has exceedingly little control over how a work is used by the consumer.

That statement is false. Easy counterexample: Slot machines.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 11:08 AM on February 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


I think you're missing a big point, here. Judas Priest didn't write their songs based market research into what chords, themes and lyrics would be most likely to make kids kill themselves; and as far as I know, Mike Judge didn't write his scripts after consulting with experts on how to trigger pyromania.

No, that is the point. They created works that people felt compelled to purchase and use. Some of those uses were in ways that they had not necessarily anticipated, sure, but I don't think you can argue that they did not put a lot of time and effort into making their products very appealing to their respective audiences.

The creators of farmville want you to play their game. If somene plays 23 hours a day, that's a problem, but it's not the developers issue.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 11:18 AM on February 15, 2011


I'd question how much of a "work" slot machines are, anyway. Farmville, too, but not nearly to the same extent.
posted by vorfeed at 11:20 AM on February 15, 2011


I wonder if it's possible to come up with a Code of Ethics of what games should be allowed to demand of their players and how you manipulate them.

That would be pretty hard to enforce if it existed in the first place, and I'm pretty sure nobody would want to sign on for such a thing. I certainly wouldn't.

Of course if there was a code of ethics I'm worried it'd turn out like the CCA.

Games can manipulate and demand things from players, but in such a way to make the experience more engaging and immersive. You're going to get the same thing in other media, especially when money is involved.
posted by hellojed at 11:21 AM on February 15, 2011


If somene plays 23 hours a day, that's a problem, but it's not the developers issue.

What if the developer designed a game to appeal to schizophrenics, and convince them that other people in the room were trying to kill them? Would that be a developer issue?

I'm not suggesting that we should pass laws against this sort of thing; in fact, I'd be opposed to that. That doesn't mean the people who design games deliberately to take advantage of people's emotional problems aren't shitbirds, though.
posted by steambadger at 11:39 AM on February 15, 2011


FYI, y'all: the lecture which the pullquote is roughly about ("About that lecture you gave recently...") is available: video/audio & slides
posted by juv3nal at 11:46 AM on February 15, 2011


That would be pretty hard to enforce if it existed in the first place, and I'm pretty sure nobody would want to sign on for such a thing.

Maybe not so much a Code of Ethics as a Manifesto for Humane Game Design.
posted by empath at 12:07 PM on February 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


"Do you not think there is an ethical problem with designing a game that is specifically designed to exploit the weaknesses of people with psychological problems?"

No.

A creator of a work has exceedingly little control over how a work is used by the consumer. Judas Priest didn't make those kids kill themselves. Beavis and Butthead didn't make anyone burn down their trailer.


Those are false analogies, as the "specifically designed to exploit" part doesn't carry over.
posted by dfan at 12:17 PM on February 15, 2011


The creators of farmville want you to play their game. If somene plays 23 hours a day, that's a problem, but it's not the developers issue.

And I think Blow would agree with you there. Someone that compulsive will find something to be compulsive about. The "evil" he's talking about isn't a matter of a small number of lives destroyed, but of millions of lives made marginally worse.
posted by baf at 12:35 PM on February 15, 2011


Rory Marinich: "Also! Question! I have Frotz for iPhone — it's a text adventure simulator. I tried playing Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and its parser frustrated the SHIT out of me. Can anybody recommend IF for the literate-but-IF-naive layperson that will be fun to play and/or mindblowing? I do feel like this is a genre I've avoided for too long"

Oh man.

HHGTG is a cruel, cruel game. It's like a meta-education in how not to write an IF game, and it's beautiful because of that. It wouldn't be my first choice of game to introduce someone to modern IF though.

Apart from the obvious option of rooting through the lists of recommended games at the IFWiki, here are a few possibilities:

Violet by Jeremy Freese. Classic, simple IF puzzles combined with well drawn characters. Won a pile of awards.

Spider and Web by the inimitable Andrew Plotkin. Won a pile of awards back in '98 and remains a fantastic game. The "ah ha" moment when you realise what's going on works wonderfully.

Something slight more "arty" perhaps? Maybe Galatea by Emily Short. Or going even further back to 1997, The Space Under the Window (Plotkin again).

If you want to sample the genre, you can't go far wrong playing the winners of the annual Interactive Fiction Competition. The grading of the entrants is based on the first 2 hours of play only & perhaps as a result the games are generally shorter than some of the classics of the genre.
posted by pharm at 12:42 PM on February 15, 2011 [8 favorites]


slight*ly*.
posted by pharm at 12:44 PM on February 15, 2011


But I also think that Blow's model of game design, as exemplified by Braid, is ultimately one of exclusion instead of inclusion. Not every game needs to appeal to everyone, of course...

But here's the question: will adopting Blow's principles lead to more people playing good games?


You acknowledge that not every game needs to appeal to everyone, but that seems to be what you're asking for here.

Braid's not a game for you. Is that really such a problem? Personally, I can't find time to play all the games I like, much less complain that there are well-made, awesome games that don't happen to be the kind that I enjoy.

I hate Starcraft, but I acknowledge it's a fantastic game, and I wouldn't dream of asking Blizzard to change it into something I would enjoy. I'd also be pretty mad if Blow had listened to people like you and changed Braid into something different from the fantastic, difficult, rewarding puzzle game that I love.

I also believe, there'd be a lot more great games in my pile of stuff I hope to have time for someday if more developers were like Blow and not trying to make games that try to appeal to everyone.
posted by straight at 12:47 PM on February 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Rory, lots of people like Adam Cadre's Photopia. It's well written, does some interesting things with the medium, and is quite easy to finish -- more interactive story than puzzle game.
posted by straight at 12:56 PM on February 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


I also believe, there'd be a lot more great games in my pile of stuff I hope to have time for someday if more developers were like Blow and not trying to make games that try to appeal to everyone.

Very much this. [Space marine/rogue cop/outlaw/spy] shoots [alien/cartel agent/outlaw/spy] does not allow for much variety, not even in the rare "alien shoots rogue cop" reversal. Those aren't games designed to appeal to everyone, but they're designed to appeal to as many people as possible, and rarely do they offer anything other than that you'll pay the people making them to pretend to shoot more things. Blow's argument distills, I think, to "design with purpose", with an implied "and let that purpose serve your audience, not your bank account".
posted by Errant at 12:59 PM on February 15, 2011


A creator of a work has exceedingly little control over how a work is used by the consumer.

Funny enough, with Facebook games, companies actually do.

The common method of development is to slam together some basic system, and get people playing. Facebook gives you all the data on HOW these folks are playing, and you make adjustments to the game or add additional content as you go.

Companies will often do different adjustments and have it split up amongst different user sections to see which adjustments increase the number of players and play time vs. lower the numbers. Then they roll it out across the board, and repeat with new adjustments.

It's not just an initial design issue, it's something where they are, in fact, constantly tweaking for maximum advertising exposure.

Evil or not, this form of game design is a really new thing in terms of business and social motivations due to the way it's implemented.
posted by yeloson at 1:41 PM on February 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


a lot of this about design has been known for a long time. Skinner was writing about operant conditioning since the 50's, and classical conditioning under people like Watson is going on a century.

This stuff is real and it is addictive and has been applied with real results to casinos, video games, and advertising among many other things. I am actually surprised creating real-world models and putting people into skinner boxes isn't illegal, coke and heroin are both illegal, and behavioral reinforcement is incredibly, gasp-inducingly effective at shaping behavior, habits, even mental states (not that behavioral science actually believes in mental states...).
posted by Shit Parade at 1:48 PM on February 15, 2011


"In fact, keep expecting games like Red Dead Redemption and Far Cry 2 to point out how incredibly horrible the PC has been forced to be so far and give you an out at some point to some other, more moral motive, but so far, there's nothing."

Have you played Red Dead Redemption? It does this CONSTANTLY. You visit the grave of somebody you kill in a duel. The obits in the newspaper are full of your victims. Violence is interrogated by you and by NPCs.

On topic: I played Bayonetta instead of sleeping this weekend. My health suffered as a result. Is Platinum Games evil?

I almost didn't get into college because of Baldur's Gate. Are Bioware evil?

I spend 8 hours a day on Facebook and I've never been tempted by Farmville. Not enough game there

That said, I did get addicted to a text-based MUD and so, after I played the WOW open beta, I avoided the full game. I knew it would get me

I think I understand some of Blow's points. After my Bayonetta binge, my reflexes felt sharper. I was in tune with the game. I had faced and defeated a worthy foe. Would I get that from Farmville?

Who cares?
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 1:51 PM on February 15, 2011


Personally, I can't find time to play all the games I like, much less complain that there are well-made, awesome games that don't happen to be the kind that I enjoy.

I've ALWAYS got time to complain. I MAKE TIME to complain.

I'd also be pretty mad if Blow had listened to people like you and changed Braid into something different from the fantastic, difficult, rewarding puzzle game that I love.

Yikes.

Look, I have nothing against Blow, I applaud him for stretching the boundaries of game design and urging designers to set their sights higher; and I largely agree with his sentiments about the corrosive effect of "social games" like Farmville. I acknowledge that Braid is a great game: for other people. That I didn't enjoy it is nothing more than one gamer's opinion.

I was fumbling toward an explanation of why I didn't like it, and what that says about game design in general, but between trying to herd An Extremely Recalcitrant Cat into a box to get him to a vet appointment and articulating my opinion of game design I've apparently given the latter topic short shrift. Oops. My bad.

there'd be a lot more great games in my pile of stuff I hope to have time for someday if more developers were like Blow and not trying to make games that try to appeal to everyone

But that's the thing: they AREN'T making an effort to appeal to everyone. They're making an effort to appeal to 18-35 year old males who own game consoles and grew up playing Doom and Castle Wolfenstein. Sometimes that makes for good games (Halo), sometimes it doesn't (Kane & Lynch).

Braid doesn't try to appeal to everyone. And that's fine. But I don't think that means that "trying to appeal to everyone" is always bad, and it sure doesn't mean that deliberately making a niche game is always good.

I guess what I'm getting at is that Braid seems to be the game equivalent of "literary fiction" -- it's almost deliberately off-putting, it isn't for everyone, but the people who get it really GET IT. Whereas Farmville is the latest potboiler, the pulpy thriller that everyone's read but really has no literary merit and provides no intellectual sustenance.

All I'm trying to say is that there's a big wide open area between those two extremes that developers can aim for. And some do. That, to me, is the brilliance of Grand Theft Auto. A 16-year-old might pick up GTAIV to shoot hookers and ramp motorcycles off buildings, and the game accommodates that, but if that gamer spends any significant time digging into the game, he can't help but come away with a few impressions about what the game is trying to say about American excess, our deep ambivalence about immigration, our conflicted sense of priorities and blindness to hypocrisy. The same goes for Red Dead Redemption: it works as a shooter, it works as a Western, it works as a commentary on industrialization and the internalization of the American frontier. The games are rich enough, deep enough, to offer a variety of experiences that range from gleefully asinine to bordering on profound. That's an enormous accomplishment.

I'm hoping something similar happens with Deux Ex: Human Revolution. It has the potential to attract a wide range of gamers and to tell a complex and thoughtful story that's fleshed out and emphasized by the game mechanics. That's exciting.

And of course not every game has to be a huge sprawling epic. There's always room for small, focused games (anyone play Enslaved? It was brilliant, and it bombed. Look for it in the bargain bin. It had one of the most daring endings I've ever encountered in a video game.).

tl;dr: If Farmville is Dan Brown, then Braid is Vladimir Nabokov, and the world needs more games that are Vonnegut.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 1:53 PM on February 15, 2011 [4 favorites]


Whereas Farmville is the latest potboiler, the pulpy thriller that everyone's read but really has no literary merit and provides no intellectual sustenance.

Even the trashiest novel has something to say. Farmville is a pure skinner box.
posted by empath at 1:56 PM on February 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Wait, the designer who made a game in which players wait for several hours to complete a piece of a puzzle which ultimately only satisfies the completionist is complaining about designers deliberately making gamers waste their time for the sake of completionism?

[ (X) Achievement Unlocked! Whatever (0g) ]
posted by Spatch at 2:00 PM on February 15, 2011


Whereas Farmville is the latest potboiler, the pulpy thriller that everyone's read but really has no literary merit and provides no intellectual sustenance.

I dunno, I think that's, say, CODBLOPS or Sims 3 or something.

Farmville is more like the ad copy on the back of a box of cereal. The name of the cereal is "Behaviorism-Frosted Shit Flakes". Inside of the box is a coupon for another box of it.
posted by cortex at 2:01 PM on February 15, 2011 [8 favorites]


Yeah, wouldn't 'pulp novel' games be the FPSes and action games that are dumb but fun to play?
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 2:01 PM on February 15, 2011


Braid doesn't try to appeal to everyone. And that's fine. But I don't think that means that "trying to appeal to everyone" is always bad, and it sure doesn't mean that deliberately making a niche game is always good.

While I certainly agree with your points about broad appeal not being bad and niche not being good, I'd argue that game design almost always improves from a narrowing of focus. I think what happens a lot of the time is that in trying to appeal to as many people as possible, design goals are diffused across a wide spectrum and the danger of creating a milquetoast game is high. I'd argue that some of the most successful games have had very focused goals with a very specific audience in mind; it just so happens that the prevalence of targeted attributes in the wider audience is greater that originally thought. The Sims is sort of the classic example of this: man is laughed out of the room for wanting to make a dollhouse simulator, ends up laughing to the bank when it turns out tons of people love playing with dolls.

(cortex, stop watching me eat breakfast.)
posted by Errant at 2:04 PM on February 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


Wait, the designer who made a game in which players wait for several hours to complete a piece of a puzzle which ultimately only satisfies the completionist is complaining about designers deliberately making gamers waste their time for the sake of completionism?

Yeah, that was kind of a metacommentary on achievements. He hates them.
posted by empath at 2:25 PM on February 15, 2011


If we're comparing Braid to books, then it's The Life of Pi. If Braid were a movie, it would be Memento. It's a fun and clever game, but ultimately that self-satisfied cleverness prevents it from being truly great.
posted by Pyry at 2:33 PM on February 15, 2011


BitterOldPunk: I guess what I'm getting at is that Braid seems to be the game equivalent of "literary fiction" -- it's almost deliberately off-putting, it isn't for everyone, but the people who get it really GET IT. Whereas Farmville is the latest potboiler, the pulpy thriller that everyone's read but really has no literary merit and provides no intellectual sustenance.

cortex: I dunno, I think that's, say, CODBLOPS or Sims 3 or something.

I actually like The Sims franchise because it's the ultimate sandbox game. No plot, no mandatory goals, few checkpoints, no scoreboard, and very few restrictions that can't be liberally hacked or cheated. It's not loaded with intellectual content, but neither is a sandbox. The point of the sandbox is that you bring and make your own fun. That could be crazy houses, epic family soap operas, or virtual sadism.

If you try to add "intellectual sustenance" to a sandbox, it's no longer a sandbox. It's now a moral museum where people do semi-random walk from object lesson to object lesson, or an amusement park (which describes most MMORPGs.) And something I've figured out about amusement parks is that the semi-random walk from feature to feature is a very limited degree of freedom in a highly manipulative environment.

The sandbox (or alternately balls, dolls, bricks, and cards) is a different type of play entirely, and one that doesn't get enough attention in these discussions of games where most people appear to be carrying a chip on their shoulder about the "literary merit" of games. I'm getting a bit burned out on the games-as-literature approach where I cross trigger points or clear levels to get tiny little servings of "plot." It's nice and sometimes very well-designed but I've been playing that model since Zork III and Myst.

Facebook games appear to be social on the same order as a chain mail or pyramid scheme. What I want from social gaming is the kind of play demonstrated by my two giggling nephews who ran up to me with bath towels wrapped around their arms screaming, "I broke my arm! I broke my arm!" I want play that's imaginative, open-ended, funny, and unintended by the people who designed the "toys."
posted by KirkJobSluder at 3:40 PM on February 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


The sandbox (or alternately balls, dolls, bricks, and cards) is a different type of play entirely, and one that doesn't get enough attention in these discussions of games where most people appear to be carrying a chip on their shoulder about the "literary merit" of games. I'm getting a bit burned out on the games-as-literature approach where I cross trigger points or clear levels to get tiny little servings of "plot." It's nice and sometimes very well-designed but I've been playing that model since Zork III and Myst.

I think that Jonathan Blow would agree with you. He's not a fan of narrative (he calls it exploitive in that talk linked twice above, if I remember correctly). He thinks that meaning in games should come from an exploration of the game's systems, and not through narrative, and that any narrative you impose on a game will almost necessarily conflict with meaning derived from the play itself.
posted by empath at 4:57 PM on February 15, 2011


Minecraft is a fantastic example of a pure game as an exploration of a system of rules. That's There's no narrative, hardly any text, no characters, no goal, no achievements, only a vast empty world to make your own, but I think Minecraft was more important, valuable and meaningful than any other game released in the past couple of years -- and might even be the one of the most important artworks of the 21st century, full stop. It's as pure an example of a game as an art form that elevates the player as has ever been made. It's a game that makes you feel good for playing, and gives a sense of creative fulfillment in a way that most games don't reach for and watching a movie or reading a book never could.
posted by empath at 5:06 PM on February 15, 2011 [4 favorites]


Pfft, Farmville. Why would anybody waste their time on that? So what if your pumpkin patch gets a little larger, or your tomatoes a little riper? It's such a thoroughly boring idea. I just don't know how they've managed to rope so many...

Mister Fabulous: "Since he quit WoW several months ago, he's moved on to Farmville, and Cityville, and probably three or four others."

*googles*

So it's like SimCity... with an achievements system?

NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOoooooo..... *disappears into Zynga's clutches forever*
posted by Rhaomi at 7:48 PM on February 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


empath: "I think Minecraft was more important, valuable and meaningful than any other game released in the past couple of years -- and might even be the one of the most important artworks of the 21st century, full stop."

Speaking of which, Minecraft has been nominated to represent the Combat/Strategy genre on the Windows platform of the modern era at the Smithsonian's upcoming "Art of Video Games" exhibition. It's currently up against Starcraft II and Age of Empires 3 in public voting; if you really believe it's an excellent representation of games as art, then make sure to show your support! And while you're there, you can also help boost other fine games like Shadow of the Colossus (Era 5, Playstation 2, Action Genre) and the original SimCity (Era 3, SNES, Combat/Strategy Genre).
posted by Rhaomi at 9:12 PM on February 15, 2011


Combat/Strategy?
posted by empath at 4:48 AM on February 16, 2011


what these designers do – and this is why I always go to it from the design standpoint – they very deliberately design the game to not give the player everything that they want, to string the player along and to invade the player’s free time away from the game.

Note: This is also why reality shows are evil.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:58 AM on February 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


Sorry *some* reality shows are evil. Some are not. It all depends on the production.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:59 AM on February 16, 2011


Yeah, I wanted to make a comparison between reality TV and the 'social' games like Farmville, because they seem related to me on some level, but I can't exactly put into words why.
posted by empath at 9:00 AM on February 16, 2011


Bitter Old Punk, I'm happy to shut up about Braid and join hands with you in hoping that Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a fantastic game that is both satisfying to fans of the original and flashy and exciting enough to sell a bajillion copies.

(I just finished Batman: Arkham Asylum which makes me feel irrationally optimistic that mainstream popular games can be awesome.)
posted by straight at 10:22 AM on February 16, 2011


Please someone actually defend Farmville and Zynga as games worthy of the amount of time that people spend playing them. What possible benefit do people get out of it? The most insidious part of it, to my mind, is that it plays on people's altruism, their natural instinct to help others, when what they are doing is completely valueless and helps no one.

I've been having this conversation with a friend of mine who's an art director for a casual games company and a fan of these social games. Her argument, as I understand it, boils down to this:

These games help reinforce a web of social contacts. When she does something that helps out someone in her network in one of these games, there's a bit of goodwill that is transmitted between the two of them. Through the game she keeps in contact with people she'd otherwise have no regular interaction with. It doesn't matter that the interaction is small and has no "real world" value. The fact that it's positive interaction is enough.


Also, I think she genuinely finds the games fun. They have lots of fun little bits of art. Arranging them is fun. Looking at the little buildings in CityVille (I think) inspires her to draw little buildings for her own imaginary cities. I feel that she's interacting with these games as an artist, in a way that I suspect the vast majority of the audience for these games does not, but I may be wrong about the audience.
posted by aneel at 9:55 PM on February 17, 2011


Speaking of which, Minecraft has been nominated to represent the Combat/Strategy genre on the Windows platform of the modern era at the Smithsonian's upcoming "Art of Video Games" exhibition.

I like Minecraft a lot, but picking it as a representative of the Combat/Strategy genre is about as appropriate as picking Jeff Koon's Cicciolina works as representative of the pornography industry.

Great choice if you want to really fuck with future historians.
posted by b1tr0t at 12:56 PM on February 19, 2011


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