The New Social Grind: Begging as Gameplay
Zynga recently came out with its latest “social” game, Frontierville. It features the same cartoony art style and single-player gameplay as their previous games, and reportedly combines elements of others including Farmville in a new skin.
Another thing it does is hone the concept of what I’ve called “ugly viral” — in this case, using begging as gameplay. Not only does this game make it impossible for you to move forward without others helping you — in a way that involves no social interaction at all — it’s very up front about this as the poor li’l teary-eyed supplicating pioneer in the illustration (from the FB feed) shows.
So what’s wrong with this? It’s all in good fun, and it’s cute, right? Well, maybe.
Games succeed by making all kinds of things their focus: mowing down as many aliens, zombies, or other anonymous enemies as you can, for example. And some, notably MMOs, have carefully evolved this into “the grind” — get ten rats, bring them back to the vending machine quest-NPC, rinse, repeat. Others have you build cities, collect gems, bounce off mushrooms, etc. — the list is long.
But only recently have games turned players into the online equivalent of the annoying younger sibling who wants your help over and over again and will whine about it endlessly. Don’t believe me? Check out the “reviews” section of any of the putatively “social” games on Facebook. Along with spam and complaints, the most common review comment has to be some variant of the plaintive “add meeee pleeeeeeeease!” — meaning that people want to be “neighbors” because the game requires it. Not because they want to interact with friends, but because they’re trying to fulfill a hard requirement set by the still-really-single-player game.
This wheedling and whining also appears in the Facebook news feed — until others turn it off, which most quickly do (and until Facebook plugs this annoyance hole, as they have others abused by these games). Most paradoxical of all, it’s this same whining and begging that people say makes these games social.
It’s almost as if we’ve all forgotten what it really means to be social — to interact with friends, to play a game together, to work together, to contribute to something together. Or maybe it’s just that game developers (and the VCs who love them), see this working for others and make the leap too without stopping to think of how to actually make the games social (“hey, millions of people enjoy playing by themselves and begging their friends for help (albeit only in disconnected, non-social ways) in these other games, maybe we should get in on that!”).
It’s often unprofessional and discourteous to criticize someone else’s work, especially in an area like games where historically it’s been difficult to do anything. And I know a lot of people worked very hard to bring this game, along with all the other wheedling whining begging games, to the market.
But I’m going to say this anyway: Folks, this is just plain bad game design. It’s another unfeeling, unrewarding treadmill. You can get rats to press a bar in a cage forever if you use a random reward schedule, but I doubt seriously whether the rats would call it fun. This is that same kind of psychology applied to people.
Somewhere along the way, the idea that these games should be fun, engaging (mentally and emotionally, not as a measure of visits per month), and something that you want to tell your friends about — real sociability — seems to have gotten lost. We’ve exchanged the MMO grind of “kill ten rats” for the new grind of “get four neighbors” or “get your friends to send you gifts.”
This isn’t fun, it isn’t actual gameplay, and it sure isn’t social.
Playing a game with your friends is social, and it’s powerful. So is showing people you care about something cool you found online. Begging — literally begging — them to help you build a barn or a shack or pull some weeds or whatever it is, well, in my opinion that’s just lame.
We can do better.