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.

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6 Comments on “The New Social Grind: Begging as Gameplay”

  1. I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels this way.


  2. FrontierVille really is the first one that pretty much stops the story line and progression unless you gather these 20 things (post getting married, you need 20 items to unlock the barn).

    I don’t know, though, if this is much different than the old download games which gave you a hour of free game play and then put up a wall that you had to pay (in those days, $20) to get through. In the case of FrontierVille, the wall is a) pay me $5 to get all the 20 things or b) go crazy viral and post/plead with friends/strangers to send you stuff so I can get more people to install my game and get them hooked. As long as I get $5 or you to generate 5 more people, I the developer am happy and will let you pass.

    They’ve done enough teasing about other areas, getting family members, etc. that a part of you wants to see what comes next in the story. But you don’t get to do it till you cross the $5 barrier. It may not be fun, but its a rational decision people make – I either pay or plead.


  3. Mike Sellers Says:

    @Eric, as I recall other games have had a similar mechanic – for example in Farmville you have to have others come and click on your barn to get it built. I believe some of the island games have used a similar mechanic.

    The difference I see between these and the older “hour of free play” is that with those you had a simple decision to make: pay or stop playing. I think a better comparison is to see this as a new form of nag-ware, where it’s been taken to the social level: now instead of nagging you to pay, the game nags your friends unless you pay!

    In economic terms, the $5 barrier strikes me as a new instance of the “penny gap.” Maybe this is why these methods strike me as being so ugly: they represent steps backward to old-style nag-ware or payment walls.

    I still believe that games can be highly viral without needing to spam Facebook channels and without nagging the player or their friends. I suspect strongly that more positive forms of viral spread are more difficult to design into a game, and probably more difficult to achieve, but are likely more rewarding in the long-run.

    If so, the question in the f2p market will become whether there’s room for games with a Wal-mart level of design and those with more finely crafted designs (whether at the Gap, Banana Republic, or even Savile Row level, to continue the analogy). Wal-mart makes a ton of money, but not everyone wants to shop at that level of quality. Will the same be true in free games, or is the market simply not that attuned to design and gameplay? I’m betting they are, but we’ll see.


  4. […] “The New Social Grind: Begging as Gameplay” is an interesting post on how social games are currently in a state of being […]


  5. help Says:

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