Persuasive Games: Video Game Pranks
March 18, 2008 Page 2 of 4
Despite their clear status as prank, easter eggs play jokes on the game's sponsors or publishers but do not turn the games themselves into pranks. To find games that play practical jokes on their players, we'll have to turn to pranks of another sort.
Many pranks function by subtlety rather than flamboyance: connecting a coworker's paper clips together so they pull out of a drawer in a long chain; switch the "push" and "pull" signs on an outside door; taping over the laser eye of an optical mouse so it doesn't work; tying someone's shoelaces together.
These small-scale pranks are probably the commonest type; they don't require significant preparation, yet they can facilitate an ongoing feud among participants. The set-up and follow-through of small-scale tricks can even take on a playfulness that resembles a game.
At the office, these activities revolve around limited resources. One might hide or move supplies of particular worth, or plot to arrive at the office early to lock a coworker out of the best parking spaces.
Perhaps it is no surprise that these topics might translate directly into games that let players play pranks on each other, through the game itself. Take parking, a strange and complex social activity that Area/Code adapted into the Facebook game Parking Wars.
In Parking Wars, each player gets a street with several spaces as well as a handful of cars, which come in different colors. Play involves virtually parking these cars on the streets of one's Facebook friends. Each car earns money by remaining parked on the street over time, but the player can only cash out a car's value by moving it to another space. Players level up at specific dollar figures, earning new cars as they do so.
Some spaces have special rules, like "red cars only," or "no parking allowed." It's possible to park illegally in these spaces, but if their owners catch you they can choose to issue a ticket, which tows the player from the space and forfeits the money earned to the space's owner.
When possible, it's best to park legally. However, in practice this isn't easy, since many players vie for the limited resources of their friends' collective parking lots, just like we do with our coworkers at the office. Moreover, very occasionally the signs on spaces change, so no one's guaranteed to be safe.
Playing Parking Wars is an exercise in predicting friends' schedules. A colleague in Europe is likely to be sleeping during the evening in the States, and thus his street might offer safe haven at that hour.
And just as some meter-maids don't get around to patrolling real streets, so some players of Parking Wars don't get around to patrolling their virtual one. Of course, such players might just be busy, or they might even be baiting their colleagues so that they can later issue a whirlwind of unexpected tickets.
Receiving a ticket in Parking Wars isn't a prank on the level of spreading dog poo on the underside of a buddy's car door handle. Rather, the combination of latent, ongoing play and occasional "gotchas" makes plays in Parking Wars feel like pranks.
The game weaves its way into the player's ordinary use of Facebook, rather than requiring complete immersion. This latency creates a credible context for surprises, just as the flow of the work day sets the stage for switched desk drawers or shoe polish-smeared telephone receivers.
Gotchas come in at least two forms: in giving or receiving a ticket (which pops up as a big, yellow overlay across the screen), and in the silent knowledge of having taken advantage of another player's inattention.
Many games give players the opportunity to trick, fool, or swindle an opponent out of resources -- just recall the pleasure of seeing an opponent land on a particularly valuable property in Monopoly. But in Parking Wars, players aren't always expecting it. By setting up an ordinary social environment for disruption, Parking Wars becomes a medium for pranks, a kind of video game whoopie cushion.
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