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A Brave New Medium: Facebook versus World of Warcraft
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A Brave New Medium: Facebook versus World of Warcraft

December 16, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

I cringe inside when people say they're not "good" at video games, or that they'd never in a million years be able to figure out the controls to Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. "It looks really good, but I'm not really a gamer so I'll probably never play it," they say with a defeated shrug.

In the past, I've argued that video games are a medium unto themselves, but I realize now I've been wrong. There is a new and evolving medium, but video games are only a small piece of a much larger picture.

If you have a Facebook profile, can use MS Word, or have bought something on eBay, you understand the essential language of interaction, which is at the heart of every video game. You may not want to bother figuring out a hardcore shooter, but that doesn't mean you're not an active patron of the medium in which video games are contained.

Virtual interaction is at the heart of the modern media, the answer to the looming question of what comes next. For thousands of years games mimicked the forms of interaction, but they required two present parties to reproduce the interactivity.

With widespread adoption of the home computer and, consequently the internet, all the necessary technology for systemic interaction in everything from commerce to storytelling has arrived.

It's Facebook that's introduced the benefits of interactivity to the mainstream more than Wii or DS. Like AOL, Amazon, and eBay before it, Facebook uses many of the same mechanical principles of traditional video games, though its ultimate purpose is completely different.

What follows is a comparison of Facebook to World of Warcraft in an effort to more clearly define interactivity as its own unique medium, and then carve out the special purpose of video games within that larger medium.

The Interface

The PC is the biggest gaming platform in the world, and it's the frontline for demonstrating the most essential qualities of interactivity. With a mouse and keyboard you have the interface to browse the web, build a spreadsheet, or smack zombies in the face with a crowbar. While the purposes in moving the mouse cursor in PowerPoint versus adjusting your aim in Left 4 Dead 2 are different, the interface is identical.

In World of Warcraft, user interface is multi-layered, framing the game world with iconic buttons, a running log of events, and a record of social exchange. Facebook's pages are drawn in clean columns with actionable buttons and links standing out in sharp blue against the soft white background.

In both, mouse navigation fine-tunes your orientation in the world while keystrokes are used for personal interaction and expression. WoW presents its visual interface as the frame of the entire game world. In Facebook, each new bit of information has a smaller set of interface options that are consistent from profile to profile and status update to status update.

"The primary guideline for anything that we add to Facebook is to help our users connect and share with each other," said Gareth Davis, Platform Manager and Games Lead at Facebook. "That's the lens through which we evaluate every single thing that we add to the site. Does it help people connect and does it facilitate sharing?"

Sharing and connecting is crucial to WoW, but it happens in the context of roleplay and fantasy projection. Those elements, the quest design, the story that connects them, and the art style through which players can bring their fantasy to life are elements of art and authorship.

"Simplified UI that is able to easily achieve what the user is motivated to accomplish often outweighs gorgeous design," said Ariel Waldman, digital anthropologist, founder of, and former NASA coordinator.

"In social networks, Twitter and Foursquare are shining examples of this factor, while Tumblr leads the way on balancing simple interactivity with decent aesthetics and information architecture."

Creating an Identity

Interacting is a way of self-expressing, be it on the highest level of metaphysical fantasy or in the most mundane functions of e-commerce. "I think the difference between an MMO and a social platform is an MMO is about a fantasy projection and a social network is about self-identity and expression," said Neil Young, co-founder of ngmoco.

"Another way of thinking about it is the difference between reality television and dramatic television. Yes, it's a reflection of yourself, but it's also fictional. Whereas a social network tends to be a much more accurate reflection of you and you can modify that and play with that, but it tends to be regulated by your friends in the real world. "

In WoW you align with a faction (conveniently good or evil), pick a character class based on your preferred metaphor for interaction (druid, hunter, priest, mage, paladin etc.). Your appearance becomes a record of events you've completed or places you've been. It's a fictional aggregator that tells people small pieces of information about your experience.

In Facebook, you have many more options for creating your identity, but the function is still through association. Your most basic identity is established through personal affiliation, guilds and classes become towns, networks, and mutual friends. The aggregation of tagged photos creates its own sort of narrative about where you've been and what you've done.

"A decision was made very early on that the interface should look very clean and very consistent, so if I'm visiting three different friends' profiles I can find the information that I care about very quickly and easily," said Davis.

"The most important thing is that people are really who they say they are and who you know they are."

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Christian Kulenkampff
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Interesting article. But in my opinion the article seems inaccurate by limiting games and especially videogames to "tools of self-expression/ self-exploration". For example I think Solitaire does not fit into the article's view of games.

C. Ritter
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Very interesting article. I think you're right to claim that one of the most essential differences between Facebook and WoW is the realism of people's identities - that on Facebook we essentially represent our true selves, but that on WoW we take on a virtual identity in a fantasy world. I think that factor helps explain the draw of both of these programs. But as Christian hints in the first comment, the fact that videogames are _games_ is the biggest difference between them and other media. Both WoW and Facebook encourage/allow identity play, and Facebook contains some games, but WoW's _main purpose_ is game play. That's a significant enough difference to distinguish videogames from other interactive software - maybe they all fall under the broad rubric of "interactive media," but I'd call them different mediums in the end.

Timothy Ryan
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Facebook = Free = Lower quality expectations

WoW = $$ = Greater quality expectations

Remember the consumer backlash when Counter Strike went commercial and people were expected to pay for it? Now imagine if people had to pay for any of those Facebook games. Do you think people would? It's one thing to say you have an install base of hundreds of millions, and it's quite another when you actually analyze the number of paying customers. Case in point: Zynga, the biggest success story for Facebook published games, still needs venture capital to keep afloat. These games are designed to scam people and investors alike.

Ruthaniel van-den-Naar
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Facebook and Twitter are scum for childs, tuxedo peddlers and other empty heads.

Such a network, if he had a sense, it must be the soul and knowledge (like Wikipedia), not a pretty face, famous family gatherings and millions of photos .. Young generation hunt pretty face and facebook for me is mainly about sex (whether primary or secondary), whether they say what they want.

There is always a poor man who tries on a page where many people earn money they impose something ..

Richard Cody
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WoW is a director or a parent who guides you through a structure. The game creates the fun.

Facebook is an empty pallet waiting for something to be made of it. The user creates the fun.

Victor Perez
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Timothy, point for you, but it is not scam to do a huge marketing campaign showing fake trailers just to sell another bad game? The language of free to play game is new in this circus and some do not know how to monetize their game play that is because they have been forced to scam people. People have the right to test it before to pay, it is nothing more than that, good companies and products are now difficult to detect, time will tell it.

Richard another for you…

Raph Koster
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Timothy, according to everything I have read, Zynga is profitable.

Ed Alexander
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I liked the article, it was well written. Unfortunately I find I don't agree with the sources quoted...

David Spade made a critical observation of Chris Farley's character in the movie Tommy Boy that I feel kind of relates to how I feel about Young and Humble. There are two kinds of smart: book smart and street smart. I think they are book smart, because I don't see the street smart behind their words.

But it was interesting stumbling upon this article, just yesterday I went for coffee with a colleague and we were discussing WoW (and MMOs in general) and Facebook games. Whether or not you're a hardcore gamer who looks down on such casual, easy games with a watered down experience, you have to admit that both WoW and Facebook are doing what the Wii has been successful of; and that is changing expectations and expanding the industry's audience, many of whom probably wouldn't even describe themselves as gamers, even if they do spend an hour a day or more in front of FarmVille, Mafia Wars, etc.

Simon Tai
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Interesting article indeed, but I find it's comparin apple to orang a bit. Yes, there are social aspects to both, but since the target audience and user base are too different, the basis, contents, and evolution of interactions will essentially be different as well.

The recent phenomenon of growing focus into social services has put a decade long consumer behavior under the spot light and uncovered new business opportunities. Yet, I don't think it has impacted the traditional games much. Perhaps, the word "games" is too broad. My point is that traditional games will continue its own path undetered by the new emerging trend of social network business exactly for the same reason Ed mentioned above.

Victor Perez
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"Games" is like "Movies" or "Sports"... it is an Entertainment with some common characteristics but I will never compare Soccer with Tennis… But just talking about trends: My vision is that online games will be more and more flooded of “quality graphics games” pushing out the facebooks and others social web games. And all of them following the freemium model….

Christopher Plummer
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I liked this article a lot. It was thought out very well and quite intriguing. I guess it doesn't hurt that I also feel similar to the author.

For the people making snide remarks about Solitaire I would say the author addressed this. Solitaire is a game, and the "video game" you know it as is a utility to help people play Solitaire more efficiently and productively.

The identity is that of someone who longs to play in a controlled environment with no surpises.

The want is to let you do this whenever, wherever, and even to score you based on your speed.

The product is one that is exactly the same as it was when it was first released, with its only additions being customization options for your identity and the ability to work as well or better on current hardware.