A few days before I started my very first job in social games, I found myself kidnapped with a party of human cattle as slavers smuggled us across some border. I witnessed stark, inhuman acts of cruelty perpetuated against desperately innocent people, a father shot in front of his son, things I'd only seen in movies.
I feared for my life, and when I woke up I realized the project of our globalized human civilization: opt-in mind control. The violent potential of the human animal justifies a relentless technological quest to tame the beast with number games. We keep developing better methods of selling ourselves out to hallucinated fantasies -- and we like it. Why wouldn't we? The alternative is brutal anarchy.
A latter-day reincarnation of Aldous Huxley would write his revision of Brave New World on the tap pad of a second-hand Archos tablet bought on sale over eBay. He would write about the madness of people clicking on stars popping out of 2D cabbage bitmaps when they could be participating in the greatest information expansion in human history.
His characters would deal with the dilemma of collective humanity that CityVille presents, they would talk about 3G dongles and WiFi coverage instead of soma injections and group sex. This is a world that has a bit of newness about it -- I think we can all agree on that - but there isn't much bravery to be seen.
A defining moment in my adolescence was hearing the disembodied voice of Colonel Campbell explain how the world is run, in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. It was like getting an eyeball injection of conspiracy theory laced with a Cliff Notes of Hobbes, Nietzsche and Hegel. The twist was that Campbell's words were supplied by a fictional AI representing "The Patriots", an elite cabal of numbers made conscious, who attempt to cement a global control grid through comprehensive censorship.
"The S3 program" - hairs raise off the back of my neck - "doesn't stand for 'Solid Snake Simulation'" - eyebrows arching up - "it actually means" - pupils slightly dilated - "Selection for Societal Sanity."
Whoa! What does that mean?!
Never mind that this had nothing to do with the game itself, Kojima-san had me like the matrix right there.
I always wanted to see the high-concepts in Hideo Kojima's games get implemented as playable systems, but after working on social games for a while, I realized we are it. The game of social games is a spiritual successor to that idea from Metal Gear Solid 2, but instead of covertly censoring the internet, we create ways for people to intentionally censor their own experience within the self-curated walls of Facebook. We're continuing an ancient tradition of peaceable mind-control technology.
You are probably thinking this mind control is "evil", rather than being the very best sort of mind control yet invented. But consider these two scenes:
A man walks into a gas station, says "I'm at the pump on the left," gas station clerk taps his computer and responds:
"That'll be $12.35 please."
Now this customer is a tough customer, He's built like a brick shit-house, thick'n'scraggly beard, with a concealed fire arms license. Guess his response.
"Yup," reaches into his pocket, pulls out a crushed and crumpled thicket of bills containing a $10, a $5, a few coins rolled in the folds but falling out, "oh yeah, can you add one of those hot dogs?"
Let's say this is a gentleman who makes modest money, maybe he makes $30,000 as a trucker and pays child support. Still, it's cool: he got gas and a hot dog, and the All 'merican Entrepreneur -- the gas station franchisee -- got some paper with some numbers that he'll write about in his little accounting book and add into a net profit at the end of the day.
A man walks into a gas station, pulls out his concealed firearm, and says "open the drawer!" The other guy nervously eyeballs the sawed-off shotgun hidden under the desk, makes a quick shift of weight, the assailant's finger twitches in response, and the gun goes off. A 9mm warhead of spinning lead splinters through the Entrepreneur's right brain-hemisphere and exits with slightly reduced momentum. Faintly remembered tax receipts encoded onto neural tissue dissipate as said tissue dances out very realistic trajectories onto the wall and floor. The man has to open the register himself and withdraw that cash manually. He helps himself to a hot dog on his way out.
The difference between these two scenes is the game of legal tender. I live in a third world country/emerging market, and I see guys that seem like potential threats -- most of the time they speak softly and ask for another beer. Except one time where they had a knife -- I passed them a cheap phone and a wallet with 125 pesos ($31.50 USD), and that was that. What a successful game.
Laws have evolved: duels used to be cool, slavery was enforced as a property right, and before all that, tribes would just wipe each other out. Italy seems like a pretty nice place to go vacation, but if you play Rome: Total War, it may seem odd that people used to be running around raging down city walls.
We've seen a history full of atrocious stupidity, and we've been slowly conquering it -- ourselves really -- with the ever-evolving numbers. Even when things fell apart, the numbers made a comeback. Some people are concerned that the numbers game is going to crap out on us, leave us in the gas station without a gun, they cry "peak oil, peak topsoil, peak everything". I'm much more concerned about what becomes of us if the numbers survive and continue to colonize our frontal lobes.
What we've seen so far with social games, the latest rosebud in a long history of thorns, is that the money game has preempted the design space of social games. To look at it another way, a company doing RTS games might be founded by huge fans of the genre and are focused on making a better form of it, but social game companies are culturally driven by winning a separate game. Incidentally, the history of economics has been recapitulated in social game systems - inflated and deflated currencies, energy income, return on investment - harvest mechanics that simulate running a bond portfolio with 12 hour maturities and 40 percent yields. It's been game design by money, of money, for money -- the whole things is almost anti-social.
Market forecasters like to talk about "cyclical" and "secular" trends. A cyclical trend for games would be the growth in sales for a new console and the third party titles that piggyback on it. A secular trend is the 30 years of radical economic and technological growth that fueled every console cycle since the Atari 2600. A super-secular trend might be something that goes back a century or more, although you could imagine the Pope condemning a bunch of California liberals with "< S >" emblazoned on their t-shirts. Now that's secular.
One of the biggest super-secular trends I can think of is the loss of employment due to automation. People are losing their jobs to cheap labor, sure, but at least that's a job somewhere even if it's lower pay and a lower standard of living. What I'm talking about are robots and software making people obsolete for so many things. Not even grocery stores are a safe haven. Automation then opens up more scarce and awesome jobs that involve using the automation to achieve greater goals. It's a pyramid scheme of automation and specialized skill, a technocracy, for you Mage fans out there.
As we ride into this era of automation, it is the responsibility of those of us benefiting from technocracy to give people something to do. Property taxes in the US served to pave the way for suburbia and fund millions of public teaching jobs, and in countries like Egypt where one out of 3 people has no job, half of the existing jobs come from the government. Can social game designers do a better job than a Saharan dictator? If we can't, who will?
Consider that almost everyone in the past years wave of revolutions, from Tangiers to Athens to Tehran, has been armed with a cellphone. Sure, in Libya where they're hardcore deathmatch junkies, they're armed with the Quake 2 arsenal minus the rail gun (NATO aid forthcoming), but a million SMS users are always more interesting than a million gun users. Egypt is more social I guess. When are we going to design social games to help people in the emerging world, who may not have much more than a cell phone, their community and the natural resources of the region? Somebody super-secular should get on that.
We've got to take the reins and design new kinds of social gameplay from principles that are independent of scoreboard concerns from centuries-old banking MMOs. Fear is no excuse (greed is). If you can move people, change their minds, you will be able to move money. For entertainment purposes alone, there is huge unexplored potential, a lament that other young designers, more veteran and hot headed than myself, have shared. Then we can talk about redesigning a broken reality, or at least our bokeh perspectives.
In this column, I intend to drill down to the processes that have driven social games and examine the way social games ought to be. It's up to all of us to select the rules of our society and strive for a sanity that is genuine and playful. Let's drive this society game in an awkward direction.