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GDC 2011: Debating The Relative Evils Of Social Games
GDC 2011: Debating The Relative Evils Of Social Games
March 2, 2011 | By Kyle Orland

March 2, 2011 | By Kyle Orland
More: Social/Online, Indie, GDC

The GDC 2011 panel may have been officially titled “A Debate: Are Social Games Legitimate” but moderator Margaret Robertson started off by telling the audience that the panelists wanted to center the debate on a question they were more conceptually comfortable with: Are social games evil?

Georgia Institute of Technology researcher and Cow Clicker creator Ian Bogost certainly seemed to think that social gaming was at least insidious, if not outright evil. He compared the slowly creeping effects of social networks and games to that of the omnipresent high-fructose corn syrup that's been pushed into nearly every food product for a number of reasons.

“I wonder if Facebook is doing for friendship what [agriculture conglomerate] ADM is doing for cheap sweeteners,” he said. “It's turning people into resources, like ADM does for corn, and people become these resources that are changed into industrial value as efficiently as possible.”

Daniel James, co-founder and CEO of Puzzle Pirates developer Three Rings, said social game makers had to be careful to create their games ethically, with an eye towards creating deep, meaningful connected experiences rather than just glorified slot machines.

“If you look at a row of people putting money into a slot machine, they're not really smiling,” he said.

Nabeel Hyatt, of recent Zynga acquisition Conduit Labs, shared an anecdote about an office manager that plays Cafe World in weekly meetings with four or five real friends as proof that social games, far from being evil, instead “provide real social value and real happiness to their lives.”

ZipZapPlay's Curt Bererton agreed that social game makers should focus less on dirty monetization tricks and more on features that increased engagement and conversation, like a personalizable cupcake maker in his company's Baking Life.

Bererton also echoed the point about the inherent value of the social connections created by these games, saying they provide a good excuse to talk with friends and family who could never commiserate over games like Grand Theft Auto and World of Warcraft.

“Since I started playing these games, I now interact with my family more than before,” he pointed out as a decidedly non-evil effect of social gaming' existence.

But Bogost said that just because social games are fun and have some redeeming social value doesn't mean we shouldn't be able to look at whether or not they are the best method we have for having fun.

“We've sort of allowed ourselves to be backed into a corner on these things,” he said. “I don't want to accept it as the thing we were given and it's what we've got, so we can't ask questions anymore. … To me, we have a sort of infrastructure that feels bad. It doesn't feel like it's advancing us as human beings.”

The debate soon descended into a comparative analysis of the relative “evilness” value of social games compared to other entertainment alternatives. Hyatt suggested that even the most addictive, meaningless social game was a better use of time than watching soap operas, and that these games' gentle socialization was in some ways preferable to the ridiculously violent aggression between players of games like Bulletstorm.

To Hyatt, the marginalization of social games comes off as ironic, given the game industry's larger struggle for mainstream acceptance. But Bogost said he didn't buy the argument that “we must accept all games because at one point certain games were given short shrift.”

Responding to a questioner's inquiry about the evilness of rampant cloning in the social game sector, Hyatt pointed out that other entertainment forms like first-person shooters and family sitcoms show wide similarities across works, with only rare innovation.

Bererton said he was worried when his game's personalized cupcake feature began to be copied by other social game makers, but when they started improving the feature a few quick generation later, he used that as inspiration to improve the original feature in his game.

“The '80s, with all the clones of Tetris was [just] a slower version of this,” he said, “and yet a lot of interesting stuff comes out of that.”

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Joe McGinn
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>>To me, we have a sort of infrastructure that feels bad.<<

I can kind of see where this sentiment is coming from. I'd go further: the reason I despise most (not all) Facebook games is because they have zero gameplay. I don't mean fun or quality or even mechanics, I mean literally gameplay. There are two ways I can progress: paying money, or bugging my firends. The one way I cannot make progress is by playing the game (note the operative words here: "play" and "game", i.e., gameplay).

I don't think there's anything inherent about it as there are exceptions, like Popcap's Bejeweled. I can do better by spending but I can achieve the same game success by spending more time or playing skillfully. I think there's an imperative rush to monetization that most developers that is FAR too hardcore, literally leaving no room for gameplay like Popcap does. Your game could be as deep and polished as Gears of War, but on Facebook it's like you're playing GOW but are stuck in one room, with enemies endlessly respawning. No matter how many you kill the next room will not unlock, unless you pay $ or ask a friend to open it for you. No gameplay.

Alvaro Gonzalez
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Well, to play Gears of War you pay $40, for 10 hours of gameplay, so I should say that looking at your statement if you pay $40 every 10 hours of gameplay on a social game is a fair move from the developers.

Or looking it from another point of view you could say, Gears of War must be free.

If something is FUN and I want to spend $40 is an excellent investment. At least with social game you could play them and be sure It worth that money, somethhing we can't do with movies and hardcore games (does any buddy download a demo before purchase them?).

Victor Reynolds
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i think you missed what he was saying...

Also, 10 hours of GOW is a much more involved (and to many gamers, satisfying) experience, that took much MUCH more time, money, energy and expertise to create than ANY facebook your argument doesn't really work here.

Alvaro Gonzalez
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"...10 hours of GOW is a much more involved (and to many gamers, satisfying) experience.."

To a hardcore gamer yes, to my mom... no.

"...took much MUCH more time, money, energy and expertise to create than ANY facebook game..."

That doesn't necessarily make the game better over others. Lots of Indy games with very cheap development are better than many Hardcore Games.

Also "money, energy and expertise" are all concepts you need to make a triple AAA Facebook Game, just ask Brian Reynol's Frontierville.

I'm not against hardcore or pro social, I'm trying to see the whole picture here. Steven An (post below) make a point is important to give the people the tools to be able to choose. But once they choose we can't judge them.

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Me: Gentlemen, I have a plan. It's called micro-transactions. The Royal Family of Britain are the wealthiest gamers in the world. Either the Royal Family pays us an exorbitant amount of money, or we make it seen that Prince Charles has not paid for a single FarmVille add-on!

Assistant: Sir...he admitted it. He has already moved on to FrontierVille. And sir...many are saying that we shouldn't develop for it. We may become TOO evil using micro-transactions.

Me: Right, people you have to tell me these things, okay? I've been indie developing for two years now, okay? Throw me a frickin' bone here! I'm the boss! Need the info. But wait...what if we became SUPER evil and just didn't micro-transaction? We just release our game for the heck of it. Free. Now that's evil.

Assistant: GENIUS SIR! But...where's are profit?

Sean Farrell
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+1 Mua ha ha ha HA HA HA HA!

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Thanks xD

Michael Joseph
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Seems to me the dividing line between good and evil as far as game development is concerned is artistic honesty.

A slot machine employs a lot of dishonest psychological tactics against it's "player" to keep them sinking money into the device.

Achievements in some cases are an example of this and generally so is game play tuning who's goal isn't fairness but psychological appeasement or flattering of the player (? Know what I mean?).

When the game design itself becomes one with the business model that is a clear crossing of the line because artistic integrity is non existent.

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Yeah, you make a good point. This would actually go well with the McGonigal thread.

I think certain games nowadays (such as *insert geographical locale here*Ville), where it is almost on rails and is designed to make you feel amazing regardless is a good (read: bad) example of the slot machine approach.

digitalnomad RealmOfEmpires
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“It doesn't feel like it's advancing us as human beings.” Exactly !! Not all games are developed to develop strategic skills. However, there are games that have a niche market aiming to develop strategic intelligence, increase learning and improving performance by social interaction, for people looking out for challenges.

Development of strategic skills is considered by professionals the most difficult aspect. It cannot be taught. It has to be developed. There are innumerable games that involve people to interact socially BUT only to progress one step in the game. This does not develop skills.

Games as Realm Of Empires not only promote social interaction but also help in acquiring and strengthening qualities useful in the course of human life, making it a habit. Strategy games by their very nature regularly put obstacles somewhat similar to real life issues and players have to take decisions, create relationships, deal diplomatically, and work in a team hence making them accept that they will regularly face problems which they will need to overcome in order to progress through the rest of the game.

It is this alternative way of looking at problems as challenges rather than as obstacles which has led many people to believe that playing such computer games actually provides valuable opportunities for online gamers to develop their life skills for the real world, and become people better adapted at dealing with the inevitable flood of obstacles and issues in their way.

Andrew Dice
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To be honest, I expected the actual panel to be far more contentious; I did notice that Ian Bogost seemed like he was having to hold back from punching Nabeel and Curt in the face, though. If anything the real hard-hitter questions came from the audience at the end; I *was* rather amused that Nabeel couldn't even grok the question about addiction or how it was a problem, seemingly.

Joe McGinn
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That's a really interesting point Andrew. In a way this kind of session is baby talk. Babies in the field making noises but the discussion is so primitive it can only termed naive, when it's in the field of free-to-play and micro-transactions where addiction IS an issue, for example:

Steven An
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I think, as with everything, there's a tasteful way to do it and a non-tasteful way to do it. I played CityVille recently, and I personally think it's insidious as hell. Especially when it targets teens and kids. It's like McDonald's or cigarette companies advertising to kids.

But so what? You can't make FarmVille illegal (but maybe someone will try). What we should do is educate the masses on the addictive nature of many games. Yes, they can be fun and quite social, just like McDonald's and cigarettes, but they can degrade your quality of life as well. Let's stop debating each other and actually make a difference: Education!

Joe McGinn
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Education is insufficient, as as been long found out in Asia where freemium games are not so new. Regulation will be required - and will come all the sooner if they industry does not regulate itself (which it shows no sign whatsoever given recent examples like Capcom's excessive greed in Smurf Village, and simplistic talks like this one at GDC where the important issues have not even become talking points yet).

Jon Radoff
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I think Nabeel made a good point that it's fairly self-destructive for an industry that has been through so much to turn on one of its areas of success. Here's a lengthier rebuttal to the whole notion that social games are evil:

Todd Boyd
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"Hyatt suggested that even the most addictive, meaningless social game was a better use of time than watching soap operas..."

You don't get addicted to soap operas and wind up spending thousands of dollars of your parents' money (unbeknown to them) due to the soap opera development company wanting to milk you of every last penny you have...