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The Farmville skinner box

I don’t play many Facebook games. It’s not that I’m above it, so much as I’ve found better games to waste my time on. That and I’m a solipsistic hermit who prefers games where success is not reliant on inviting friends to your farm, restaurant, zombie trap or whatever. But I like that there are games on Facebook that some people find fun.

But are they really “fun”? I’ve noticed quite a bit of discussion about how social games in general, and Farmville in particular, are over hyped time wasters that are of little to no value for anyone playing them. With a number of qualifications, I agree with this. In fact I think that’s true of most video games, including most of the games I play. But usually these articles go further, implying something sinister is going on. We’re being exploited by Zynga and other game companies! Something must be done! (see this article for a good example of the sentiment).

As far as I’m concerned, this is all complete and utter bullshit. It’s a rehash of every tired old cliché about how much time young people waste these days. About how our culture has become rotten to the core, and how we, the old guard, are the only ones who appreciate it. It’s been said of the internet, music, and even books way back when. We’re going to say it about whatever media comes along when we start getting old. It’s a seductive us-and-them trap to be sure, and one that people have been falling into at least since the rise of mass media, probably for all of human history.

All of this has been bothering me since I first read the criticisms of Farmville and other social games, but today I read a great post on playthisthing.com that really crystallized things. It looks at just about every major game genre and identifies the “disingenuous design practices” that make it little more than a Skinner Box (machine that encourages an arbitrary behavior by rewarding you for it).

Social games and MMORPGs should be obvious, but what about classic arcade games? Surely no-one could call Pac-Man evil!

Disingenuous Design Practices: stacking difficulty in a probabalistic manner through edge of screen spawns, exponential spawn functions, non-essential time limits, interface kills (whoops wrong button! Insert Coin), roundDown collision detection and simply setting killer objects to be faster or more agile than you.

How about Tetris and Bejeweled?

Disingenuous Design Practices: Saturated color contrast, chunk-lite SFX and lateral number incrementation via score are designed to make your dopamine receptors squeal like a piggy while putting up the absolute minimum in content or design.

jRPGs, FPSs and classic console games get taken down too. Thing is, video games are about being rewarded for doing useless things. I’ve mentioned this in a previous post, but really, video games are just dopamine hacks (although there are other explanations for some gaming behavior) . Lovely, wonderful dopamine hacks that won’t harm your lungs as much as smoking or your bank balance as much as gambling. Sometimes they help you socialize, or kill boredom, or even learn things, but usually they are unproductive wastes of time. Which is OK; when was the last time you listened to someone who told you all your time has to be productive, and you should never relax or have fun? You find different reasons to keep playing different types of games because you derive value from them for different reasons.

The question of what is “fun” is surprisingly complicated. You (and Farmville’s critics) may wonder how something you consider a chore and gain little subjective pleasure from can be considered “fun”. As the skinner box demonstrates, just because you keep doing it doesn’t mean its fun. But as with so called “classic” games, something that seems like an unpleasant chore to some can be rewarding in and of itself for others. Fun comes in all shapes and sizes, and you need to ask yourself what fun really is when you’re questioning whether or not the jRPG nerd or the guy playing WOW is really having it grinding out level after level.

Today there are no widely accepted definitions of fun that are both rigorous and meaningful. However you can find a pretty good one here if you’re willing to do some reading. Yudkowskian fun theory accepts that, as with much of humanity’s shared value systems, fun is not just one simple concept manifesting in different ways. It’s a number of things, including complex novelty, improvement over time, and having direct control of your future in a given area. Based on Yudkowsky’s definition of fun, games like Farmville aren’t too bad in the scope of things. There are certainly more fun-optimal activities you could be pursuing, but there are many, many less eudaimonic things you might do, a number of which you’ll probably do anyway for skinner box related reasons.

It comes down to this: just because something is hacking your brain’s reward system doesn’t mean it’s fun. But it also doesn’t mean it’s not fun, and your intuitions really aren’t as bad as you might think at telling the two apart. So go waste yourself some time! Your brain will thank you later for the dopamine hit at least.

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