“I just spent $1 on a box for a turd that looks like a duck. I think it was worth it.”
-John House, a casual gamer on Mark Zuckerberg: Inside Facebook (BBC 1, 4 Dec 2011)
At first, this sounds preposterous. Spending actual real world money that you have to earn in a real world job on a digital box to keep a digital shit in? Makes little sense. But on the other hand, it’s just part of the over all cost of entertainment. Regular PS3 or Xbox game costs upwards of £40, most games on Facebook are free but to enhance the experience you spend money on extras or to get further, faster.
No, above isn’t the problem, the problem was exemplified by Michelle Maruyama who has played Restaurant City for two years:
It’s definitely a chore and it definitely cuts into your spare time. Like I know that I used to read the New Yorker pretty much cover to cover every single week and I know that I absolutely do not do that anymore.
The real cost of social games isn’t the money that is spent, it is the time that these games take away from other meaningful things we could be doing.
I guess that applies to all ‘pure’ entertainment that doesn’t offer knowledge as a side product. How can I argue if an hour spent on MafiaVille is somehow less well spent than an hour for spent on ‘watching TV’? But I can argue that fragmenting ones attention and concentration multiple times a day by having to make sure your crop doesn’t spoil can’t be good.
Watching TV or reading a good article is a satisfying experience that when you get to the end leaves you with fulfilment. These social games are more like smoking. They fill you with anxiety. As soon as you finish one session, you’re waiting for the next opportunity to [insert social game verb here].
Where’s the attraction then? I think it’s in our primal need for feeling of achievement, success and pleasure. These games offer a quick fix for that. You can make real FarmVille profit in just a few hours. It is the buzz one gets from making something, no matter how virtual or imaginary it is, out of nothing. In the real world, only few people actually sell anything apart from their time to their employers. (And with that I don’t mean you can’t get pleasure out of a job, of course you can, but it’s not a coincidence that the maker movement is gaining momentum.)
And the kind of achievement social games offer is different to other video games, too. In a normal video game going forward requires time, yes, but also trial and error and learning from your mistakes. In many social games, going forward only requires time and repetition. The is very little learning involved.
I’m not trying to argue benefits of ‘real’ video games but I’ll share two facts. In Finland, boys often have stronger English skills due to playing video games. Another is that studies have found that surgeons who play video games perform better than their non-gamer colleagues.
I think people should be wary of the time spent on tasks that offer very little in return. That goes for anything but especially FarmVille and most other social games; after all, it’s not just time actively spent playing them that is consuming.