[Editor's Note: Prepare for some jumping between thoughts here.]
First off, I’m trying to blog more, which you’ll be able to tell by the fact I’ve written a few things over the last few days. Whether this actually stays consistent only time will tell.
Second (and actual point of this post) thing, I want to connect a few pieces together about video games I’ve run in to. I don’t have answers, but I think it’s interesting. So here it goes.
Gamification is awful for many reasons, not least in the way it seeks to transform us into atomized laboratory rats, reduce us to the sum total of our incentivized behaviors. But it also increases the pressure to make all game playing occur within spaces subject to capture; it seeks to supply the incentives to make games not about relaxation and escape and social connection but about data generation. The networked mediation of games — in other words, playing them on your phone or through Facebook — undermines the function of games in organizing face-to-face social time, guaranteeing presence in an unobtrusive way. Instead we typically take our turn in mediated games on our time and play multiple games at once, to cater to our convenience and our desire to be winning at least one of them.
Which reminded me a lot of this article from late last year about Cow Clicker, a satire of games like Farmville that against the designer Ian Bogost’s hopes actually became popular itself. Here’s how Cow Clicker worked:
The rules were simple to the point of absurdity: There was a picture of a cow, which players were allowed to click once every six hours. Each time they did, they received one point, called a click. Players could invite as many as eight friends to join their “pasture”; whenever anyone within the pasture clicked their cow, they all received a click. A leaderboard tracked the game’s most prodigious clickers. Players could purchase in-game currency, called mooney, which they could use to buy more cows or circumvent the time restriction. In true FarmVille fashion, whenever a player clicked a cow, an announcement—”I’m clicking a cow“—appeared on their Facebook newsfeed.
And what happened next:
And then something surprising happened: Cow Clicker caught fire. The inherent virality of the game mechanics Bogost had mimicked, combined with the publicity, helped spread it well beyond its initial audience of game-industry insiders. Bogost watched in surprise and with a bit of alarm as the number of players grew consistently, from 5,000 soon after launch to 20,000 a few weeks later and then to 50,000 by early September. And not all of those people appeared to be in on the joke. The game received its fair share of five-star and one-star reviews from players who, respectively, appreciated the gag or simply thought the game was stupid. But what was startling was the occasional middling review from someone who treated Cow Clicker not as an acid commentary but as just another social game. “OK, not great though,” one earnest example read.
As a developer whose independent success has emancipated him from the grip of the monolithic game corporations, Blow makes a habit of lobbing rhetorical hand grenades at the industry. He has famously branded so-called social games like FarmVille “evil” because their whole raison d’être is to maximize corporate profits by getting players to check in obsessively and buy useless in-game items. (In one talk, Blow managed to compare FarmVille’s developers to muggers, alcoholic-enablers, Bernie Madoff, and brain-colonizing ant parasites.) Once, during an online discussion about the virtues of short game-playing experiences, Blow wrote, “Gamers seem to praise games for being addicting, but doesn’t that feel a bit like Stockholm syndrome?” His entire public demeanor forms a challenge to the genre’s intellectual laziness.
Now I’m not sure how I feel about any of this really. I’ve found myself trapped by games, unable to put down the controller until my hands were so sore I was worried about doing permanent damage. I’m not proud of the fact that I was totally obsessed with Ski Safari (I’ve almost broken the habit). I think it’s good that there is another side to the endless games are great conversation (other than the side that says the people who talk about gamification are dumb). Not sure I have more of an answer than that at the moment.
One more thing from the article about Blow before I’m done. I particularly liked this explanation of how video games are really like movies. We frequently talk about how when a new medium is created the first thing people try to do is recreate the old medium. It’s logical and the examples people trot out (first TV broadcast was radio in front of the camera), it’s never really well explained. Thought this was pretty good:
Blow’s refusal to explain the meaning of his games, after all, stems from a profound respect for his art. Ever since modern technology first made sophisticated video games possible, developers have assumed that the artistic fate of the video game is to become “film with interactivity”—game-play interwoven with scenes based on the vernacular of movies. And not just any movies. “The de facto reference for a video game is a shitty action movie,” Blow said during a conversation in Chris Hecker’s dining room one sunny afternoon. “You’re not trying to make a game like Citizen Kane; you’re trying to make Bad Boys 2.” But questions of movie taste notwithstanding, the notion that gaming would even attempt to ape film troubles Blow. As Hecker explained it: “Look, film didn’t get to be film by trying to be theater. First, they had to figure out the things they could do that theater couldn’t, like moving the camera around and editing out of sequence—and only then did film come into its own.” This was why Citizen Kane did so much to put filmmaking on the map: not simply because it was well made, but because it provided a rich experience that no other medium before it could have provided.
I’ll leave you with that. Lots of thoughts about video games. No answers.