Greed, envy and joy: are social games anti-social?

I’ve recently read two interesting and different criticisms of social games:

  • one, which I’ll call the ‘not a real game’ criticism,  is that games like Zynga’s Farmville are good products, but not good games: they may be addictive, but they are not very interesting  (e.g.  Nick Saint in BusinessInsider, and the Project Horseshoe social games manifesto) 
  • another, darker, strand is that games like Farmville are anti-social – more specifically they are sociopathic (see Liszkiewicz’s talk at SUNY Buffalo, posted on MediaCommons)

It would be silly to confuse ‘being a good game’ with ‘being like a good video game’.   Yet this is what some gaming enthusiasts seem to be doing in their criticism of social games.    This is barking up the wrong tree – the squirrel is somewhere else.  Social games are not the same as traditional video games.    Games which demand immersion and commitment don’t seem to work well on social networks, as Playfish co-founder Sebastien de Halleux explained at the recent Social Media summit, while justifying why they had recently axed two titles which seemed to demand too much commitment and immersion for their users.   de Halleux argues that the dynamics of social games which sustain attraction are different, having to do with social exchange, self-expression, and what he calls ‘social emotions’.    It seems that people who are enthusiasts of traditional video games will not find the thrills they seek in social games.   (The same could be said of afficionados of  traditional MUDs and MOOs.)

So, social games are different.   But are they good? 

It would be silly to confuse being good with being successful.    I am sure we can all think of examples of nations, companies, products, and people who are successful, but could not, even with your glass more than half full (or entirely empty), be described as ‘good’.     

Are social games actually sociopathic, as Liszkiewicz claims?   I’ m afraid the specifics of Liszkiewicz’s argument just irritate me.     According to his trope, no commercial system which benefits from users investing their social capital, could ever be a game, or, indeed, could ever be good.   I can’t sign up for this, and  I’m not going to invest any more of my time – or yours – on it.    But the underlying question Liszkiewicz poses is worth thinking about:   what value do we create for ourselves, for our friends,  and for our societies, by participation in social games?

In Christianity, particularly Catholicism, we are abjured to abstain from the Seven Deadly Sins: wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony.  Buddhism has its own very similar teachings,  in which we are encouraged to beware of  the ‘Five Hindrances’, negative mental states which interfere with our ability to cultivate our mind:    sensual desire, ill-will, sloth, restlessness, and doubt.   You would not have to look far to find other, similar advice which has been honed in the wind-tunnel of time.

If there is no appeal to emotion, there will be no engagement in a game.    The mind must inhabit the body, and the world.  The game, to appeal,  must engage the mind and body.   But, in the appeal to emotion,  if we appeal only to those emotions which deliver arousal, but disturb and threaten our well-being, we are not doing ourselves, or our social ecologies,  any favours.   

First – and it seems a long time ago since 2007  – there was Facebook fatigue.    Now, it seems, we have Social game fatigue.  The challenge for the industry is to combine sustainability and success, ethics and excellence.   I don’t know if Jane McGonigle is right when she claims, in her TED talk,  that games can make a better world.    But I do know that it won’t happen unless we try.

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