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Ethical Design: Are Most Social Games Just Virtual Slot Machines?

With many social games essentially being games that play themselves, has the social game industry created a compulsive rather than addictive game format, and if so what should be done about that?
Alan sent me a link to a curious new game on Facebook the other day called Warstorm. The idea seems to be that of a card game in which you select heroes and troop units and fight battles. At first I thought it looked interesting, with comparatively high graphical polish compared to most and even some reasonably stirring music. However, after taking time to choose cards and build a squad etc, the actual battle component of the game was automated. The game basically plays itself.

I mean no offence to the Warstorm developers, players or community when I say that this trend of self-playing games drives me nuts. It’s not their fault because it’s pretty typical of most Facebook and web games, especially role-playing games, to the point of being an accepted convention. In real terms, when you strip away the graphics of these games, what you are left with is simply a button called “Quest” (or “Do Job”, “Start”, etc). You push it and then the game returns a value of either Win or Lose.

In a similar vein, I read an interview with Randy Breen, new CEO of SGN, and a particular part of the interview caught my eye. It went like this:

RB: That’s what a game like Mafia Wars [on Facebook] essentially creates. The interesting thing is that you’re still motivated by that simple triangle I described. Push button, get thing, go do another thing, get award, go on to the next thing. You see people that may never have played RPGs getting into the game mechanics. They may not understand what’s going on, but they get some fulfillment out of leveling.

On the surface this may sound perfectly reasonable to you. Every game developer wants their game to be played, preferably addictively, because it’s so awesome. The concept of addiction in that sense is the same as someone addicted to watching Stanley Kubrick films, or engaged in the sub-culture of Star Trek (to an extent). Addiction in that vein means interest, passion and true engagement. However what Randy is (unintentionally I think) relating in the above quote is not the addiction of engagement through awesomeness. Instead it is the addiction of compulsiveness.

The social game development community has been exercising a willing blindness to the qualitative aspect of the addiction that it is trying to spread. Much as it did when it took up with the obviously lead-gen based offers systems only to fall foul of scam accusations later, there’s a real sense of the elephant in the room around the whole social application industry, and that elephant is called “ethical design”.

Social game developers as a group tend to treat all activity as “engagement” to position themselves as a forward-looking business finding its market fit and revenue in a new environment. However I think many would privately acknowledge that the kind of engagement that they are spreading is behavioural and compulsive rather than passionate and awesome. The reality is that they’ve actually sort-of kind-of half-intentionally built a virtual slot machine industry.

Slot machines work by inviting a player to insert a coin and pull a lever in the hope that they will win. The resolution of this action is simple, but it is accompanied by a pretty show of spinning tumblers, nudges or other mechanisms that give the player some entertainment and the feeling that they have a little bit of control. The result of a win is some money, which the player usually ploughs back into the slot machine once more, steering toward an inevitable defeat.

It may be argued by some that this qualifies as a game. I disagree. The key differences between a slot machine and a game are all to do with agency (how many meaningful activities can I do) and grok-ability (can I learn the game, get better at it, improve my skill and strategy). Games are high on both, whereas gambling is low on both. Games create situations that keep the player playing through the emergence of interesting choices (to paraphrase Sid Meier). But gambling creates environments in which players have little agency or opportunity to grok, instead keeping players playing with behavioural manipulation.

Slot machines are essentially just behaviour-guiding time exercises which last as long as a player has coins. The occasional releases of victory along the road help to provide the enjoyment, but most players eventually realise that they are just wasting their time. Some players, however, become compulsively addicted to the machine. The main mechanic of most social games is oddly similar.

In social games, the equivalent of the slot machine lever is the Quest button. Whether it simply spits out a Win/Lose dialog or a more sophisticated routine (like the resolution animations in Warstorm) the result is the same as scoring 3 cherries on a slot machine. The game just decides if you win or don’t and invites you to try again.

If Quest is the same as a slot machine lever, then Energy is the same as coins. Energy is a mechanism by which a game meters out how many actions you can do in a game session before you must either leave, or buy some more Energy with real money. Energy is a part of the reward mechanism for levelling in some games (you achieve your next level and your Energy instantly recharges) very similar to the occasional wins from a slot machine.

In the early days of social games, I didn’t think that Energy was a bad thing but lately I’ve started to regard it as an exploitative game mechanic and am wondering whether Facebook should ban it.

Energy basically has two negative qualities:

Firstly, it preys on compulsive behaviours. The human mind is a fallible thing and compulsiveness is one of its darkest parts, sometimes ruining lives through physical, emotional or psychological problems. Arguably anything at all can become a compulsive addiction, from World of Warcraft to alcohol or even Twitter.

As developers, however, how we treat our players’ tendency toward addiction speaks volumes as to our character. Blizzard does not set out to make a game that will simply trap users into engagement patterns when they make their next great game. Blizzard are trying to create loyal fans and customers and genuinely entertain them through being awesome, so that their addiction proves worthwhile.

Slot machine makers, on the other hand, are not trying to do that. They are trying to simply ensnare players. Energy and time-waiting mechanics do much the same thing. Preying on compulsion is a negative user experience overall, just as tricking into publishing on news feeds and other devious tricks were.

(An important distinction to be made is that Energy is not the same thing as a daily chip allowance in games like Poker on Facebook. Chips in that context are a resource you play with, the important part of that being the word “play”. Chips in games with high agency and grok-ability are fine.)

Secondly, Energy is a perfect way to subvert the intent of metrics. Daily Active Users (DAUs) are the life-blood of assessing the real success rate of the social applications industry. So if you want to create an app with high DAU and get up the charts, the easiest way to do it is to use Energy. Forced little-and-often game mechanics are the key to inflating DAU above the true level of player engagement to appear more successful and dynamic than you actually are. If you took away the energy element of most RPGs, for example, is there actually any more than an hour’s worth of actual game in there? So aren’t those RPGs basically cheating the metrics system by essentially forcing players to keep coming back to hit that DAU ping.

Ultimately it appears that many developers have concluded that they have hit on a way to make easy money, which is why Facebook has to keep cracking the whip and restricting what could have been great boons to the platform. The internet’s history with exploitative business practises is that they tend to flame out. Developers also shouldn’t necessarily expect a right to make money in any deceptive way that they deem fit. Spam e-mail marketers used to say the same thing. Cigarette companies and fast food chains use a similar buyer-beware justification.

What’s wrong about this whole way of approaching players is that it fundamentally disrespects and preys on them. The real problem that social games as a sector has is this amoral attitude to its players, and that’s incredibly risky. The whole reason for the success of social games has been built on the exploitation of a golden opportunity but it’s being ruined by easy-money attitudes to users, growth, monetisation and so on. The result is that the social games industry has built a series of games that need to trick their users to keep playing. Their lifetime value is likely shockingly poor.

That ethical mismatch has bred a gnawing suspicion among game developers outside of social games that something is amiss. Some are even convinced that social games in their current form are an unsustainable bubble that will deflate or burst. They smell that something is amiss, and what they are sensing is valid. Ethically speaking, developers of any kind are often uncomfortable with the idea that their purpose in life is to simply feed peoples’ addictions if only for the reason that that kind of thing feels “evil”.

No matter how many times social game developers try to paint their market as something new or original, the same unease remains because of how little agency or grokking their games contain. All the well-meaning talk of socialising as a new frontier or reawakening the spirit of family boardgames doesn’t shake the feeling that it’s all a bit of a con. Even family boardgames are actual games that you actually play.

So why should you care?

Well even if you are happily amoral in this environment, your image to users matters. Negative reputations, and seedy online businesses tend to become self-limiting ghettos and not world-spanning agents of change. Just like with any segment of entertainment that engages in exploitation, they lose their legitimacy and become targets. Legislatively, financially and culturally, exploitation without value is usually a one-way ticket to a dead end. Even if you are helping Haiti with charitable donations and trying to be good, it fundamentally remains the case that your business is built in part on stringing players along rather than delivering value to them.

I would also make the actual ethical argument, laying business rationale aside for a moment, that this stuff should be making any developer genuinely uncomfortable. I don’t believe that any of the major or minor social game developer are bad people deliberately trying to milk a market as fast as possible. I think it’s more the case that they have grown up in a metrics-driven culture and the logic of competition seems to dictate that they have to go certain ways. But actually it does no such thing. There are many ways to compete. In the videogames industry there have been many great and terrible developers and publishers who also had their own ethical dilemmas and came down on one side or the other of the value-creation (“light side”) versus value extraction (“dark side”) equation, and in the end the value-extraction companies have tended not to last because nobody cares whether they live or die.

Are all Facebook games like this? Nope.

Virtual pet simulators are not. They may have addictive qualities but they allow users to spend some time in a creative, consequence-less environment and develop a personal relationship with their chosen pet avatar. This is engagement-addiction rather than compulsion-addiction. Nor, I would argue, are Poker games. Even though Poker has a traditional association with gambling culture, it is actually a very skilful game with high agency and grok-ability.

Farming games, however, have ethical issues. There is certainly more to do in a farming game than your average Facebook RPG, and the appeal is more creative. Those are genuine positives delivering value to the player. On the other hand they also tend to use Energy mechanics and much of the activity is essentially click maintenance (planting, growing, coming back later to harvest) which isn’t a high agency activity by itself.

So should anything be done?

There is the thought that Facebook will become concerned about the kind of engagement that social application developers are driving to their site as their user base matures. Facebook has so far proved very canny in understanding this risk (value is how they trumped Myspace after all), and they worry about how users regard them. They want to be an online social operating system, but the activities of dubious games risk painting them as a den of virtual iniquity and time-wasting. They’ve made rulings about banning deceptive publishing, invite gating and other seedy practises by developers in the past. So banning Energy might well be next.

However, even if Facebook don’t intervene, the real answer is to make games. Actual games that players can meaningfully play. At its root, what would it take for the Warstorm developers to turn their game into a real game? Let the player do meaningful things during their game that affect the outcome. That’s all. Meaningful, interesting choices, the heart of gameplay, is why World of Warcraft is such a huge success and doesn’t have to keep nudging its players to play some more.

Let me choose which enemies to attack, let me play my cards myself. Let me choose whether to heal a wounded soldier or let him die. Go the extra step. Give me a game that I can play for as long as I want every day and keep that day meaningfully interesting. That’s how you will win my loyalty and the loyalty of millions of players, and turn us into customers who’ll pay 20 or 30 cents per DAU instead of the measly 3 to 5 that you score now.

Ethical design ultimately wins in the long run because it makes you build better software. Which is what we’re all here to do, after all.
Twitter: @tadhgk

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