Friday, January 14, 2011

Hey Man, I Got Some Good Shit Here...

This is Zynga:

Nothing says "good times" like a dog mascot that resembles Cujo.
If you don't know who Zynga is then... honestly, I just give up.  I mean, what do you want from me?  You obviously have access to the internet.  Have you not heard of Wikipedia, either?  Christ.  Anyway, don't confuse Zynga with Xanga, which is a website that specializes in blog publishing, similar to Blogger, but is completely inferior in every single way to Blogger, one of Google's many, many outstanding products (empty smile.)

And neither should be confused with "manga" a Japanese form revolving around the relationship between school girls and their pet octopi.

Zynga is, in a word, terrifying.  So as to save the ignorant few reading this a trip to Google, Zynga makes games.  Well, that's a bit misleading.  They make "games" like the guy down the street from you with the bathtubs, sudafed, and phosphorous makes "medicine."  They publish a series of online video games, the most famous of which are probably FarmVille and Mafia Wars.  These games are distributed as add-on packages to social networking sites and as applications for mobile devices.  They are "free" on their face, but employ a micropayment system as a means of obtaining a revenue stream.

That is the first criticism launched at Zynga.  Micropayment systems are becoming more and more popular in online and, even, purchased games.  It was originally envisioned as a way for people, like me, to get money.  Bloggers and webcomics and, well, porn, probably, were the original pioneers of the concept.  You see, rather than me taking the minuscule amount of payment Google pays me for running ads on this site, I would eliminate the ads and collect the minuscule amount directly from you, my consumer.  You could, for example, pay me one cent for every article you wanted to read.  In turn, it would cost you about three cents a week to read this blog.  Meanwhile, assuming I had a readership of about 10,000 (and, you know, a dinosaur to ride around on) I would collect about $300 a week.  We're all winners!

Except the dinosaur, who can't really be fed on $300 a week.
The concept never really gained much of a foothold for writers, but was quite adaptable for game manufacturers.  Game companies could develop a product that had a very low upfront cost, but would charge the user for additional content within the game.  Maybe the game itself is free, or runs a few bucks, but when you need a new suit of armor for your knight or some fuel for your tractor, you spend another dollar here or dollar there.  The concept itself, really, is basically fair.  It's an extension of basic market principles.  Everyone gets the game and each consumer gets to decide how much or how little they wish to expend on it.  For the very casual player, they'll probably be content with the upfront content, while hardcore people will be willing to spend much more to unlock all that the game has to offer.

However, the success of many of these micropayment games hinges not on an honest transaction between vendor and purchaser.  No, you see, the actual system more often than not approximates a game of three card Monte, only none of the cards is a Queen and, whichever one you pick, the reward is getting to pay and pick another card.  Many of these games are a swindling of the crassest variety.

One of the core concepts that you'll often hear me return to is the greatest flaw in modern capitalist theory.  "Imperfect Information."  I've got many, many more blog posts ready on how this concept essentially cripples the modern market but you don't have to worry about those yet.

Do NOT make me get out the economic theory baton.
All that is important for the purposes of this particular diatribe is that you understand true, Keynesian economic theory turns on the assumption that both players know exactly what is going on and can properly assess the product's value to their respective selves.  For example, take a normal video game.  When I walk down the aisle and see a game for $50 I can ask myself "Do I really want to play it NOW?"  I know how much it costs, I know how much I want it, hell, I probably even read a review on it to shed some light or played a demo.  Micropayments are attractive to video game publishers because they disguise the real value or lack thereof.  They do this through two primary mechanisms.

First, you never buy anything with cash in Farmville or whatever other game.  Instead, you exchange real money for some fictitious currency.  This is not a new concept, themeparks and such have been doing this for years.  The idea is to divorce you from the real value of what you are buying.  You buy 100, lets call them fbucks, for 30 dollars.  Great.  Now you go to buy things in game, and you see something that costs 20 fbucks, say a tractor.  You, being the lazy consumer you are, don't calculate the real cost (which, BTW, is 6 dollars) you just think, "Well, I've got to spend these fbucks on something and 20 doesn't seem a lot, I mean, I'll still have 80 left!"  Was that tractor worth $6?  No.  No it wasn't.  That tractor was worth nothing.  It's not a real tractor.  It's not even a toy tractor.  But you didn't do the math, so now you have a $6 piece of about ten lines of programming code.

Second, micropayments work because, well, its right there in the name.  Micro.  They are small.  People don't want to spend twenty dollars.  But they'll spend a dollar twenty times.  It's easier for people to spend small amount repeatedly than one large amount.  So, everything is priced really cheaply.  In reality, the tractor up there would only cost a dollar.

Zynga also gives you SO MUCH to buy.  Unlike micropayments for blogs, there is no cap.  If I charged a penny an article, I can only charge you for each article I actually produce; though if I were making $100 a pop I'd be pumping out way more than three of these bad boys a week.  But in a Zynga game, there is a world of stuff to buy.  That tractor is a dollar.  So is your house in the game.  And a special cow.  And the local village prostitute.  And the "work juice" that makes your guy move faster.  Before you know it, you've spent dozens of dollars on this meaningless crap.

Though, in your defense, its not like your real life purchases have been meaningful either.
It's in this way that Zynga's games hide the proverbial ball on you and suck you in to spending way, way more than you otherwise would.  If Zynga honestly, up front, advertised the real costs and how much of this shit you really need to play the game, then you probably never would've bothered in the first place.  None of this is news, however.  There are many places on the internet that are detailing the... interesting methods of Zynga.  For a quick introduction feel free to start here.  Go ahead, I've already got your page view, if you don't come back it's cool.

Could you click on an ad on the way out?  kaythanks.

Oh.  You're back.  Well then, loyal reader, let me tell you I'm not going to bore you anymore with discussing Zynga's douchebaggery.  Please, hold your applause, I didn't say I'm done.  The point of this post isn't about Zynga.  It's about a greater problem that, really, sort of terrifies me.  For those of you who haven't read the extracurricular information about them, let me give you the gist.  Zynga doesn't make games, they manufacture addiction.  Their products aren't designed to be fun, instead, they build upon an array of social psychology tricks to get you to keep coming back and playing them.  Like an electronic heroin, they've been refined and synthesized specifically to make them more potent and more addictive.  And that addiction is crucial.

You see, I'm a drug peddler.  Not literally, I mean, I don't even have cool rims on my car.  But as a metaphor.  With each blog post I aspire to do two things.  First, entertain you.  If you're entertained then your body will release chemical triggers that make you feel good, make you develop a Pavlovian fondness for my posts.  Second, I seek to get you addicted, to provide you with a unique experience that becomes a part of your daily mental regimen.  That way you keep coming back for more.  I'm not alone, though, this is basically how the producer of ANY serialized product operates.

No, this image isn't part of a pun.  I'm just hoping to find sponsors like delicious Cap'N Crucnch from Quaker.  Mmmm, I love it and its part of some sort of nutritious breakfast that also involves cigarettes and bloody maries, I'm guessing.
You want people to feel a need and a desire to keep returning.  This is nothing new.

Still, for that past, let's just say forever, we've been operating in a certain dark ages.  Most authors of such material went along like suckers, just trying to make their product as good as possible.  They make their stories more interesting, their blog posts more funny, their video games more enjoyable.  Then came social psychology.  In its infancy, there was a large backlash against social psychology because many (especially after the Nazis got through with it because Nazis ruin EVERYTHING) feared that it would be use as a mass mind control tool.  That is represented some sort of Pandora's box and once we began to know how to use it, it could be misused by people for power or control.

All the while laughing maniacally.
For the most part, their fears were unfounded.  Social psychology never really emerged as some Dark Side Force.  But, their concerns about the inherent evil in most people were not misguided.  Not for lack of trying, but generally, no one was able to harness social psychology because of a couple of primary barriers.

First, we just didn't know much about it.  Back in the 40s and 50s, when concerned citizens pointed at social scientists and called them witches and lit them on fire, the whole science was pretty enigmatic.  Then came the 60s and 70s, when society embraced their research.  For most of the second half of the 20th century, we learned that the social sciences just weren't that, well, useful.  As light was shed on human behavior we realized how utterly irrational and bizarre it tended to be.  Everyone calmed down because, it seemed, there wasn't much that one could do even if he did know all the secrets to mass reaction.  But that has begun to change in the last couple decades.  We've found more and more concrete principles and universal truths in social psychology.  We've improved the science and the methods of it.

Second, was the fundamental issue of access.  For social psychology to work, one must be able to access society.  Thankfully, society has become sluttier and sluttier over the past century, allowing more frequent and deeper access.  I'll give you a second to fully appreciate that image.  Actually, I'll provide an illustration to aid you.

Newspapers begat radio.  Radio begat television.  Television begat the internet AND video games.  Ah, the internet.  Hello, old friend.  The interwebs are perhaps the most intrusive of all medium.  A newspaper requires active effort to enjoy.  You have to physically get one, open it, READ it.  Disgusting.  Radio requires less physical labor and zero literacy but you still have to have an imagination.  Television strips away any requirement for independent creativity.  With each of these new forms, people became alarmed, each one assaulted more and more senses, asked less and less of the consumer and spread to a greater number of homes.  Then came the internet.

Listen, I have a whole different article on the internet that you'll read someday whether you like it or not.  But for now, let's just go with this premise:  The internet reaches everybody and asks for almost zero effort from the reader to obtain access to vast amounts of information.  It's even easier to use the internet than to tie a tube around your arm and plunge a syringe.  Also, I could write a whole other article on the psychological implications of video games, but lets just go with the premise that they engage people like no form before them.  Just assume these things for now, okay?  Can you do that for me?  I knew you could, Champ.

So now, the invasiveness of the internet, with its little work/high reward structure, and the interactive engagement of video games have finally allowed companies to mainline right into your brain.  The smarter ones, like Zynga, have discarded any notions of developing better products in lieu of developing more addictive ones.  Because, unlike me, who loves you and cherishes each visit we have together, they just want your clicks and your money.  And they aren't alone.  The internet is becoming more and more a place for companies that aim to get you strung out as quickly and effectively as possible.

Think of it as a sort of drug ally where all the drugs are free (or, at least, start out free with very small payments after) and you can't help but try them.

I learned it from watching YOU... tube!
Armed with their knowledge of psychological triggers and the finally possessing the tools to use them, companies have abilities and powers they never knew before.  Every change, every advance they make is designed to tweak, to fine tune their addictive methods.  They'll push every button they can to draw you in and keep you hooked.  I want you to think of this post as a warning.  There is nothing you can do to STOP people from doing this, nor am I arguing you should.  These companies have a right to try to sell their wares and make a profit.

Instead, your best defense is just to be aware of how these things are affecting you.  Are you still playing Farmville because you really enjoy it?  Really?  Running a farm, that's something you always dreamed of?  Especially a virtual farm, where you spend money on shit that doesn't even exist.  Are you playing this game because it really brings you joy or because you feel compelled to?  Are you watching or reading a website because they have something worthwhile to say or because it brings out emotions in you that give you a rush?  Just keep these things in mind as you peruse the internet.  I'm not asking you to be terrified, just informed.

And keep coming back here for more information.  Don't worry, I'll protect you, I'll keep you safe.  Shhhh, there there.  I'm here for you, no reason to leave.  Oh, and if you could click on a couple of those ad links.  That's right.  Feels good doesn't it?  Mmmmmm.

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