who killed videogames? (a ghost story)

| tim

chapter one: the man who spent one dollar and seventy cents

the game is clearly trying to be escapism, now -- notice how many superfluous choices it's offering. (in real life, the only menu button when i sit down in front of the computer is the "send libellous emails" button.)

Here I am: The Worst Journalist In The World. I was once a person who wrote about technology and entertainment; then I figured that, in order to ask better questions while talking to people who made things, I should try making those things myself. Years passed. I worked on some games. Just as weightlifting doesn’t mean anything if it isn’t painful, I could say I drifted toward projects I found morbidly fascinating more than I drifted toward projects I thought would be fun. More years passed, and I was somehow involved in making iPhone applications for kids to stare at while their moms drive to the supermarket.

The idea of an iPhone application is: for someone to download it, they have to have an iTunes Store account. Most people with iTunes Store accounts have credit cards on file. If their credit cards weren’t on file, this trick wouldn’t work: the kid says “Hey mom, can I buy this thing for a dollar in this game?” and the mom says, “What?” She stops at a red light. “Can you put in your password?” She puts in her password — or, better (we estimate it’s 20% of the time) she tells the child the password. (Now he knows her password. (For our purposes, that’s as good as knowing her credit card number.))

At the 2010 Game Developer’s Conference, “social gaming” is all anyone was talking about. I already knew more than a little bit about it — there were games on Facebook, and the ideal user keeps the game open in a tab while doing work or checking email or watching cat videos on YouTube. The game keeps giving the user cute little reasons to come back, and maybe, after a week, they’ve spent a dollar.

By GDC in March of 2010, the thing had exploded. Electronic Arts had just paid a company called PlayFish something like eight trillion dollars, and Playfish had, as far as Call of Duty fans were concerned, never actually done anything except sit around and beg Electronic Arts for eight trillion dollars.

As I attended boring lectures and stone-cold seminars, the reality settled onto the gathered bright-eyed, idea-filled game developers like an ashen snow-blanket: these Zynga guys were making literally a quadrillion dollars a month off trite, shallow, ugly, awful, stupid half-formed pseudo-games. I found myself drawn to sessions in which tasteful, boring people talked about the implications of social games. I wound up with the fanciful idea in my brain that I’d write a New-Yorker-worthy thing about social games and the global financial crisis. It’d be simultaneously clever, stupid, and sad.

A year passed, and GDC whipped right around again. Now I was living in the San Francisco Bay Area — no longer Tokyo — and everyone at GDC was talking about “Gamification”.

You may wonder what “Gamification” is. I will tell you: “Gamification” is a thing that, when mispronounced, might be an uglier word than “blog”.

It’s also what you call some people’s idea that the world would work better — that we’d solve all sorts of high-concept problems (war, hunger, baldness) — if the risk-reward structure of games could be applied to tasks such as clocking into work on time, doing your taxes, emailing a co-worker a timely response, or brushing your teeth. One “gamification” expert goes so far as to say that “reality is broken”, and that only games can “fix” reality. This expert wrote a book which magnificently proves that at least one person on earth has held more conversations with psychologists than grocery baggers. Depending on my mood, I’ll shrug and go either way: half of the time, I’ll agree that reality is broken. Of course it is: why can’t I just be happy all the time? Why do I get hungry? Why do I have to keep going to the bathroom? Why won’t the girl I like just marry me already? I’ve asked her like ninety-two times.

However, I personally believe that games are also broken — games now more closely resemble little league baseball in the 1990s (everyone gets an identical trophy at the end of the season, even if their pitcher never threw a ball across the plate, even if no bat held by any player on their team ever touched a baseball with that bat) than the spartan, terrifying cyber-contests that whipped us into shape way back when (way back when little league baseball was trying to turn us into babies again). If these wannabe reality-repairmen were to adapt modern game design concepts into their would-be world-skin, we’d likely end up with rules where if you manage to avoid stepping on a sidewalk crack for seventy-two hours, you unlock the “Won The Lottery” achievement, and now you have a hundred million dollars. If they were to take their lessons from Super Mario Kart, anyone being fired from seven jobs in a row after working less than a week at each would be awarded a remote controller which could stop any other human’s heart: just point, and click.

(List of games that are not broken: sumo wrestling, Pong.)

You might not be able to tell, with the attitude I present here, that I once found these things incredibly interesting — even for more than an hour. So, there I was, The Worst Journalist in the World, getting involved, again.

I talked with a few experts in this brand-new field long enough to realize that the train was still on the platform, as it were, and that I could get on board and be an expert, myself, in a few easy steps.

So I got on the train. I found a good seat. I sat and read Moby-Dick on my Kindle cover to cover (oh how that expression has become an idiom!) six times, feeling so relatively alone, before we started getting anywhere.

The Useful Statistic:

A year ago, if you talked to anyone about social games, they’d inevitably throw out this popular statistic: if you divide the combined total amount of money yet made by all social games by the combined total number of people who have played any social game even once, you’d see that social games make an average of one dollar and seventy cents per person.

Of course, there are people — like me — who would never spend money on one of those games. That’s actually ninety-five-ish percent of the people.

And then there are the people — statistics show they are middle-aged women — who will gladly spend upward of $10,000 on one game in less than a year.

The average money spent on a social game by The User Who Actually Spends Money is $60. (The field of Users Who Actually Spend Money, of course, which only accounts for 10% of players, also includes the white whales who spend $10,000. This perhaps gives you an idea of the rift.)

We’re not going to talk about either of these sets of two types of people (the white whales and the non-payers or the white whales and the sixty-dollar users). We’re going to talk about the Ghost In The Middle — the person who actually does spend one dollar and seventy cents.

This person, naturally, doesn’t exist in exact dimensions. In reality, he spends either one cent or nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine dollars and ninety-nine cents. Somewhere, in The Social Games Dimension, math is distorted, and the average of those two amounts is one dollar and seventy cents. So we are going to have to approximate, and probably use our imaginations a whole heck of a lot.

What follows is two stories, framed by a larger story. The larger story is that, recently, For Professional Reasons, I decided to play The Sims Social on Facebook — the fruit of Electronic Arts’ astronomical investment in Playfish, announced just before GDC 2010 — for the purposes of drafting a spreadsheet extrapolating all sorts of confusing — and, eventually, terrifying — data from an analysis of its many-tiered game-world economy.

One of the smaller stories is about me — The Worst Journalist In The World, now about as experienced in the field I’m writing about as many of the people I could interview — and my attempt to craft a game economy that brings in a a dollar and seventy-one cents per user. To do this, I committed the journalistic equivalent of filing a missing person’s report with my own name on it, playing every social game I can get my hands on, searching, yearning, for the one that will finally make me break down and pay money. Spoilers: I didn’t find one. (Story over.)

The other smaller story is just a murder mystery. Don’t be sad: it’s only a metaphor. The victim isn’t a real person: it’s just videogames — just our future, just the mask some seek to pull down over reality to make it More Engaging.

We will not, by the time this is over, have a clear idea of who the killer is, or even why he did it. If you want, when you get to the end, you can say it’s me. You wouldn’t be far off. (It’s also you.)

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