I was recently pointed to Jane McGonigal's talk on how gaming can make the world a better place. Sure, people complain about the violence, and the stereotypical nature of many in-game characters, and won't somebody please think of the children, but I think that if Facebook games are proving anything, they're proving that people want to make the world a prettier, happier place.
Playfish's new game, My Empire, is basically Civilisation with a Flash interface and a more difficult control scheme. Play centres around making sure your population is expanding, and keeping them happy. This is similar to Hotel City, where decorating your rooms makes your customers happier, and therefore increases your popularity (income). Restaurant City uses service. Pet Society reminds you to feed your pets, and shows your friends as being happy when you visit them. These are all positive things.
People talk about how gamers have control issues. Playing Civilisation is a god complex, yes. Controlling the lives of many, in a simplified, easy to understand and cute way still panders to the Dr. Horrible part of us that thinks the world would be a whole lot better off if we just ran things. And, hey, we may be right. But in the meantime, the mechanics are still valid - happy people are more productive. Decorations and good living conditions improve happiness. This is a lesson that is constantly being drummed into the skulls of the current younger generation by these time-wasting games. I don't know about you, but I'd far prefer that form of management than some others I've experienced.
Where I feel this is being undermined is in microtransactions. I've said it before - I'm not a fan. My elephant in Country Story is perpetually sad, because I won't pay real money to buy imaginary bananas, and I can't sell him or put him in storage. That's beside the point, however; the point is that microtransactions are teaching kids that money can solve or expedite everything. Want to get that dish to Level 10? Just fork out some cash! Want to redecorate your pet's bedroom? No problem! Only $25USD! Want the prettiest, the best, the shiniest, and most prestigious? Get ready to open your wallet!
By proving that the old system still holds true, that only those with money get the biggest and the best, we're still undermining our future employees and managers. We're still telling them that they're nothing without money, and certainly not teaching them the value of their money. They have no concept of what 20 transactions at $2 a pop is worth and, worse still, neither do their parents. I'm not saying all parents are idiots, but microtransactions are so innocuous that many people simply let them slide. They justify it by saying, "Well, that's one candybar I won't be buying him instead," rather than, "Well, that's still real money, and it's still teaching him that he needs money to get the respect of his peers."
I don't know any of my friends who would think less of me if I had less money. If they would, they're not my friends. I don't know anyone who thinks less of me for not having an animated wallpaper in my virtual house, or thinks they're better than me because they do. It may be because I'm not a teenager anymore, but I'm primarily concerned with keeping my little virtual people as happy as I can without spending my hard-earned real world money.
There are things that make us happy. Sometimes that's being in control. Sometimes that's having the prettiest and the best. I like to think seeing people being happy is a big motivator. Knowing your pet and their pets are happy and well-fed, knowing that you're 'visiting' your friends, even if you can't see them in person, and keeping your customers and villagers happy are my main motivations for playing the games that I do.
Do away with the microtransactions. Give rewards based on effort. Kept your village consistently at 85% happiness or above for three days straight? Unlock a reward! Kept your pet clean for a week? Have a new picture for your wall! Served a streak of 100 customers with 0% dissatisfaction? Boast about it in your news feed! Give rewards based on effort, and maybe they'll mean something. They'll teach us to be better people, rather than just how to open our wallets.