Thursday, July 22, 2010

Cow Clicker and my Life Purpose

Ian Bogost has come up with an interesting proposition.  It's a Facebook game that you can play here.  Before you get too excited, read the blog entry.  Are you done?  Okay.  Laugh with me :


Since I've no love of time-wasting Facebook games, but seem to play them anyway, this strikes a chord with me. However, a large number of the comments at the bottom of the blog suggest avid Farmville gamers take offence at his disregard for their very serious pastime.  The level of outraged impotence weaves close to the comical, and then beyond.  I know that Facebook games are a waste of time, a horrible, soul-destroying, production-destroying waste of my day, yet I play them anyway.  If I feel like it.  What these people apparently don't understand is the very simple concept Mr. Bogost explained in the post they're commenting on :

Stop wasting your lives.

So, yes, that's a bit more harsh than he put it, but the principle comes down to the same thing.  Facebook games are not :

a) Fun
b) Useful
c) Educational*
d) Making you a better person
e) Worth real money
f) Worth real time

* Restaurant City has daily quizzes regarding foods from around the world but, I suspect, like most people, I simply memorise the answers and would be hard-pressed to remember the information if asked.

People talk about how Farmville et al allow them to express themselves.  Yes, to other players.  Other people who place the same value on imaginary hay will no doubt think you are the epitome of class.

People say they play these games because they're 'not just fighting someone, they're making something.'  Well, that was the reason I was playing My Empire, and now they've introduced a battle system in which you fight barbarians (e.g. non-Romans) to explore.  No word yet on whether they'll allow player-to-player combat.  So, yes, I can see the appeal of a game that includes no violence, and I can see the appeal of a game you 'play' with your friends, but I don't think any of them understand that there's no true interactivity.

In a game, and I'm not saying Facebook 'games' fall into this category, but, just for the sake of argument, hear me out : in a game, you learn about the characters in the world, the storyline, and the world itself.  The game aims to teach you something, or tell you something, or make you feel something.  At its most basic element, this should be what all games strive for.  Facebook games offer frustration, time consumption, and the ever-present lure of, "If you only paid real cash this would be so much easier."  Sure, I feel a sense of accomplishment when I can pave my entire city with the most expensive streets and make my citizens happy, but it's fleeting, and hollow.  I know it will all be gone someday.

This may also be me, but if I have no one to share it with, what's the point?  I know I don't look at my friends' cities when I go to visit.  I grab my coins, look for the merchant, and get on with my life.  I don't think anyone I know has the time to sit down and admire the layout of my city, or the way the houses always face a garden or the ocean, so the people inside don't get claustrophobic.  Sure, that gives me enjoyment, but, again, no more than any other time-wasting device, and certainly not more than if I was undertaking a productive task instead of building an empire no one is ever going to see and I myself will probably not care about beyond the next couple of months.

With a game like Heavy Rain, you can sit down and share the experience.  Of course, it's face-to-face, and actually spending time with friends or family might be more difficult for some people than it is for me.  But we don't just play the game - we chat, we discuss what's happening on-screen or what happened during the day, and the game is like background noise to the steady thrum of our relationships.  Facebook games take so much concentration (try maintaining any size of orchard in Farmville, then try being on the phone and having a serious conversation while clicking on everything in your farm to harvest it) that it's definitely not a social endeavour.  The fact that your friends CAN visit is moot.  The fact that they're not going to is something I'm not sure people are aware of.

As a general rule, everyone is at least as busy as you are.  If you're not going to take the time to admire their farm, why would they admire yours?  Going to visit 'friends' is a chore aimed at acquiring money.  In fact, many Facebook games will offer to undertake the self-identified 'tedious' chore of harvesting your plants and taking care of your animals, all for a low, real-money price.  That's the game designers telling you their product is a time sink, and, worst of all, they know it - listen to them!

I'm all about the player story, as you may be aware.  My player story when playing a Facebook game goes something like this :

Get home
Check the cat
Look at the time
Wait while it boots, ignoring hungry cat
Hurriedly log in to Facebook
Check games x, y & z for their respective 'click now' timers
Breathe a sigh of relief as I haven't missed the deadline, or;
Kick myself for not remembering to log on sooner (really?  Is that how it makes me feel?)
Set up the time bombs again, debating whether or not I'll stay up a little longer to get a couple of extra coins before going to bed
Go to bed
Get up in the morning

You may notice I began to question myself in the middle.  I am essentially paying these games in terms of my time so they can make me feel bad.  That's right - my main positive emotion related to these games is relief.  That tells me a lot about my relationship with them, and it should tell you a lot, too.  You know when you have a chronic headache/backpain/leg pain/whatever, and you notice it's getting worse, so you take some painkillers, and later on, it's still worse, but you're sitting there thinking, 'At least it's not as bad as it would have been if I hadn't taken those painkillers!'?  No?  How about, "I'm so glad he didn't hit me tonight.  He must be in a good mood."?  Sounding familiar?  I sure hope not.

Understand this : Facebook games are abusive.  They give us nothing, and they take our time, which is precious beyond measure.  When you're dying, or a loved one of yours is dying, you're not going to wish you'd spent more time on Farmville.  There are rare exceptions, like this story about a kid, his mum, and Animal Crossing, but for the most part, anything you think you gain from these games is a lie.  Unless they're used for real human interaction, unless they can move you, unless they can make you a better person, you, as a person, deserve better.

Your life is a story.  Don't fill it with blanks.  Do the things that make you feel, and feel good about yourself.  If Facebook games genuinely have that impact on you, then go for it.  If playing Farmville makes you start your own real-life garden, or Pet Society teaches you the basics of interior decorating and you use it to enrich your life, then everything I've said here is wrong.  But if they don't, and I'm not, then think about it, for your own sake, and close the games down.  Remove them, so you won't be tempted.  Start writing that novel you've always dreamed of, finish the game you've had sitting on the last stage for three years, go on that camping trip you're always planning in the back of your mind.  10 minutes a day doesn't sound like a lot, but if you play more than one game, do the maths.  How many times a day do you spend those ten minutes per game?  What could you accomplish in an extra half hour?  An extra hour?  An extra three hours?  And now you have a reason to quit playing those games.

As for me, I'll post about Cow Clicker in my Facebook feed as much as I can, until people get the message.  Maybe then we'll move toward a more reasonable, helpful, genuinely interesting and player-centric model of play, rather than time-oriented, chore-heavy, money-grubbing bullshit.

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