Thursday, April 29, 2010

(empo-plaaybizz) The Farmville Sociopaths?

My empo-plaaybizz series in this blog has looked at the interrelationships between gaming and business. But I haven't taken it a step further to look at the interrelationships between gaming and society.

Enter A. J. Patrick Liszkiewicz, whose January 28, 2010 talk at SUNY Buffalo was recorded in at least two places. H/T to Nicole Schulert for alerting me to this Business Insider piece, and to Jake Kuramoto for noting that this also appeared in this Media Commons piece.

Presented as an essay, this was originally given as a talk by Liszkiewicz upon the occasion of the death of Howard Zinn. Now I've been out of academia for almost two decades now, so I'm not used to reading academic stuff. And Liszkiewicz certainly approaches the topic from an academic slant, beginning as follows:

We are citizens of a democracy, and democratic citizenship has always been a difficult skill to master. This is why Aristotle tells us that, in an ideal state, citizens would possess ample leisure time: the education of a citizen depends upon contemplation, deliberation, and training. Citizenship requires cultivation and, as any farmer would tell us, cultivation takes time.

Liszkiewicz chose his words carefully, because, as it turns out, the topic that he wants to address is the Farmville game. Now I never got into Farmville (I have been more involved in its competitor, Farm Town), but I'm certainly in the minority among virtual farmers. Farmville has emerged as the dominant game on Facebook, and because Facebook is itself dominant among social media networks, that's a lot of farming that's going on - and a lot of revenue that's going to Farmville's creator, Zynga.

Past analyses that I've read about Farmville, Farm Town, Foursquare, and the like have concentrated on the business benefits of using game mechanisms. To my knowledge, neither Paul Pedrazzi nor any other business analyst has cited Aristotle in his or her analysis of business gaming.

In the speech-turned-essay, Liszkiewicz explains how Farmville works, and notes that it is not that good of a game (why would people pay real money or invest real time to, in essence, avoid playing the game?). Liszkiewicz also notes how neighbors work, and explains that this is his concern regarding Farmville:

The secret to Farmville’s popularity is neither gameplay nor aesthetics. Farmville is popular because in entangles users in a web of social obligations. When users log into Facebook, they are reminded that their neighbors have sent them gifts, posted bonuses on their walls, and helped with each others’ farms. In turn, they are obligated to return the courtesies. As the French sociologist Marcel Mauss tells us, gifts are never free: they bind the giver and receiver in a loop of reciprocity. It is rude to refuse a gift, and ruder still to not return the kindness. We play Farmville, then, because we are trying to be good to one another. We play Farmville because we are polite, cultivated people.

After arguing in this vein for some time, Liszkiewicz reaches his conclusion - the conclusion to which I alluded in the title of this post:

Citizens must educate themselves in the use of sociable applications, such as Wikipedia, Skype, and Facebook, and learn how they can better use them to forward their best interests. And we must learn to differentiate sociable applications from sociopathic applications: applications that use people’s sociability to control those people, and to satisfy their owners’ needs.

As cultivated citizens, we are obligated to one another. We care about one another. As Cornel West has said, democracy depends upon demophilia, or love of the people. Unfortunately, sociopathic companies such as Zynga depend upon this love as well. The central task of citizenship is learning how to be good to one another, even when—especially when—it is difficult to understand our own actions. If Howard Zinn had but one lesson to teach us, it is that cultivated citizens must constantly look around and examine what they’re doing, because there is a fine line between being a cultivated citizen and being someone else’s crop.

Now I've been mulling over this piece for a couple of days - and I can assure you that Jake Kuramoto has been mulling over it also - and, after some thought, I have reached the following conclusion:

Zynga is no more sociopathic than any other company.

Let me provide an example:

In my country, the United States of America, there is a sporting event that is popularly known as "March Madness." To be more specific, it is a college basketball tournament in which the top teams from the top level of colleges/universities compete in a sporting event. This is popularly portrayed as a win-win, since the colleges and universities get revenue, the media gets revenue, the gamblers get revenue, the people get entertainment, and deserving college kids get an education.

But if Liszkiewicz were to turn his laser eye to March Madness, he would NOT perceive it as a win-win. I don't think that SUNY Buffalo is a Division I school, but if it were, Liszkiewicz would not be pleased at the fact that the so-called "student athletes" end up missing nearly a month of classes due to the tournament, and he definitely wouldn't be pleased when some of these same so-called "student athletes" do not return to SUNY Buffalo the following year, having decided to forgo their college educations to turn pro in the NBA.

And what of society? With the possible exception of the Farmville players, much of the rest of the country is occupied in filling out brackets, comparing brackets with one another, possibly entering betting pools based on their brackets, and engaged in other tasks. You want to talk about being obligated to a routine? Try maintaining a bracket for an entire month.

Heck, if you think about it, just about EVERY activity can be considered as sociopathic.

The online Obama supporters that were cited in the article? They're just stooges in the money-making efforts of News Corp (Fox News) and whoever owns NBC at the moment (MSNBC).

People who listened to radio during the Great Depression? Slaves to a routine, clamoring for Ovaltine.

And I won't even touch the whole issue of faculty politics.

So while I will freely admit that Zynga has come up with a formula that makes them money, and can be addictive as crack cocaine, I don't see Zynga as the destroyers of our modern society.

But if Zynga starts targeting its games to the Jerry Springer demographic, I'm moving to Iran.



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