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Excerpts from Ben Jackson’s essay in the upcoming ‘Distance’

FarmVille, a Zynga property

My friend Nick Disabato recently founded a quarterly print publication called Distance, which pledges to underscore “longform essays about design and technology.” It launches next month.

Nick himself is something of a comparative media Renaissance guy, and on the whole I trust his judgment. Last week he recommended I skim an excerpt from one of the magazine’s first essays. The piece was written by somebody named Benjamin Jackson. Nick suggested I might find Ben’s work “interesting.”

Um, yes. Yes, I found it interesting. Why, a week and a half earlier I had hemorrhaged something passingly similar to Ben’s excerpt, albeit nothing so cohesive.

You owe it to yourself to read Ben’s essay, too, because it connects seemingly disparate ideas about patternicity, carrot-dangling, “gambling,” and the ethics of the con:

It was later revealed that the machine, more commonly known as the Mechanical Turk, was an elaborately constructed ruse, where a highly-skilled human chess player of extremely small stature was hidden in the cabinet. Openings on the sides revealed gears, levers and machinery designed to misdirect the viewer into thinking that the Baron had devised some mechanical means of intelligently responding to a player’s moves.

The Mechanical Turk is an early example of unethical game design. Later examples include three-card monte, in which a spectator is shown a card, is asked to follow it with their eyes, and is then misled into following the wrong card. Many casino games are unethical: for example, slot machines usually randomize their payouts to ensure that players keep coming back, even when they’re clearly losing money. But unethical traits can appear in any game, no matter how subtle, and a recent crop of games shows a fuzzier moral ground.

The primary characteristic of unethical games is that they are manipulative, misleading, or both. From a user experience standpoint, these games display dark patterns: common design decisions that trick users into doing something against their will. Dark patterns are usually employed to maximize some metric of success, such as email signups, checkouts, or upgrades; they generally test well when they’re released to users.

For example, FarmVille, Tap Fish, and Club Penguin take advantage of deep-rooted psychological impulses to make money from their audiences. They take advantage of gamers’ completion urge by prominently displaying progress bars that encourage leveling up. They randomly time rewards in much the same way as the slot machines described above. And they spread virally by compelling players to constantly post requests to their friends’ walls.

This trend is not just limited to social games, though: many combat games, like America’s Army, are funded by the U.S. military and serve as thinly-veiled recruitment tools5. Some brands have launched Facebook games like Cheez-It’s Swap-It!, and they serve as tools to sell more products. These techniques can be used in any sort of game, in any context.

What, with all these concurrent ideas about “scams,” is Ben readying to describe to us?

ZYNGA. He is about to discuss ZYNGA.

A longer excerpt appeared this afternoon at The Atlantic. Now you can really see how cohesive Ben’s piece is. It is all about the maturation of the con, how Zynga lands us, hook, line, and sinker.

Here is an especially magnetic aside about “what” makes a “game” “good,” and why we might choose to invest in any game the way we do (it strongly borrows from the sociological idea of “cost,” wherein every human relationship is a type of transaction):

At IndieCade in October 2011, Adam Saltsman, Canabalt’s creator, discussed the notion of “time until death.” All of us have a finite amount of time on earth, and any time we spend on a particular activity is time that we can’t spend doing something else. This means that the time we spend gaming represents most of a game’s cost of ownership, far more than any money that we spend. If that time is enjoyable (or rather, if its benefits outweigh its costs), then the game was worth our time.

Really exciting stuff; I can’t wait to see what the entire essay contains.

You can help Nick Disabato kickstart Distance over here.

One response to “Excerpts from Ben Jackson’s essay in the upcoming ‘Distance’” »

  1. .tiff says:

    Goldmine! So much good stuff here!

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