FarmVille: Compromising the integrity of computer games

21 Nov

I'm part of perhaps the first generation of people who grew up with commercially-produced computer games alongside their physical, real-world toys. I've been playing some kind of computer game (or console video game) off and on my entire life. When you break it down, all computer and video games have something in common. You face some task or challenge, you complete it, you receive points, cash, gold pieces, experience, skills, or some kind of reward. Those perhaps help you accomplish the next task. Eventually you exhaust all the tasks and have beaten the game (or maybe the game goes on forever depending how linear the narrative is).
But anyway, there's a certain purity of purpose to that. It's a diversion. When it became possible to play ROM-dumped Super Nintendo games on computers back in the late 90s, there was a whole cottage industry of looking at the binary data of the games' saved states and SRAM files and changing them to artificially give yourself massive stats/money/experience/skill boosts. But everyone would admit that that wasn't equivalent to legitimately winning the game as the designers intended.

Seriously?Seriously?That's why I hate FarmVille, and anything produced by evil “social gaming” masterminds Zynga (whose newest game, incidentally, is called FishVille. Yeah.)

Now, I really haven't played any Zynga games myself, and I doubt I will. I assiduously avoided them from the moment they started invading my Facebook newsfeed. In fact, they represent a significant reason why I tend to prefer Twitter to Facebook these days. Alas, I was forced to consider the mechanics of games like FarmVille when TechCrunch dropped this story about Zynga CEO Mark Pincus cravenly describing his company's revenue model. It was, apparently, “do every horrible thing in the book” to get revenue, including and especially awarding users in-game points in order to download adware or sign up for commercial services (often unwittingly, which is even worse, but beside the point).

I find FarmVille and its ilk obnoxious and corny content-wise, but I find this corruption of in-game mechanics even worse in some ways. My favorite multiplayer game of all time is undoubtedly StarCraft, and that is because it was exquisitely well-balanced. If someone was really good at that game, it reflected the fact that they naturally had a knack for the strategy or it, or more likely, that they spent a lot of time playing and had gotten good at it. If networked StarCraft games had a “download this adware toolbar and get 60 free Hydralisks” feature, I would've found it profoundly less fun to play. I could make a similar point about almost any networked multiplayer game I've enjoyed (and there aren't a whole lot – Diablo II, Quake 3, and Scrabulous are the others that come to mind).

As long as Joe Lieberman is on a misguided quest to crack down on “violent” games, maybe he should introduce some kind of “Gaming Purity Act of 2010” which prohibits in-game rewards for commercial transactions. That's on my “white middle class nerd's action agenda,” along with ending cable TV internet transit monopolies, political blogging freedeom from FEC regulation, and network neutrality.