Pure Innovation vs. Pure Profit
Below is a paper I wrote for my advanced writing class. I disagree with some of the points I’ve made in it, but for the purposes of the paper I argued them. It was interesting and educational, having to state ideas I did not quite agree with.
Facebook games can currently be summed up with the phrase, “It was morning when I began–a thousand clicks and several dollars later, it is now 4 o’clock.” Facebook games are part of the emerging category named social gaming. Social gaming is drawing ire from the mainstream game developers because they feel as though it undermines the years of hard work they put into their products. Independent game developers are mixed on their feelings—many of them love the opportunities that platforms such as the iPod offer, but they dislike the monetary motivations behind developing for social platforms such as Facebook. In fact, several companies that develop games for Facebook cite money as their main motivation, saying that “monetization is best achieved when you align it with game design” (Kohler). As the industry tries to establish itself as having artistic potential, the focus on superfluous and fiscal revenue will only diminish any advances the developers have made. Furthermore, the abolishment of any sort of distinction between high culture games and low culture games will only serve to harm the industry. Facebook games such as Vampire Wars, Farmville, and Mob Wars in particular are guilty of placing profit over gameplay mechanics. The simplistic mechanics and lack of depth could easily be connected to what Allan Bloom speaks of in his essay “”Music” from the Closing of the American Mind.” While he speaks of the effect of rock music on our culture, much of it can be applied to these basic Facebook games when he says, “it perhaps thus reveals the nature of all our entertainment and our loss of a clear view of what adulthood and maturity is, and our incapacity to conceive ends” (77). These game are doing far better than games aiming to make a difference are—take, for example, Limbo or Braid. Both are games that sought to prove that video games can be used for artful storytelling and moving experiences, yet the commercial success of the monetarily driven Facebook games is causing more developers to look to cheap and easy money makers, which only harms the industry’s reformation as a serious medium. The split between the high culture of independent games and the low culture of Facebook games should be maintained because the aim of these two types of games are different—independent games are created to innovate, experiment, and challenge whereas Facebook games are created with the purpose of becoming financially successful.
Independent video games reveal the flaws of the industry’s current state so that the industry may realize its imperfections and begin to fix them. Independent games fall into one of three categories: innovative, experimental, or avant-garde. All of these categories allow the designer to push past the norms and boundaries restricting mainstream developers who have to keep the financial aspects at the forefront of their concerns. Peter Brinson explains this best in his blog post on the USC Interactive Media website when he states, “Even though the commercial potential of experimental video games may be quite viable and easily imagined, they are literally experiments into what the form would be without business compromises.” Therefore, independents are exposing new mechanics, new narratives, new expositions, and new challenges. They are the human interpretation of sublime, raw passion in the guise of interactive mechanics and storytelling while “providing a natural continuity between what they feel and what they can and should be” (Bloom 80). Video games can and should be pushing the boundaries of what developers think is possible, not just technologically but artistically and culturally as well. Risks and unsteady propositions can find a home first in the independent gaming scene, where the projects are small and the object that the developers are trying to improve upon or invent is their main and only concern. Independent games of all categories attempt to better the gaming industry as a whole.
The mainstream portion of the industry often falls into a predictable and uninventive rut for a few years, and developers do not try to find a way to differentiate themselves until they witness the lack of units moved by their game. The current state of games is evidence enough—there is a staggering amount of titles that feature space marines in first-person shooters who are fighting off an unknown alien horde. The independent scene in turn created protagonists who were flawed, who were not physically strong, and who seemed to be the everyday man. Take, for example, Braid. The protagonist resembles someone one would find in an office. The entirety of his story revolves around a mistake he made in his past. In addition, Braid was a platformer, as independent games often are, and introduced a creative mechanic to the player: the ability to rewind time within the game. The amount of attention Braid received for its creativity and cleverness caught the attention of the mainstream developers, and characters in mainstream games began to exhibit their flaws and drawbacks, which in turn created characters players could easily empathize with, such as John Marston from Red Dead Redemption or Nathan Drake from Uncharted. In addition to that, mainstream developers felt comfortable exploring unconventional super powers in games. This led to the creation of games such as Infamous and Prototype, both of which experiment with the superhero mythos and what it means to be an ordinary man turned powerful being. The critical analysis of popular culture in mainstream games is something that had been done in independent games for years now, and only supports the positive influence that independent game developers have on big budget developers.
Money is the driving motive for creating a Facebook game because developers can reach a wide audience with little effort and little resources spent. Many Facebook games are often simple mechanics wrapped up heavily in dramatics and the goal is not to incite critical thinking about societal and cultural norms, but to instead become extremely profitable. Leigh Alexander notes this in her article entitled “GDC Online: Ian Bogost’s Troubling Experiences With Cow Clicker” when she says that, “Facebook friends become not “friends,” but resources for the players to use to accomplish goals, and for developers to use to monetize their products.” A Facebook game is only successful when it is known by a wide variety of people and when a large amount of steady in-game transactions are taking place. In order to gain this, developers have accidentally found that social games bring about two traits in players: obsession with their Facebook information feed and “optionalism, the option to spend money or resources to avoid your in-game responsibilities” (Alexander). Since discovering that social games bring out these two characteristics, developers have been exploiting them in order to gain more revenue and find more players. Ian Bogost, the man being analyzed in Alexander’s article, created a game called Cow Clicker in order to satirize the social games portion of the industry—most specifically, Farmville. He knew that many players made in-game purchases merely to differentiate themselves from their friends or to show off what they could afford to pay for. In doing so, he revealed that many players are more than willing to pay as much as $25 for a cow facing the wrong way, merely because it is unique from the other cows. Bogost lets it be known that “perhaps the “most perverse” thing about it is that, in the end, it was a viable social game. I think that makes it tragic, as much as it does satiric,” he concludes” (Alexander). He pushed social gamers to see how far they would be willing to delve into their obsessions, and when he did he collected more profit than he thought imaginable with a satirical game like his. Much like the connections Bloom makes between junk food and rock music, the same can be made for these types of Facebook games—they provide only a temporary satisfaction because of their lack of substance and leave the players wanting more. Cow Clicker revealed the motives of many social game developers that exploit their players through social and monetary means.
Although Facebook games are considered to be low culture by many in the industry, others argue that they are innovating the industry by expanding the audience. Facebook games accomplished a goal that several sought but none had yet achieved: an expanded market that would reliably return to use and pay for the product. However, although they had set and attained that goal, the motives were not to introduce users to casual gaming but to instead reach players who are willing to pay massive amounts of cash. For example, Chris Kohler states in Wired.com that although “the vast majority of users put in the hours to build their own little slices of nature for free, a small percentage pony up real-world cash to buy the best decorations, seeds, fertilizer and farm animals” (Kohler). In that same article, Bill Mooney, Vice President of Zynga, tells Kohler that they are constantly finding new ways to push players into making purchases in Farmville (Kohler). Social competition amongst friends is Zynga’s main force thus far, and they are looking to push harder with limited time, high-priced items to give a sense of urgency and need to their players. Players will be more willing to spend large amounts of money at one time if the item appears to be unique and rare because that differentiates them from their friends playing Farmville, and thus gives them a superficially greater societal standing in the Facebook game. This tactic is working quite well—between 50% and 80% come from direct payments via in-game purchases (Kohler). This draws parallels to what Bloom speaks of when he says, “The rock business is perfect capitalism, supplying to demand and helping to create it” (76). The massive amount of stress put into the monetary aspects of Facebook games such as Farmville does not allow for them to be placed under the category of medium or high culture.
The distinction between high culture and low culture must be maintained in this medium because without it, games that are pushing for a difference will be held in the same regard as games that made for the sole purpose of being financially successful while having nothing meaningful to contribute to the industry. Games that have truly attempted to push the boundaries of gameplay, mechanics, narrative, and other aspects of video games will not hold the clout that they should. A game that sought to tell the haunting story of a young boy’s journey into the depths of death in order to save his sister will be considered to be of the same esteem as, say, Vampire Wars. Facebook games can of course have great stories and spark passion and empathy in its players—it just has not been done yet simply because it is too large a risk. Risk is the embodiment of the possibility of the game not becoming profitable. Facebook games’s inherent need to be profitable is what causes it to be characterized as a low culture item. The categorization as it stands now draws a heavy, thick divide between the high culture independent games and the low culture Facebook games for the purpose of differentiating between monetary motives and critically challenging motives. If a distinction is not kept and reinforced, video games will forever be doomed to their current stereotype as mere playthings for young children and immature young males, consisting of pure entertainment and no substance instead of the extremely engaging works of critical art that they can be. In order to remove that misconception, the industry needs to promote games such as Shadow of the Colossus so that the medium can be considered seriously. In addition to that, social games are not drawing more gamers into the industry because they are perceived as frivolous time wasters. If the proliferation of money-centric social games continues, potential gamers will never be drawn in to experience games that are trying to make a difference within the industry.
The line separating high culture games from low culture games is still forming, and the industry must encourage its current formation by continuing to differentiate between independent games and Facebook games. The industry needs independent games to help expand both current products and popular perception of video games, and the industry needs Facebook developers to apply meaningful mechanics and innovation to their games. Video games are already seen as a having little substance or meaning—now that there is no longer any truth to this, all aspects of the industry must attempt to innovate so that the industry may accomplish its goal of being taken seriously amongst popular culture critics. Until then, Facebook games that bring nothing to the argument other than financial success must be relegated to low culture status, lest the video game business remain in the cultural shadow of movies and music forever.
- Brinson, Peter. “Indie Game Schema.” USC Interactive Media Division. USC, 22 Aug 2010. Web. 25 Feb 2011.
- Alexander, Leigh. “GDC Online: Ian Bogost’s Troubling Experiences With Cow Clicker.”Gamasutra (2010): n. pag. Web. 24 Feb 2011.
- Kohler, Chris. “Farm Wars: How Facebook Games Harvest Big Bucks.” Wired: Game|Life 19 May 2010: n. pag. Web. 4 Mar 2011. <http://www.wired.com/gamelife/2010/05/farm-wars/1/>.
About MichelleGame designer in love with games, volleyball, food, and fun times.
SimCity 5 (PC)
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