From Gamification to Exploitationware

Several days ago, I listened to a Hypercritical episode in which John Siracusa mentioned about Cow Clicker, a game designed to be a satire of social network games by GaTech professor Ian Bogost.

Cow Clicker logo
Cow Clicker

The story of Cow Clicker on WIRED is a funny and thought-provoking one. In fact, the very first post on this blog is exactly about “gamification”, though I did not know about the word at that time.

While “social gaming” brings some game mechanisms to our social relationships, it is not necessarily a game. Games are more about entertainment and having fun than experience points, scorecards and achievements. But from my personal experience, you can hardly enjoy such a social game unless you either keep bothering your friends or keep paying money.

I played City of Wonder for about a month on Google Plus when I was preparing for my GRE test. I love playing Civilization and SimCity series and City of Wonder has many of the elements of both game series. But very quickly I found that it is just another FarmVille. All you have to do with the game is either keeping clicking or just waiting for things to happen. You will find that you have to invite a number of “neighbors” to help you level up. There is also a reward for helping your friends.

As the creators of these games claim, social gaming is supposed to be a collaboration effort that brings you and your friends together. In order to build several “Wonders” to keep my “citizens” in the game happy, I persuaded several of my personal friends to join the game. Most of them just signed up, helped me with the tasks, and never opened the game again. I felt bad about this because essentially, I just used my friends as a resource in exchange for virtual rewards from the game.

Then I added several strangers who played the same game to my circles just to keep playing the game. They helped me with the game and I helped them in return. All of us will be rewarded in the game. I built Wonders and buildings in my city and I was trying to make it a reasonably beautiful city.

My City of Wonder

It went very well until one day I found there was nothing more I wanted from the game. With the help of some complete strangers I finished my “city planning” and I think it was sort of an achievement. However, at this point the whole premise of “social” gaming is defeated because there were no social relationships, just business transactions. All the players treated each other as resources and we just keeping clicking to build our cities.

When reducing this game or any other similar “social game” to bare bones, they are all Cow Clickers. You click the cow and you get a point. You make use of your friends, you get more points. That is how they expand. You pay real money to get a large amount of points. That is how they make money.

Basically we are the one who pays money but at the same time we are the salesmen for the game. In return, we get some useless virtual rewards to show off and to satisfy our vanity. The game companies only have to make more items you desire and more reasons for you to spam your friends’ news feed.

Serious games (or conventional games) never work this way. When playing games, you are either intellectually or physically challenged and you are rewarded for your performance. This principle is true from Super Mario Bros to Angry Birds, from Starcraft to Call of Duty. Even for chess and football, this is true because it is the actually how the society works.

Therefore, social games are not games because you are not taking on challenges to get rewarded (*). Instead, you exploit your friends. You friendships are the gold mine and you are the miner for the game company. The company pays you some pixels made of computer generated digits with no cost to keep you happy until you quit the game.

This is why Ian Bogost suggested a term for this type of game-like practice: “exploitationware” [B].

Exploitationware may be working well right now with the success of FarmVille and many other very similar games. Even Cow Clicker earned a bit money for Bogost. But in my point of view, it won’t be long before people become immune to this kind of “brain hacks that exploit human psychology in order to make money.” [A]

When more and more social “games” are competing with each other, it will be much more difficult to get user attention among all the social status. Users will concern about being spammed by friends and they will try not to spam their friends. Cow clicking “games” will likely to be replaced by games that are better-intended and more enjoyable. In other words, the cost to make players exploiting each other will increase until social “games” cannot make easy money anymore.

So why gamify your industry? Gamification might make your users/customers/clients addictive by manipulating them and rewarding them. But in the end, if your reward is useless and your product is horrible, no one will continue to play your game because there are tons of better games around.

You can only trick your users into doing something stupid for a short period of time. Then they will understand why the CEO of the social “game” empire once said [D]:

I knew that i wanted to control my destiny, so I knew I needed revenues, right, fucking, now. Like I needed revenues now. So I funded the company myself but I did every horrible thing in the book to, just to get revenues right away. (…) We did anything possible just to just get revenues so that we could grow and be a real business.

(*) unless you think clicking the cow every six hours is a challenge and enjoy every points you get from it.

Further reading:

  1. Cow Clicker — The Making of Obsession by Ian Bogost
  2. Persuasive Games: Exploitationware by Ian Bogost
  3. ‘Gamification’ sucks by Brent Simmons
  4. Zynga CEO Mark Pincus: “I Did Every Horrible Thing In The Book Just To Get Revenues” by TechCrunch