They say don’t measure life by the breaths you take, but by the mafia city hack that take your breath away. Well, anyone who has ever been addicted to FarmVille or Mafia Wars on Facebook would rather measure life by the number of hours before they can harvest their crops or get their precious daily energy pack.
Social games can be so addictive that a blogger who goes by the moniker HarryJerry wrote: “Once you’ve started playing with them you no longer care about your girlfriend, college assignments or a kidney failure. These games get into you like oxygen.”
Some behavioral experts would squirm at the use of the word “addiction” when describing such, ah, er, extreme attachment to these games. Obsessive players, however, insist that the condition is real. When you sneak a peek into Facebook while at work to grab virtual golds for St. Patrick’s Day or set alarms and wake up at 2 a.m. to harvest your crops so they don’t wither, or when you eat your lunch right in front of your PC so you can attack other Mafia Wars players in between bites, what else do you call that?
And the number of players is staggering. In fact, Farmville, currently the most popular game app on Facebook with 83 million active users, is even bigger than Twitter which has slightly over 80 million members (RJ Metrics).
Fortunately, not everyone is susceptible to the charms of online games. According to Jay Parker, a chemical dependency counselor and co-founder of Internet/Computer Addiction Services in Redmond, Washington, there are certain types of people who are likely to get addicted to social gaming, and these are the isolated, the lonely, the bored, and those who have little interest in sex (“I don’t care if I wasn’t invited to Megan’s stupid debut or my boyfriend doesn’t speak to me anymore. See, I’m already level 1,500 in Mafia Wars and I win every fight I get into. Bleh.”)
Can you just imagine if everyone would get hooked on these games? Fewer babies would be conceived (experts should start looking into the potential of online games as a deterrent to population explosion), bars would go bankrupt, Sasha Baron Cohen could be elected to the highest office in the land, the global economy could hit an all-time low and people wouldn’t give a hoot as long as they have Internet connection at home and can play 24/7.
Playing online games can also solve the problem of racism. People all over the world will no longer be divided based on the color of their skin but as to whether they are Mogul, Fearless or Maniac (character types in Mafia Wars, Maniac being the best as you can level up real fast). If you made the mistake of choosing Mogul or Fearless types when starting out in the game, don’t worry. You can just buy points to change your character type and be a proud Maniac.
If you think the think tank behind such seemingly silly but highly addictive Facebook games like FarmVille and Mafia Wars and their equally enslaving cousins Cafe World, Farm Town, FishVille and Yoville just stumbled upon the idea by accident, think again. They are cunning people who employ well-planned psychological tricks to make these game apps highly irresistible to the young and old and keep them playing until the wee hours of the morning (Damn. It’s already 3 a.m. and you haven’t had a bath since you woke up 20 hours ago because you have been glued to your computer. It’s okay. Your online friends can’t smell you anyway).
The attraction starts innocently enough: You are pitted against your friends in a friendly competition and you can get ahead of them by playing more often. Then you collect achievements or earn rewards as you move up the ladder of Farmville or Mafia Wars success. You can play at normal speed to level up and earn virtual cash OR you can shell out real money and buy points so you progress through the game at a much faster rate. And the more time you invest planting eggplants and blueberries or attacking other players, the more likely you are going to shell out real cash to gain game mastery, said Jesse Schell, an author and game design professor at Carnegie Mellon University during a speech at DICE 2010 in Las Vegas a few weeks ago.
‘Oh, this must be worthwhile. Why? Because I’ve spent time on it. And therefore it must be worth me kicking in 20 bucks, because look at the time I’ve spent on it. And now that I’ve kicked in 20 bucks, it must be valuable, because only an idiot would kick in 20 bucks if it wasn’t! So there’s a lot of psychological cleverness going on with these things,” Schell told the audience.
At some point you might think of quitting the game. There could be several reasons for that: a) you got fired by your boss after he caught you scouring the Internet for tips on how to have multiple chicken coops instead of answering calls from clients); b) you realized that you have become a slob (your armpit hair is now four inches long and you’re female); or c) after your neighbor called 911 because she was worried since you never returned any of her calls). Not so fast, buddy. These game developers are skilled mind readers who are constantly cooking up new exciting gimmicks to reel you back in.
According to Schell, as more people get hooked on these games, there will come a time when the external game reward system will permeate the real world. Whereas before, game makers were mainly concerned about creating some sort of a parallel universe where people can escape into when real life proves too much for them, there is now a growing interest to merge fantasy and reality.
“We live in a bubble of fake bullshit, and we’ll do anything to get to what is real,” Schell said, describing a future where game elements are integrated into the real world. For instance, people would earn experience points from the toothpaste company by brushing their teeth, or from the insurance company by walking to work instead of driving.