It's a terrible thought to ponder. But it could explain why other people play video games you are certain stink: Maybe fun isn't the key ingredient that makes people love video games anymore. Let's hear it for... shame?
Every year in mid-Winter, top game designers and executives gather just outside of Las Vegas at a resort hosting the DICE Summit to discuss the Next Big Things in video games. Mix excitement with money and drink. Combine easy access to gambling with an ever-present whiff in the air that people don't always acknowledge. The whiff smells like doubt, anxiety that maybe all these creative or powerful or creative and powerful people might be doing it all wrong.
Some years, the idea floats that maybe everyone should be pulling a Wii and making games that families can wave their arms to.
Other years, you best not take the stage to talk at DICE without signaling that you're making a massively multiplayer game or at least open to the idea of it. If you can mix it in with a reality TV show, all the better.
Never before has anyone snuck in the suggestion that maybe you should do something that gets gamers worried about being humiliated. This year, that idea came up: Fear of embarrassment as the thing to keep a player playing a game.
We all know our strings are being pulled when we play game, right? We are being manipulated, with rewards of points and Achievements dangled in front of us. We are wooed, I thought during the many years I've played games, by the promise of fun. The joy experienced in the games we think are best is as delightful a lure to us gamers than the smell of a chef's fine cooking. For those of us who play games rather than make them, the idea of someone designing a video game so that it keeps us playing by exerting social pressures on us can't go down easy. Wasn't high school trauma enough?
So it was at DICE that this style of video game crept not just into the conversation but was presented as the most important element to the most successful video game of last year. Oh yeah, therefore it was the one that maybe the rest of the video game industry should consider copying.
At the summit this year, you needed to acknowledge that Facebook gaming is huge. Mafia Wars. Playfish. And, of course, FarmVille is the thing — the game. It has, speaker Jesse Schell said, more players than Twitter has users. (Beyond Facebook gaming, he added, is the future of winning points for brushing your teeth and showing up for work on time, but that's another story.)
As of today, that Facebook gaming darling FarmVille has 83 million monthly players. Something must be hooking them, probably the fact that the game is free and on Facebook. Probably other reasons too. The gaming power-brokers want those players and, fortunately, the chief game designer of FarmVille studio Zynga, Brian Reynolds, was at DICE to explain how to get them.
Keep those 83 million gamers around by keeping them grinning? Follow that saccharine Nintendo talking point?
Not exactly. Reynolds laid it out for potential developers of mega-hit Facebook games in language that might make a Mario gamer — and maybe a Mario maker — tremble: "You've got to forget everything you know about game mechanics being more important, [such as] 'You have to get fun before you do anything else.'"
Instead, first priority of the developer who wants to draw this kind of player crowd, you must intend for your game to be strongly social first, he said. Maybe make it a strongly encouraged in-game feature that gamers need to tell their friends that they are playing the game. Reward them for that. "You have to get social before you do anything else." Figure out how gamers will communicate and virally promote your game. Make it so that the gang is all involved. And if you want to do the thing that helped make FarmVille huge: Make it so that they'll fear being embarrassed in front of their friends.
Social is good, fear of humiliation is better. It's not what gamers ask for, but, Reynolds said, it's effective. Witness the most successful gaming mechanic in FarmVille last year, as Reynolds hailed it: Harvesting.
In FarmVille, you can farm. Simple enough. You spend fake gold to plant pumpkin seeds, spend time keeping the field clear for your pumpkins to grow. And, after a set time, you need to harvest those pumpkins lest they wither. Facebook friends can see that farm and see your crops.
"If I don't come back, not only do I lose my investment of my time and my gold, [but] I'm shamed," Reynolds said. "I look bad in front of my friends when they come to visit my farm…We're social animals and we don't want to be shamed in front of our friends."
This sounded like a shift when I heard it. This sounded like modeling games off not just the aspects of grade school recess that involved swinging on swings or playing tag — the thing that made Mario and Halo fun — but on the survival strategies that made some kids popular or at least not stuffed in lockers.
Even Halo, a game that has famously stressful multiplayer that leaves less skilled players prone victims of gamers with superior skills lets a shamed Halo player retire in somewhat graceful pseudo-anonymity. It sounds like FarmVille would only let you retire in that same sorry state I left my Animal Crossing town in on my GameCube half a decade ago, house full of weeds, roaches crawling, but with the added Facebook bonus of my friends being able to see that mess. Yes, I can see how I'd keep playing to avoid that shame.
Video games that make us worry what other people think of us. Scary? Or is that just what the world is proving to want?
At very believable moments in the recent past, video game designers have described the amorphous and elusive appeal of fun as the essential lubricant to making their games popular. These men and women, people who, like Reynolds, earn money making video games without wearing a suit, argued that joy is essential and paramount.
Other elements of video game appeal have come up. Will Wright, the man who dreamed up Sim City and The Sims, has talked about how games are the only form of entertainment that can instill in its audience a sense of pride and accomplishment.
Jonathan Blow, outspoken designer of time-bending game Braid, has identified and criticized developers of massively multiplayer games (think World of Warcraft) for "unethical" design that hooks players not with fun but the dangled carrot of offered rewards.
In the hot new realm of social games, the ones Reynolds' company makes, "social" comes first. And maybe sometimes it's good, and maybe sometimes it's better than what passed for fun in the old days. Do you know how you beat a tough character, a "boss," in most traditional video games? You study up like you're preparing for a final exam and then look yourself in a virtual room and sweat out the challenge. Some people find that fun. How do you beat a boss in Zynga's Mafia Wars Moscow expansion? Just invite a friend to help. It's an instant win. It's purely social.
So making a game social isn't in and of itself a bad thing, no more than making friends is a bad thing. Is a game designer figuring out the fun for us only after they figure how we'll all link together brilliant or worrisome?
We are at one of those intersections again, joy crossed with fear, amusement crossed with monetization, games crossed with games industry. Maybe, though, fun isn't the best attraction a game can offer. Maybe fun isn't what obsesses the gamers hooked on the biggest games in the world.
Why do we lose our hours or days in a game, and why do our moms or sons vanish in them too? Last week, Kotaku columnist Leigh Alexander tested four theories about why anyone plays games: power, control, rule-breaking and narrative curiosity. Just outside of Las Vegas, however, one of the architects of one of the biggest gaming phenomena on Earth had proposed the hook we didn't know we wanted, the fear that the pumpkins might wither and people we know would see the rot.
I keep playing video games so that you won't see me fail at them? Quite a concept.