Who Killed Videogames? (A Ghost Story)

Sep 22nd, 2011

By Tim Rogers

figure one: satan.

The smaller of the men was still talking about engagement wheels.

“Look at this one,” he said. He clicked to the next PowerPoint slide. “How about it?” Some of the men reacted.

“I . . . I . . . uh, I like this one the best.” He clicked one more time. Some of the prior engagement wheels had resembled close-up snapshots of a brier patch. This one looked like something you might see on a sticker on the side of a recycle bin in a particularly particular hippie commune. If all the engagement wheels today had been girls, this would be the one you’d one day decide you should have married.

The larger man spoke. He gestured while doing so. “You teach the player how to play the game in one minute. Within that one minute, you give them in-game money. You make them spend all of that money to buy an investment that will begin to earn them profit. They build a thing. It says: this thing will be finished in five minutes. Spend one premium currency unit to have it now. You happen to have one free premium currency unit. The game makes you use it now. Now you have a thing. Now it says to wait three minutes to collect from that thing. So they have a reason to stick around for three minutes. When those three minutes are up, you tell them to come back in a half an hour. You say, ‘You’re done for now. Come back in a half an hour.’ The phone sends them a push notification in a half an hour. Right here, you’re telling them to wait. You’re expressing to them the importance of patience. They’re never going to forget the way it feels to wait a half an hour after playing a game for one minute. They’re going to forget the second time they wait for a half an hour, and the third time, and they’ll then not forget the first time they have to wait for four hours, then twenty-four hours. This is why they’ll start to pay to Have Things Right Now.

“So after the first half hour, they get a push notification. Their phone vibrates. It tells them their such-and-such is ready for collection.”

The Other Men don’t make any sound. They have collectively folded their hands alongside their Alpine Crystal Spring Superclear Water bottles atop the glass table, collective face intent and weirdly worried, like that of a man hearing the beginning of a joke involving a rabbi, a toddler, and a lizard.

“They open the app. They collect from their such-and-such.

“Now the game tells them they’ve leveled up. It gives them some bonus coins. It tells them they’ve unlocked a new thing — a fancier thing.

“Here’s the important part. When they collect from their such-and-such, it gives them maybe 120 coins. The coin bonus they get for leveling up is about 2,500 coins — that’s magnitudes more than collecting from the such-and-such. Now you tell them to open the store. You show them the new thing you can buy. It should be around 2,200 coins. It’ll leave them with only a couple collections’ worth — maybe a couple collections and a half worth — of coins. We do this on purpose.

“Now they build the new thing, because it’s promising them a thousand coins per hour. So now they have to come back in an hour. And then two hours. And then three hours: there. They’ve made more than enough to cover the initial investment.

“Now they can buy an upgrade — for 2,200 coins — so that their thing will make them 2,000 coins an hour instead of 1,000. The mathematical part of their brain sees this and thinks: ‘That’s double what I was making before.’ Everyone loves when numbers double. We control the game world, we control the numbers: we control the ceiling for doubling. We control the player.

“The player is almost hooked.

“This is very important: now we give them something that gives them a reason to come back in two and a half hours. Then we give them ninety minutes. Then we’re telling them they can get 25% more coins per hour overall — maybe now they’ve got investments bringing them 5,000 coins per hour — if they do this thing that’ll take twenty-four hours.

“If you can hook them for a day, you can hook them for two.”

“And that’s where it becomes tricky,” the smaller of the men says. “If you can hook them for two days it’s very difficult to say whether or not you can hook them for three.

“And if you can hook them for three,” he says, closing his eyes, focusing his pupils perhaps on the core of his head, before opening his eyes and staring right at me, “then they’re going to be considering sticking around for a week.”

“And if they do stick around for a week,” the larger man — he has gold cufflinks — says, “they will not find it difficult at all to conceive of sticking around for a month. Then three months.”

“And once this concept has occurred to them,” the smaller man continues, “they will be ready to spend some money. All we have to do is show them something and say it will take three days to build. Or they can spend eleven in-game premium-currency units to have it right now.

“We sell the in-game premium-currency units twenty for a dollar.”

“The second they buy twenty units, they’re hooked for at least twenty more,” the larger man says.

“How can you say that?” one of the older men says, breaking a long, throaty silence.

“Our man here can tell you all about that.”

I am sitting at the head of the table playing Action Button Entertainment’s ZiGGURAT on my iPhone. I designed this game and am the director of its team of three people infinitely more talented than I am at everything except math and acting like a jerk in public. During this meeting no one is going to mention my game — though during the next one, the guy with the money is going to ask, while someone else is at a toilet break (he drinks a lot of green tea), “What is that? It looks awesome,” and I’ll say “I designed this game” and he will ask to play it; he’ll die six times, his groan of excitement upon death gradually escalating to football-spectator volume by the sixth death. He’ll hand my iPhone 4 back, casually touch his fingertips to his forehead, and say, “I want that.” Then, after a pause, once I’ve jumped back into a game, he’ll say, without a trace of irony, “What is your monetization strategy for that?”

I used to stand up a lot at these meetings. I try not to, anymore. It genuinely took me a couple months to realize that I wasn’t talking about things you should stand up while talking about.

This time, I put my white iPhone 4 to sleep, lay it face down on the board table, fold my hands, and say, “It’s all math. It’s all math and psychology. By which you might say, it’s all economics.” I clear my throat. “Economics and philosophy. By which you might say it’s modern video game design.”

Now the larger man praises me; I am above blushing: “He is an expert at balancing these things. He will construct an algorithm that shrewdly obscures a downward-trending curve for in-game investment values.”

“What we’re saying,” the smaller man says, “is that the other guys are making things that people will fathom playing for three months if they play it for a week, and that we’re going to make a thing that people will consider playing for six months, if they play it for three days. We’ll generate a mathematically proofable engagement wheel. The players will come for the cute characters, and–”

I’m not listening anymore. For all I care, he is probably going to say “The players will come for the cute characters, and stay for the cruel mathematics.”

Chapter One: The Man Who Spent One Dollar And Seventy Cents

the game is clearly trying to be escapism, now — notice how many superfluous choices it’s offering. (in real life, the only menu button when i sit down in front of the computer is the “send libellous emails” button.)

Here I am: The Worst Journalist In The World. I was once a person who wrote about technology and entertainment; then I figured that, in order to ask better questions while talking to people who made things, I should try making those things myself. Years passed. I worked on some games. Just as weightlifting doesn’t mean anything if it isn’t painful, I could say I drifted toward projects I found morbidly fascinating more than I drifted toward projects I thought would be fun. More years passed, and I was somehow involved in making iPhone applications for kids to stare at while their moms drive to the supermarket.

The idea of an iPhone application is: for someone to download it, they have to have an iTunes Store account. Most people with iTunes Store accounts have credit cards on file. If their credit cards weren’t on file, this trick wouldn’t work: the kid says “Hey mom, can I buy this thing for a dollar in this game?” and the mom says, “What?” She stops at a red light. “Can you put in your password?” She puts in her password — or, better (we estimate it’s 20% of the time) she tells the child the password. (Now he knows her password. (For our purposes, that’s as good as knowing her credit card number.))

At the 2010 Game Developer’s Conference, “social gaming” is all anyone was talking about. I already knew more than a little bit about it — there were games on Facebook, and the ideal user keeps the game open in a tab while doing work or checking email or watching cat videos on YouTube. The game keeps giving the user cute little reasons to come back, and maybe, after a week, they’ve spent a dollar.

By GDC in March of 2010, the thing had exploded. Electronic Arts had just paid a company called PlayFish something like eight trillion dollars, and Playfish had, as far as Call of Duty fans were concerned, never actually done anything except sit around and beg Electronic Arts for eight trillion dollars.

As I attended boring lectures and stone-cold seminars, the reality settled onto the gathered bright-eyed, idea-filled game developers like an ashen snow-blanket: these Zynga guys were making literally a quadrillion dollars a month off trite, shallow, ugly, awful, stupid half-formed pseudo-games. I found myself drawn to sessions in which tasteful, boring people talked about the implications of social games. I wound up with the fanciful idea in my brain that I’d write a New-Yorker-worthy thing about social games and the global financial crisis. It’d be simultaneously clever, stupid, and sad.

A year passed, and GDC whipped right around again. Now I was living in the San Francisco Bay Area — no longer Tokyo — and everyone at GDC was talking about “Gamification”.

You may wonder what “Gamification” is. I will tell you: “Gamification” is a thing that, when mispronounced, might be an uglier word than “blog”.

It’s also what you call some people’s idea that the world would work better — that we’d solve all sorts of high-concept problems (war, hunger, baldness) — if the risk-reward structure of games could be applied to tasks such as clocking into work on time, doing your taxes, emailing a co-worker a timely response, or brushing your teeth. One “gamification” expert goes so far as to say that “reality is broken”, and that only games can “fix” reality. This expert wrote a book which magnificently proves that at least one person on earth has held more conversations with psychologists than grocery baggers. Depending on my mood, I’ll shrug and go either way: half of the time, I’ll agree that reality is broken. Of course it is: why can’t I just be happy all the time? Why do I get hungry? Why do I have to keep going to the bathroom? Why won’t the girl I like just marry me already? I’ve asked her like ninety-two times.

However, I personally believe that games are also broken — games now more closely resemble little league baseball in the 1990s (everyone gets an identical trophy at the end of the season, even if their pitcher never threw a ball across the plate, even if no bat held by any player on their team ever touched a baseball with that bat) than the spartan, terrifying cyber-contests that whipped us into shape way back when (way back when little league baseball was trying to turn us into babies again). If these wannabe reality-repairmen were to adapt modern game design concepts into their would-be world-skin, we’d likely end up with rules where if you manage to avoid stepping on a sidewalk crack for seventy-two hours, you unlock the “Won The Lottery” achievement, and now you have a hundred million dollars. If they were to take their lessons from Super Mario Kart, anyone being fired from seven jobs in a row after working less than a week at each would be awarded a remote controller which could stop any other human’s heart: just point, and click.

(List of games that are not broken: sumo wrestling, Pong.)

You might not be able to tell, with the attitude I present here, that I once found these things incredibly interesting — even for more than an hour. So, there I was, The Worst Journalist in the World, getting involved, again.

I talked with a few experts in this brand-new field long enough to realize that the train was still on the platform, as it were, and that I could get on board and be an expert, myself, in a few easy steps.

So I got on the train. I found a good seat. I sat and read Moby-Dick on my Kindle cover to cover (oh how that expression has become an idiom!) six times, feeling so relatively alone, before we started getting anywhere.

The Useful Statistic:

A year ago, if you talked to anyone about social games, they’d inevitably throw out this popular statistic: if you divide the combined total amount of money yet made by all social games by the combined total number of people who have played any social game even once, you’d see that social games make an average of one dollar and seventy cents per person.

Of course, there are people — like me — who would never spend money on one of those games. That’s actually ninety-five-ish percent of the people.

And then there are the people — statistics show they are middle-aged women — who will gladly spend upward of $10,000 on one game in less than a year.

The average money spent on a social game by The User Who Actually Spends Money is $60. (The field of Users Who Actually Spend Money, of course, which only accounts for 10% of players, also includes the white whales who spend $10,000. This perhaps gives you an idea of the rift.)

We’re not going to talk about either of these sets of two types of people (the white whales and the non-payers or the white whales and the sixty-dollar users). We’re going to talk about the Ghost In The Middle — the person who actually does spend one dollar and seventy cents.

This person, naturally, doesn’t exist in exact dimensions. In reality, he spends either one cent or nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine dollars and ninety-nine cents. Somewhere, in The Social Games Dimension, math is distorted, and the average of those two amounts is one dollar and seventy cents. So we are going to have to approximate, and probably use our imaginations a whole heck of a lot.

What follows is two stories, framed by a larger story. The larger story is that, recently, For Professional Reasons, I decided to play The Sims Social on Facebook — the fruit of Electronic Arts’ astronomical investment in Playfish, announced just before GDC 2010 — for the purposes of drafting a spreadsheet extrapolating all sorts of confusing — and, eventually, terrifying — data from an analysis of its many-tiered game-world economy.

One of the smaller stories is about me — The Worst Journalist In The World, now about as experienced in the field I’m writing about as many of the people I could interview — and my attempt to craft a game economy that brings in a a dollar and seventy-one cents per user. To do this, I committed the journalistic equivalent of filing a missing person’s report with my own name on it, playing every social game I can get my hands on, searching, yearning, for the one that will finally make me break down and pay money. Spoilers: I didn’t find one. (Story over.)

The other smaller story is just a murder mystery. Don’t be sad: it’s only a metaphor. The victim isn’t a real person: it’s just videogames — just our future, just the mask some seek to pull down over reality to make it More Engaging.

We will not, by the time this is over, have a clear idea of who the killer is, or even why he did it. If you want, when you get to the end, you can say it’s me. You wouldn’t be far off. (It’s also you.)

Chapter Two: The Ghost In The Middle

The “average” social game player spends a total of one dollar and seventy cents over the course of his experience with the game.

We established above that no one actually spends a dollar and seventy cents on a social game. That number is just an average. However, as far as averages go, it’s fairly ridiculous: it’s the average of a list of numbers that includes a few five-digit numbers and a sprawling ocean of zeroes.

For one thing: no social game offers you a microtransaction priced at a dollar seventy. Some games — like Tap Zoo for mobile — will offer you a one-dollar package and then a ten dollar package. The Sims Social, which, being a miraculous intersection of all current social gaming trends, we will use as a primary example in this . . . whatever it is, offers a five-dollar package as the minimum microtransaction.

Math is funny, especially when you’re looking at numbers that represent people. People tend to be pretty different from one another. Crazy-different people are what statistics call “outliers”. Outliers skew the averages. In the case of social games, we’re dealing with a couple mammoth outliers and an abundance of zeroes. This creates, in the $1.70 user, the fluffiest of math ghosts.

“Should we let the user play for free?” the smaller man rhetorically asked the older men.

“Of course we should,” the larger man said with an amicable face, standing up, rotating slowly, shining the spotlights of his cheeks over all gathered faces, showing his palms diagonally to the ceiling.

“The question is, how much should we let them play?” the smaller man asked, pointing a pen at the ceiling so nonchalantly no one looked up. He tapped the pen on the table. He clicked his Macbook Pro’s trackpad. The slide changed with a little sideways wipe effect: this is the part in the presentation where he had decided to get fancy.

One of the older guys stopped chewing gum for an instant. It’s only when he stopped chewing the gum that the weight of my annoyance with a man who would chew gum at a business meeting comes fully crashing down on my shoulders: “He’s going to start chewing that gum again.”

If this were a film, this is where the gum-chewing man would ask, “What am I looking at?” I can see that look in his face now, clear as day: It’s true that he probably doesn’t know what he’s looking at. Maybe he gets the basic idea: he’s looking at four large, capital letters.

“We’re living in the FTP age,” the smaller man said.

“That’s free-to-play,” the larger man said, swinging his cufflinks up, then down.

The smaller man cleared his throat. He clicked twice. He narrowed his eyes at the computer screen.

“I remember when FTP stood for something else,” I said, as a sort of joke.

“Wh–”

“Free to play, yes,” the smaller man said, looking back up from his computer screen. “Research shows that players are more likely to play a game that’s free.” He cleared his throat again. Again he double-clicked something.

He’s reading his email during a pitch meeting. It was probably an email from the next person he was going to ask for money.

“And that most people who win the lottery don’t tear their tickets up,” I said.

The small man ignored my comment. He looked up. “Yes. Yes, so what you want to do, is let the player taste every feature of the game in as short a time as possible. We call this the FTUE.”

He pronounced it “Fuh-too-ey”.

He pointed at the slide. The perplexing letters did not yet make sense. With the next click of the smaller man’s Macbook Pro’s trackpad, they did:

 

First Time User Experience

“If you look at Tap Pet Shop or Tap Zoo, you’ll see they’ve got it down to a science. When you start Tap Pet Shop, you have sixty “coins”. You’re on level one. Level-one players can only purchase one pet habitat: a golden retriever pen. It costs twenty coins. The pen comes with one golden retriever. The game points you to it and makes you buy it. Then the game tells you you can buy a companion for the golden retriever. The companion costs twenty coins. Then the game tells you you can make them mate for twenty more coins. You pay the money. Now it tells you the mate will be born in five minutes, or you can spend one “Paw” to have the baby right now. Conveniently, you have one “paw”. Spend it, and the baby is born. This earns you one experience point: surprise: that’s enough to bring you up to level two. The game tells you: ‘You leveled up! Now you can buy more habitats. Also, you earned rewards: here’s a bunch more money.’ It gives you 280 coins. You can buy a ‘cat condo’ or a turtle aquarium for 140 coins each — or you can buy one or the other, plus a companion. The cat condo gets you–uhh–”

“The cat condo will give you 70 coins every thirty minutes,” I say. “And the box turtles will get you 120 coins every sixty minutes. The numbers here are actually highly interesting,” I said, and then looked back to my iPhone 4 screen, and fell into silence.

“That’s absolutely correct,” the larger man said a moment later, snapping his fingers and pointing at me. “Numbers guy, over there.”

“I’m the numbers guy,” I said.

“Numbers guy!”

“Just tell me what you want me to count,” I said, and then decided not to finish the sentence.

“So the game tells the player, with its last message: you’ll get some money from your cats in thirty minutes, or your turtle in sixty minutes, and from your retrievers in five minutes. Then it says, oh, look at this: you can visit your friends’ pet shops. Tap here to see. Now you tap an icon that says ‘visit friend’. A popup tells the player: visiting your friends’ pet shops is fun! This is something you want to do. Now, when you tap, it takes you to this amazingly elaborate pet shop. It’s just equipped to the teeth. It’d cost you–”

“–it’d cost you around six thousand dollars if you wanted that kind of pet shop right away,” I said.

“Six thousand dollars!”

“The average user isn’t going to spend six thousand dollars,” the smaller man said. “They offer multiple real-world currency unit packages, ranging from one dollar to one hundred dollars.”

“Now, the game shows you another tutorial popup, before you can really get a grasp of your surroundings in this elaborate pet shop. It says you can go home to your pet shop. So you press that button. Now it tells you ‘your retriever is ready for collection’.”

“Collection of what?” one of the old men asked. He was looking at the smaller man’s white iPhone 4 screen — it’s Tap Pet Shop. Not much was going on inside that pet shop.

“Collection of money. The animals generate money.”

“With what?” one of the guys said with a little laugh.

“The — customers are constantly bustling about in the store.”

“So they buy the animals?”

“No,” I interject. “It’s all fairly abstract. The mechanics would get far too complicated if the customers in the pet shop could actually buy the animals that are on sale.”

“Huh.”

“The average player — well, the average player whom the game is going to engage — wants to pretend to be a pet shop owner. They don’t want to just be a person who sells animals.”

The would-be investor blinked at my explanation. “How is it a pet shop if you’re not selling the animals?”

“This,” I said, pointing at the ceiling in a way that made everyone’s eyeballs rotate upward for a moment, “is what suffices for escapism in the modern age.” I rammed my finger into the tabletop.

“Our game will use a different metaphor,” the smaller man said, hurriedly.

“So,” the larger man says, his voice cutting through all of ours, “you’re back in your pet shop. There’s a heart floating above the retriever. The game says ‘your retriever is ready for collection! Tap the retriever to collect.’ You tap the receiver.”

“Retriever,” the smaller man said, in a low voice.

“You tap the retriever. The game gives you twenty coins and three experience. Now a final popup tells you: your other animals will be ready for collection soon. Please check back later! And then it kicks you right out of the app. This has all happened in less than one and a half minutes. One minute, if you’re tapping quickly.”

“And this is the important part,” the smaller man said.

“In five minutes, the phone is going to buzz. It’s going to be a push notification. It’s going to say that your retriever is ready for collection again.”

“So you tap and it reopens the app,” the smaller man said. “Your retriever is ready for collection. Your cats and-or turtles are not.”

“Push notifications are, of course, enabled by default,” the larger man said.

“And five minutes — five minutes,” the smaller man said, “is soon enough after installing the game for the player to still have that emotional attachment to ensure that the player comes back.”

“What emotional attachment?” an older person asked.

“Well,” the larger man said, grinning, “the emotional attachment established by enduring the process of seeking out and downloading the app. They don’t know it yet, though they’re hooked from before they download the app.”

“Or, perhaps,” the smaller man said, “they’re open to the idea of being hooked when they decide to type the app’s name in the App Store ‘search’ field.”

“They collect from the retriever, and then, twenty-five minutes later, if they decided to build the ‘cat condo’–”

“–Which is, certainly, what they’d choose–” (me)

“–they’ll get another notification. They’ll open the app. They’ll make their first collection from the cat condo. It’s enough to get them to level 3. They get some more money, enough to build another habitat.”

“And thirty minutes after that,” the smaller man said, “they get notified about the turtle.”

“Now the game tells them they can expand the size of their store.”

“And it costs way more money than they have in the bank now.”

“Here is where the player naturally decides to become a virtual businessman,” I said. “They start doing rough calculations: how many collections of which animals they’ll need to make, how much time that’s going to take, how many times they’ll have to check their phone every hour — or five minutes. At first, it’s all very feasible that they can expand their store within, say, the workday.”

“So — so . . .” the older person washolding two hand-knives out in front of his body, his eyeballs looking down at the iPhone 4 on the table and then back up repeatedly. “Collecting the virtual money from the virtual pets in the pet store whose pet supply does not diminish requires action from the user.”

“Yes,” I said, pointing a finger-pistol at his chest. “It requires the player to take action to collect the money. This is why the player comes back again and again. The game-world does not grow without the player popping in and out.”

“And the mechanics of the game,” the smaller man chimed in, “are so simple — simply touch an animal who is ready to collect in order to collect, touch an animal who is breeding to see how much time remains before the baby is born — that any given ‘pop-in’ lasts a minute at the very most.”

“Continue.”

The larger man cleared his throat and gave a little grin. “When the user finally pays up the cash to expand the store, we tell them that it’s going to take twelve hours.”

“Twelve hours could include time they’re asleep, or busy with other things,” the smaller man says.

“The game tells them they can pay a hundred and twenty paws to hurry.”

“How much is that in dollars?”

“That’s about nine dollars and sixty-eight cents,” I said.

“Will they pay that much?”

“Probably not,” the smaller man said, with no melodrama in his voice.

He clicked his Macbook Pro’s trackpad. The next slide was a graph.

Tap Pet Shop launched as a free app. It made zero dollars for its first three days of availability. On day four, it made $10,000.”

The larger man was still standing up. He put his hands on the table. “If you engage the player for a day, you engage the player for three days.”

“If you engage the player for three days, you will possibly engage the player for a month.”

“If you engage the player for a month, chances are you have engaged the player for three months.”

“If you engage the player for three days — chances are the player will spend a dollar.”

“If you engage the player for a week, twenty-five percent of the time he will spend ten dollars.”

“This is all backed by research.”

A silence. Now the larger man pointed at me. “He’s run all the numbers on our product.”

The older men looked at me.

“I’ve run them all,” I said.

“It’s totally solid,” the larger man said.

“It’s solid like a rock,” I said.

“It’s unsinkable,” the smaller man said.

“It’s an unsinkable rock. An unsinkable, solid rock.”

An older man looked at me.

“And it’s not about a pet shop that doesn’t sell pets?”

“We’re using a different metaphor,” the smaller man said. Then he sniffed: hay fever.

“It’s the same game, though, as this thing?” the older man said.

“Yes,” I said.

“More or less,” the larger man said.

“Except we’re using a different metaphor.”

Silence fell, a bowling ball onto the middle of the meeting table.

The older man cleared his throat, and then: “Let’s see the sales numbers for that pet shop game.”

Chapter Three: Engagement Wheels And Compulsion Traps

(or, “different metaphors”)

Every social game now uses a mechanic called “energy”.

Energy is a devilish, sinister little fantastic idea.

In a game with an “energy” mechanic, you need one energy point per profitable action. When you run out of energy, you can either pay money for more — usually you can fill your meter for two dollars — you can spam your Facebook friends’ walls and mailboxes, begging for more, or you can sit patiently and wait for the meter to recharge.

As research for a game I was developing, I played the latest megalithic social game, The Sims Social, which is the product of Electronic Arts and Playfish dissecting each of Zynga’s sinister success stories and reverse-engineering their own, leaner, deadlier model.

The Sims Social uses “energy” points. However, it also uses a dozen other currencies, all of them directly or indirectly converting into another (if not one another).

I should note that, when I say “currencies”, I’m talking about more than just gold or coins or rupees or any other in-game money unit:

Game design is about crafting a micro-economy. Even in an action game, every action the player or an enemy can perform is a stock or a bond or a unit of currency that can be traded for something else. As the screen scrolls from left to right, Super Mario Bros.’s market fluctuates. One fireball can buy one dead koopa. The points at the top of the screen can’t buy anything. Given enough time and a spreadsheet, I could tell you how many dead Goombas a Bowser fireball is worth.

In Dragon Quest, it’s less obscure. Gold buys weapons. Weapons buy attack power upgrades. Attack power upgrades buy clearance for more attack power upgrades — through allowing the player’s rate of gold acquisition by allowing him to traverse a previously impassable tunnel and access a region of the world with stronger, richer monsters, in the vicinity of a town whose shop sells better weapons. At the end of the day, all you’re doing is buying bigger numbers. Armor is a currency which buys you an extra round of survival in a battle against a particular type of forest imp. Experience points buy you level-ups, which buy you marginally bigger numbers, which buy you time — accelerating the pace at which you approach the benchmark amount of gold needed to buy the next more powerful weapon or armor. In Dragon Quest, you’ll every so often reach a point where you have to decide between being able to survive longer or hit harder. It feels like an important choice, though “harder” is nearly always the right answer. The simple evidence for that is this game is unwinnable if you do not hit something every now and again. (This is algebraically sound.)

What the “energy” mechanic does is limit the player’s time. This is how you know Zynga employed psychiatrists and psychologists and psychomathematicians in the honing of this concept: you give the player only a few moves at a time. The player uses all of these moves. Now he can’t play anymore, unless he:
Pays some money
Begs his friends
Waits

The first of these options leads to the game’s victory. The player has paid something, so the game wins. It takes the money, puts it in its pocket, tells the player his “kidnapped” daughter is already safe at home, and walks away.

The second of these options leads to increased viral exposure of the game. Of course, this is incredibly effective. Remember: the “average” player who spends $1.70 is a Math Ghost. In order for these games to profit, they need to have as many players talking about it as possible. What better — and more brilliant! — way to get players to talk about a game than to make talking about the game a way to earn currency in the game? I’m sure we all know how brilliant a moneymaking idea this is. We can all agree that it’s sinister, though let’s stop for a second and reflect on how amazingly simple it is.

(It used to be, people talked about a game when they enjoyed playing it. The businessmen whose arms may well be huge pairs of tweezers no doubt saw this and took away the information that “People talking about games leads to increased exposure of the game.” They failed to see — or conveniently ignored — that it was because the game was enjoyable, or interesting, that people talked about it. Now, they force you to talk about the game. Does that, then, make the game interesting? I’m not going to delve too deeply into the good things about social games, though I will say, with a sigh, that yes — yes, it does, ultimately, have just about the same effect as the game being interesting.)

The final of these options is the one the psychomathematicians grinned most sinisterly about. The player who does not want to pay or scream must now wait. He can take some actions without expending energy — he can move his furniture around, or what have you — though he can’t do anything in the name of progress.

The player who waits might not be paying because:

He doesn’t like the game
He isn’t sure if he understands the benefits of paying

The player who waits might not be asking his friends for help because:

He doesn’t like the game
He has a sense of common decency

Any time the player decides to wait for his energy meter to refill, he is (subconsciously) selecting two of these four possible reasons. In the case of “He doesn’t like the game” and “He doesn’t like the game”, the game is probably not going to get any of his money.

In the case of “He doesn’t like the game” and “He has a sense of common decency”, this is where magic occurs.

One click in one of these social games will take the user to the Real-World Money-Costing In-Game-Currency-Unit-Buying Shop. Here, the player will see that the game indeed offers him an option for paying $100 for something which is not real: an in-game currency with which to buy things in the game.

At the time he makes the conscious decision to wait for his energy to refill, the player likely already knows that “micro”-transactions exist which have $100 price-tags. Now he learns how much energy costs — usually, it’s nowhere near $100, or even $10.

Do players buy energy? What sorts of players buy energy? The short answer is: actual idiots. The long answer is: people who don’t understand why they have so much real-world money.

In social games, energy doesn’t exist to be bought. It exists as an engagement-regulating filter. The player attaches to it some vague notion of “value”. Backward-like, he comes to associate waiting an hour in the real world before coming back to the game with “working” and “earning” the “value” of the thing the game is giving him for “free”.

This isn’t exactly a truthful impression. The impression the player should take away — and gets confused about — is that in social games, time is a currency. Time is what you use to buy energy. Energy is a currency for purchasing in-game money, and some less-abstract in-game currencies (the premium in-game currency which the player must use real money to purchase) and more-abstract in-game currencies (namely virality and chance) can be used to purchase energy directly.

Energy’s multiple conversion rates into multiple in-game currencies mystify the idea of time as a currency.

The old idiom “time is money” has many meanings, you see.

“Energy” is a money that literally directly represents time.

Social game developers are scrambling knee-over-shoulder over one another, as of late, to implement The Next Energy. Concepts like Social Game Energy Points — much like Viral Marketing, masturbation, and caffeine — are the sort of thing that works for a while, until its flimsy veneer snaps off and the user blinks, and says, “Wait, what?” It’s a compulsion trap.

So here’s what the geniuses at EA and Playfish came up with — and I’m not being snippy when I use the word “geniuses”. They really are geniuses.

The Sims Social features a mechanic coldly entitled “inspiration”. “Inspiration” is a temporary state of euphoria during which your Sim earns 150% the money he usually earns from single-energy-point-costing in-game actions which yield money. “Inspiration” reflects your Sim’s stock on a good day, as it were.

The “Inspired” status is, in bluntest terms, a currency-augmenting state purchased with two currencies. One of the currencies is “time”. The other is the most abstract social-game currency yet devised: “care”.

If virality as a game currency were Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, this is the Mona Lisa.

(Alternate sentence: “If virality as a game currency were some shrewd engineer’s attempt at creating a communication method more vapid than a Christmas card, this is a reinvention of waiting for the cable guy.”)

The player appreciates the world of the game; if the player didn’t hold some small attachment to the world of the game, the player would have quit playing. Both “player” and “game” would henceforth semantically cease to exist.

We talked above about how all of Zynga’s energy-point social games contain not-for-profit actions which can be performed without the expense of energy points. The line in the sand is clear: to get currency (in-game coins), one must use currency (energy, or real-world money) to perform action. If one performs an action which does not require currency, one will not receive currency.

The Sims Social’s “inspiration” is a filter applied before the expense of currency which is then used to perform actions which, bluntly put, purchase a different currency.

Here’s how it works: at the bottom of the screen are five buttons, representing the five Basic Needs of a Sim: Socialization, Hygiene, Food, Toilet, and Fun. These buttons start out a radiant primary green. As time passes, these buttons’ colors slip — in sometimes wildly randomized rates — from this tasty green to a lighter green, to yellow, to orange, to red, and eventually — very eventually — to black. When a need is red or black, the Sim will refuse to do anything except satisfy that need. (Needs become black if the Sim has just stood around not doing anything for a time.)

To satisfy the need, click the button. Click the “Hygiene” icon and your Sim — regardless of the color of the need button — will trot off to the bathroom to either take a shower or wash his or her hands in the sink. Click on “Food” and your Sim will head to the kitchen to either eat from the refrigerator or heat something up in the microwave.

If a need is any color other than primary green, doing a need-satisfying action will cause a bright green happy face icon to pop out of your Sim. Click on it to collect it — or, well, don’t click on it, and after a moment the game will collect it for you. (This is a crucially important element of the game.)

The green happy face is a “mood” item, which increases the “mood” meter, a vertically oriented temperature gauge of sorts with a happy face at the top, located to the left of your “need” buttons.

Getting all of the buttons to primary green will yield a maxxed “mood” meter, a big green happy face, a twinkling sound effect, a sparkly aura around your character, and the shining word “INSPIRED!” above the need buttons. “Earn more Simoleons!” it says, under “inspired”.

Now you click on the nearest thing that you know will earn your money — the microwave, for example. You can earn 20 Simoleons every time you cook nachos. With the “inspired” bonus, you can earn thirty. You have been writing emails and talking on the phone over in The Realspace, so you have a Sims Social energy meter which is near-bursting turgid with fifteen energy points. You click that microwave, and you just start going to town on making those nachos.

Here is where it should be noted that each action — be it a free-of-cost need-satisfying / mood-boosting action or an energy-point-costing currency-earning action — results in a series of cute character animations which play out over an average length of time of ten seconds.

Ten little seconds! In, say, a first-person shooter, much of the math is accidental — inspired by game designer brain-sparks. The game designer is firing a gun, and says, “This should be a little faster.” So we head over to the spreadsheet and look at the numbers. The machinegun fires 18 rounds a second. We pump it up to 19. 19 — a weird little prime number. Somehow, it feels better.

With a social game, you can tell where they’re starting. I have reverse-compiled a game design balance sheet for The Sims Social, and I will tell you all about it, if you’ll read my review on Action Button Dot Net, though for now I’ll only say that where an action game is home to many sixes and nineteens, in social games you find a lot of fives and tens.

Let’s not dwell on what that means (just yet).

It takes ten seconds to perform an action — once your Sim has approached the object he will use to perform the action (toilet, microwave). You’ll need to perform five actions — at least — to max your mood meter. Your Sim might have to walk back and forth across the house five times to perform all those actions. When you boil The Sims Social down to its essence, this is “The Fun Part”: watching Cartoon You (or Cartoon Bill Cosby) walk around inside your happy little home. Sometimes, something breaks before you can use it, and your Sim gets frustrated. You can either fix it (one energy point), or you can use an alternative (instead of the microwave, head to the refrigerator to satisfy hunger).

Once your mood meter is full and you’re inspired, it’s time to make money. Each money-making action takes five seconds. By now, this software product (“game”) has firmly hooked you.

Crucial: you can only queue up five actions at a time. (This is not Starcraft.)

You have fifteen energy points. If you tab away from The Sims Social to check your email during a cycle of five actions, maybe the microwave will break in the middle of your nacho-frenzy. You’ll come back to see only two of five actions were completed: he’s not going to fix the microwave automatically.

Or maybe you’ll plug in and watch ten actions go without a hitch. That’s a hundred seconds of your life evaporated painlessly. Then you’ll plug in the last five actions and tab away. You’ll come back to see you have four energy points left, the microwave is broken, and your inspiration has worn off. Next time, you’ll be more careful.

So here we are, playing video poker in a bar by the highway a decade after the nukes drop and everyone is dead and “money” is just a ghost like anyone else’s dead grandpa.

The idea, here, is that The Sims Social is rife with sticky walls and mental fly-paper, trying to keep you staring at the world until you become so accustomed to its face it’s the same as being in love: you’re staring at your guy making nachos, or writing blog posts, because the game has attached this mammoth importance to making more money, to moving up in the world, to buying new furniture, and here it is giving you a fifty-percent bonus. You’re trapped, whether you’re actively “enjoying” yourself or not. You’re “doing it correctly”, and the game is rewarding you, and it’s easier than pressing the right buttons with the right timing in Rock Band, and all it required was a little sleight-of-brain. You feel good about yourself. You look at this cartoon world long enough, and something of an Inverse Pavlov happens. Your brain begins to know that you are “enjoying” yourself, even if you hate this insipid thing. In spite of a love-shaped hole in the center of your spirit re: this electronic monster, you will not turn away.

The game is a Chinese finger trap of the mind: soon you realize that inspiration is free, which, in economics terms, means that the inflated value of single-energy-point actions when “inspired” is not a “bonus” or a “maximum” value — it’s the baseline; it’s the “minimum”. Once you grasp that your character can be made inspired with a little flick of the game’s mechanics, you’ll never want to do money-earning actions without being inspired — and if you do (and this is the important part!) you’ll feel lazy.

Lazy! Lazy! Stupid! Lazy! (Fat!) Lazy! Stupid! Lazy!

So you’ll need four “newspapers” to “unlock” your “newspaper article” writing skill, which allows you to now use energy points to perform actions which earn money (while “inspired”, of course, so as not to feel lazy); perform those actions on a new skill enough times to earn a one-time skill level upgrade, which earns experience points and a money bonus — and so you realize you are literally (figuratively) living in a spider web. The currency which buys the “newspapers” to unlock your new skill-level-upgrade opportunity is, of course, virality: beg your friends.

Your friends all have newspapers. They have ice cubes and coffee beans and blocks of cheese and turnip seeds and guitar strings and sheet music and turtle-doves as well: they have whatever you need. They have it even if they aren’t playing the game. However, unless you ask them for it, they can’t give it to you. Unless you ask them for it, they don’t Actually Have it. If they are at the point where they need “Muse” items to build a Fucking Bookshelf, and you’re at the exact same point, if you ask them for a “Muse”, they can give you one, even if they don’t have it. You can give them one, too, even if you don’t have it. This is what suffices for escapism: that we have the power to create ephemeral things with concrete value, which can then be bartered for a bookshelf which is fully assembled as opposed to on the floor in a box.

In the future, three months will have passed, and you’ll still be checking in, from time to time, just to send items to your friends — all it takes is a single click in your inbox — and then maybe you’ll see that weeds have grown in your garden, and you’ll spend nine energy points to get rid of all of them, and then maybe by then you’ll have gotten a long- and good-enough look at your old homestead to consider coming back, and maybe spending a little money, this time.

In other words: we play, so that our friends are not miserable. We suffer, so that others might not suffer. We pay money so that we might suffer less.

What gruesome psychomathematiconomist devised this heart-labyrinth? Or: now you know what happens to psychiatrists who are decommissioned because they break the doctor-patient confidentiality rule.

Chapter Four: The Phantom Who Loved Itself

(or)

“To love is to suffer. To avoid suffering, one must not love.”

“call the vet. we’re going to have to put the bed to sleep.” (or: sex earns you three social points. have sex 1,000 times and you can buy a hot tub. have sex 2,000 times and you can buy a fish aquarium.)

The Sims Social is as sharp a computer tool as the blacksmiths in Silicon Valley have yet forged. It’s not a Tamagotchi — it’s a mini-us (or a mini-otherperson). That’s always been the appeal of The Sims: look at the little people inside the screen, there. Now it’s been skin-grafted onto Facebook’s thigh, where it coddles our narcissism — we all have narcissism (it’s all over us like bacteria) — and massages our brains.

The Sims Social is a game about sitting around in your house, playing the computer. The Sims Social is “The Life and Times of Everybody Tweezerhands”.

I’ve had a good think about it — and about The Modern Culture, and of the Global Financial Crisis, and I realize it’s all the same thing. It’s all one big bloody, messy thing. I’ve got my hands in it up to the elbows. I’ve got my forearms in it. I’ve got my forearms in it, and it’s paying my rent.

When I think of trying to conclude this essay, all I can remember is The Smaller Man and The Larger Man. They’re Stanford men; they wear suits well. They’re several years younger than I am. They look several years older than I am. They’re the swim-team-captain-looking sort of strait-laced white-teethed all-American Caucasians who will someday make a real woman genuinely happy, who send their mothers flowers on Mother’s Day. Even if I hadn’t seen their Facebook pages and knew what I was about to say was a fact, I’d theorize that they probably have photos on their Facebook pages of themselves in Nigeria or Namibia or Kenya or some other African country whose name instantly screams “Africa” to the modern know-something world-citizen. These country names scream “Africa”, and “Africa” screams “poverty” and “poverty” screams “adventure”. Here’s this guy, playing Modern Day Indiana Jones, his shirt off, a bandanna on his head, a grinning child with a rice bowl at a wooden table, cracked earth behind him. Here’s another photo: he’s lending a hand in building a house, one of those unmistakably “African” trees, all bent and ghosty, popping up out of the crackled reddish earth behind him. He’s got a not-clean towel wedged in the back of his shorts; his bare torso is gleaming with sweat, his tan the color of a roast turkey. His mouth-shape is halfway between joy and irritation — he’s maybe three mood-drops from “inspired”. Get to know him for real, and you’ll see that he was there for a week. Here I am, not building any houses for anybody, at my office in a loft in a sparkling old warehouse — a hipster hovel somewhere near Pixar, in Oakland, California — masterminding two virtual clinical trials for electronic drugs.

The Modern Day Indiana Jones is shrewd, and can go the distance in a pitch meeting. Apparently Zynga has a “bible” of game concepts that will grab inhumane amounts of money, which they will pump into games of increasing complexity. Like Nintendo with the DS, Zynga is inviting a new audience. They are “teaching” a game-ignorant demographic how to play games, by starting with flat-as-a-board exercises (Farmville) in possibly-endless repetition of the most minute game actions (collecting things, numbers going up). Their games grow increasingly labyrinthine (Frontierville, Cityville), introducing game-genre tropes which are “monetized” effectively. Eventually, they have a game that plays something like a real game — Adventure World — and the micro-transactions are waning. Zynga may yet prove to be a not-evil enterprise. However, if we can calculate a man’s height from his footprint in the sand, we can predict that Zynga has already done evil by perpetuating flimsy game models which are mere sugar-coating for a bitter pill of “Show Us The Money”. The modern videogame development is a mathematician’s paradise, where getting the customers addicted is as easy now as downloading pirated music in 1997. As the weapons in the war on the customer’s credit card get sharper (The Sims Social), how can we not say that we might be headed for a crash? When will Fox News step in and proclaim these videogames as monstrously addictive twisted electro-creatures?

An ex-drug-dealer (now a video game industry powerbrain) once told me that he doesn’t understand why people buy heroin. The heroin peddler isn’t even doing heroin. Like him or not, when you hear Cliff Bleszinski talk about Gears of War, he sounds — in a good way — like a weed dealer. He sounds like he endorses what he is selling. When you’re in a room with social games guys, the “I never touch the stuff” attitude is so thick you’ll need a box cutter to breathe properly.

Is it possible to sell a social game the way a weed dealer sells weed? I say, at the end of the day, any game we play which inspires us to talk about it is a “social” game. Like it or not, even alone, we represent a “part of society”. Everything we do is “social”. Just as speaking of “monetization” indicates that you are putting up the illusion of “free” and devising ways the player will pay anyway, calling an activity a “social” activity is a shining clue that all you’re really trying to do is make money with it. You’d figure that would scare away your audience.

One of my favorite stories from the 1,001 Nights is of the fisherman who finds a corked bottle in his fishing net. Maybe that’s not entirely clear — there are literally a hundred variations on this story within the Nights. The one I’m talking about is where the man uncorks the bottle and the genie threatens to kill him.

The genie was trapped in that bottle for 1,800 years. For the first hundred years, he swore he would grant a wish to whoever freed him. For the next hundred, he swore to God he would grant two wishes. A hundred years later, he was praying to God every day, promising he would grant three wishes. A hundred years later — and for fifteen-hundred long years — every day he cursed God through his teeth and promised he would kill whoever freed him.

The lowly fisherman, with a sudden spark of shrewdness, convinces the genie that it would be proper to not kill an innocent man without answering a simple question. The genie obliges: the question is this: how did the genie fit in the bottle? The answer is that he can bend space and time readily; the fisherman asks for a demonstration. The genie returns to the bottle. The fisherman corks it.

Now the genie begs and pleads. He offers ten wishes, a hundred wishes. The fisherman says he does not trust the genie. The fisherman promises he will throw the bottle back into the water. Then he will erect a fence around the lake. He will warn all fishermen about the genie. He will put up signs saying not to trust the genie in the bottle at the bottom of this lake.

The genie begs and pleads. He prays to God. The fisherman does not listen. He urges the fisherman to tell the whole story. He says that he should let other fisherman judge for themselves whether they should believe that the genie is purely evil. The genie implores the fisherman to tell others how he begged, and of the wondrous offers he made, because only now has he truly repented. The fisherman sees this final wheedle as another sinister plot — as the most perverse type of subversion. He tells the genie he will in fact tell the whole story, including the part about his own suspicion that these final words of the genie are just yet another sinister plot. He casts the bottle back into the lake and does exactly as he said he would do.

We never find out what happens to the bottle. We don’t have to: it’s an idea buried in the collective subconscious, that somewhere there is a magical evil that, possessive of whimsy, depending on its mood may in an act of defiant kindness elect to give one person great power.

The 1,001 Arabian Nights are a kind of Russian stacking doll — stories inside stories inside stories outside of other stories, all surrounded by one big story — and so are their themes. Finally, The 1,001 Arabian Nights are surrounded by the real world — the world which has created the story of a girl telling stories about people telling stories. The genie in the bottle at the bottom of the lake is, in fact, a metaphor for the person (maybe us) who would find that bottle and, heeding the warnings, knowing the legend, set the genie free. What wishes will they make? Will they wish for world peace, or for endless wealth with which to buy influence with which to assemble an army with which to smite their enemies?

People are dying as we play Farmville and update Twitter — and not just in Africa or Cambodia. They are dying everywhere, and they don’t feel very good at all about it. The world is the size of a phone booth, thanks to technology. One man’s cancer cure is another man’s Sims Social airtight engagement wheel.

Here’s the ending of this piece:

The other day, a friend sat across from me at a Chinese restaurant in downtown Oakland, California. He said there’s this girl he likes. He met her on the internet. They’re Facebook friends and they follow each other on Twitter. They’ve hung out twice or thrice a week for a month.

He reminds me that he is not the “type of person” to “actually like” someone. He has never wanted a “girlfriend”. He asks me my opinion as a metaphorically-knife-wielding game-mathematician.

“What should I do?”

“Just text her right now. Ask, ‘Hey, do you want to be my girlfriend?’”

He groans. “I already know she does.”

“Make a move, then.”

“The opportunity never presents itself.”

He tells me that they hang out at shows, or with People She Knows or People He Knows, at bars. He says that, half the time, he thinks he knows what she’s thinking, and that half the time, he thinks he doesn’t know what she’s thinking.

“We have little psychic duels,” he says. “We see how long we can go without texting each other. We’ll text each other back and forth for like an hour–”

“–yeah, I noticed,” I say.

“Yeah, we’ll just keep texting back and forth. And it’s like — a duel to see who doesn’t get the last word. The last word means we’re more interested in actively pursuing the conversation, which means we like the other person more, which means we’re losing. I was thinking about it, and I was thinking about that thing you were talking about — that game you were working on — and I think maybe it’s the same thing.”

“It’s similar,” I say.

I thought about the girl who had recently sent me a message on OKCupid.com. Yes, I have an OKCupid.com profile. These days, that’s at least as normal as being on Facebook or Twitter. Okay — maybe not. Maybe it’s about as normal as playing “Words With Friends”. Some girl messaged me. She said I seemed hilarious. She said she really liked my sense of humor. I wasn’t attracted to her in the least. She asked if I had a blog, and I showed her my blog. She asked if I had a Facebook, and I showed her my Facebook.

On Facebook, I happen to be listed as “In a domestic partnership” with a wonderful lady who lives in Australia — about as far around the world as you can get before you’re on your way back. This girl friended me on Facebook and immediately sent me a message. “You didn’t say on your OKCupid profile that you live with your girlfriend.” I said, “That’s a joke.” She said, “Then change it.” I said, “No; it’s funny.” She said, “I’m not sure I want to talk with you if you’re not willing to change it.” I said, “First of all, graphically, thou art a beast. Second of all, how you gonna go making demands on someone you just e-met thirty seconds ago.”

Back in the present, I let out a “Hmm”.

“So you and this girl are both mentally tough people who know what you want, more or less, and you each respect the other enough to not want the other to respect you less than you respect them.”

“Yeah.”

“It’s ‘mind games’, eh?” I say. “Most girls’ profiles on OKCupid.com say to ‘message me if’ ‘you don’t play games’. Sometimes, I want to message, asking ‘do you mean mind games, or videogames?’ Because I think I hate both equally, and play both about as often, though always by accident.”

“Huh. And the other thing — once The Last Word has happened, and there’s Radio Silence for a while, usually it’s the person who didn’t get the last word’s responsibility to text next, usually giving an excuse — though never leaning on the excuse. ‘I just had to drive all the way to–’ wherever.”

“Who most often gets the last word?”

“Usually it’s her. Sometimes it’s me.”

“So it’s usually you who reboots the conversation?”

“No — no, actually. Usually it’s her.”

I thought it over. I finished my vegetables — every last one of them (completion bonus). I gulped some water.

“The next time she texts after a conversation has lapsed with her getting the last word,” I say, “text her back immediately — if you see the text as it arrives.”

“That’s usually what I do.”

“Well, here’s what I mean: no matter what time of day or night it is, text her back immediately with ‘Do you want to hang out right now?’”

My friend is silent for thirty seconds.

“Huh,” he finally says. He is silent again. “Huh.”

He’s silent for a minute.

“Huh. Man. You’re, like . . . fuckin’ . . . Sherlock Holmes, over here.”

“Yes,” I say. “Yes I am.” Yes I am Sherlock Holmes.

 

who killed videogames?

To put it most bluntly — and this is only a theory — videogames killed videogames. As is often the case with this kind of senseless cold-blooded murder, the finger on the trigger belonged to a videogame-psychosis born of the worst qualities of game design. They are the qualities most ready to be studied: that players like (maybe-)you or me can’t progress to the next dungeon in The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past unless we’re going in with 999 rupees; if we don’t have 999 rupees, we are going to go to the nearest cluster of bushes and hack them down until we do. When a psychiatrist looks at videogames, he’s not going to appreciate the fineness of the sprite art; he’s going to find the elements that get stuck in the brain. We’re all Stockholm-syndromed, halfway in love with videogames; we grew up learning that videogames were awesome, and the makers of the most awesome of all games grew old constantly trying to “recapture” the “roots” of their former glory. The thing is one thing can affect a million people a billion different ways. You can’t trace glory back to one root. So through sequels and remakes and demakes and remakuels demakuels and reboots and rebooquels, time and again, the makers of games presume that each element of a thing is some different someone’s favorite part of that thing. The hardcore gamers, in their fondest appreciation, have left clues littered here and everywhere, pointing even the most uninitiated toward the universal facets of electronic games that most directly touch our brains — that here are things whose chief criticism is that they are “repetitive” and “anti-social” gives the clever people the idea to remedy one thing while amplifying the other. Some clever people picked up the trail . . . and a few years later, here we are, each of us a different kleptomaniac in a different candy shop. God help us; Shigeru Miyamoto help us all.

Epilogue: Some Maybe-Interesting Screenshots i Took Of The Sims Social

just two seconds into the game and the abstract quality of this supposed escapism has ravished me: as in real life, i sit here, writing “simple emails” in my underwear on a computer sitting atop an ikea table, an acoustic guitar behind my office chair, money all over my odd-colored carpet.

my room in reality. the mess on the carpet is what happens every time i click “reply”, type “no, fuck YOU”, and then click “send”.

all i had to do was write seventeen or so “simple emails” by clicking a computer and selecting “simple email”! the last time i tried to share the news with the world about how i had reached skill level one on writing, someone emailed asking why i didn’t have cancer yet.

this big neat gems appear in your yard from time to time. they look cooler than weeds, so i’m tempted to let them stay where they are. though when you smash them, you get social-points-money, which is pretty darn valuable. they’re about as valuable in the game world as the visual presentation of these rocks is valuable (eye-candy) in the real world. well! whatever!

i sent brandon a dunkin’ donuts coffee boost . . . and he never used it. if he had, he would have found that it satisfies his sims social sim’s “sleep” need instantly! which is something he could also accomplish by clicking on his sims social bed and selecting “nap”. you know what i always say: “taking a nap is the cup of coffee that doesn’t lie to you”. the sims social runs on dunkin’, and brandon sheffield does not.

as in my real-life bathroom, there are no shelves on which to put things. i imagine my sim keeps his toothbrush and tootpaste on the back of the sink.

practicing guitar scales = “composing” in the world of the sims social — and in the world of metal bands that break up before high school graduation.

here, to build a bookshelf, i could either ask my friends for “muse”, i could perform music or art actions (one energy point each) for a one in four chance of collecting a muse, or i could pay for it. the music action route is quick enough: you get 15 free energy points per hour, so you’d have twenty muse in around six hours. the simcash cost is 3 per muse. at a rate of a maximum nine simcash to the dollar, that’s $6.67 for an imaginary bookshelf. you could get a real one for that much on craigslist!

in the depraved world of the sims social, it’s polite to not look at someone when you’re in their house and they’re playing the guitar!

note that 1: my guy is wearing a crew-neck t-shirt. the game does not offer v-necks. 2: there is a “skirts” tab, though no skirt choices for men. 3: he’s touching himself. 4: the “PLAY NOW!” button is enticing. they don’t tell you that if you touch that button, you are locked into all your choices. this is how a million men accidentally made themselves women. the playfish forums were aflame about it: “i don’t want to be a woman”, they all said. lol @ them. they think they can hide that they wanted to play around with putting dresses on cartoon characters.

click the guitar to interact with it! of course, this requires that the entire screen aside from the guitar be darkened in order for the player to, once the tutorial is complete, remember what a guitar looks like.

here we glimpse the whale breeching: “you got some experience points” it says. (“(XP)” it explains, immediately initiating you to game-jargon.) “i got them!” you think. “yay! ‘got’ means means they’re mine!” no, it’s not yours yet: “click the XP star to collect it”, it says, using the jargon it has just initiated you to, denoting that it is a “star”, whereas before it was just “experience points”, putting the whole sentence in green text. “get” and “collect” are not the same thing in this game. bonus tip: if you don’t “collect” the experience points (by clicking them), the game will just give them to you anyway.

again, just as i do in real life (every day), i am inspired, and i am digging through my own garbage for food while there are perfectly good strawberries (so good that god himself has given them a check mark) growing right next to my mail.

do i actually need a caption for this one? uhh. my sim is sitting on the toilet. he is grinning. a mosaic obscures his genitals. whatever he is doing, he’s smiling about it. who is the ghost cleaning the sink? is she real? is he imagining her? if he is imagining a girl cleaning his sink while sitting on the toilet and doing something scandalous with his genitals — well. alert the republicans.

i sure know how to grow a strawberry! note the game’s constant insistence on “sharing”. for the longest time i didn’t want to “share” because i thought that would halve my reward. well, it doesn’t! sharing multiplies it by a theoretical infinity. of course, only 30 of those theoretically infinite simoleons can ever be mine.

my house around when i quit playing — it’s pretty pimp. note there are two of me! one is a glitch. can you guess which one?

this is my brother stabo’s house. i think it’s the best sims social house i’ve seen by far.

this is my brother american “alice” mcgee’s house. i went in one day to try to talk to him, and suddenly his sim and mine are enemies. i bet he likes that :-/ note that i am talking about television and he is talking about a bucket. also note the DooM-worthy level design.

this is my house today. i think it’s The Best Sims Social House i have seen! that’s just my opinion, i guess. well, there it is. notice i have no television. what would i need a television for? playing videogames? notice also that, though i was trying to save up 6,000 social points to buy a fish aquarium in time for this article, i didn’t quite make it in time.

note that will wright has added the sims social. i wonder if he plays it? i bet EA gave him like a million free simcash so he can just build whatever he wants. i hope his house looks like stabo’s. i’ll never know, because he won’t accept my neighbor request. doesn’t he realize that he gets social points every time someone visits his house? he has like 5,000 facebook friends. and most of those are the type of people who would play the sims social (reason: they friended will wright on facebook without actually knowing him.) if he accepted all those neighbor requests from people he doesn’t know, he would be rolling in money!

i made my dream girl: she is a black-haired introvert who wears knee-high stockings and running shoes and big black glasses with a stripey shirt while reading a book indoors on what looks to be a perfectly fine day. also, she has that kind of antique, fluffy, gorgeous name reserved for only the hippest cantonese girls.

hey! that’s why i wrote this article! now where’s my money :-/

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