Apologies to Fry and Laurie for the title.
So Facebook's user satisfaction rates are terrible yet it's still growing. And nobody likes social games or the companies that run them, but they're raking in the dough. At this point I might make a parallel to many trends in urban development, but it would take a lot of words to do that topic justice, so I'll keep to the point (after noting that, in this survey, airlines and cable TV providers rank at about the same level as Facebook and each continue to move lots of product, probably for very different reasons). You may recall that I quit Facebook recently and even wrote a letter about it. But although leaving Facebook very clearly felt right to me, I don't think my letter really outlined a great case against Facebook. To be honest, I never have had a case against Facebook that was suited to that kind of exposition.
Ian Bogost, on the other hand, made the case right with Cow Clicker: a work of art that brings social gaming into the light, and sheds a bit on social networking as well. His four big points against social games are enframing, compulsion, optionalism, and destroyed time, with some specific discussions about all of these.
Enframing comes from Heidegger, and I've struggled with Heidegger in the past. It's always hard for me to figure just where “enframing” happens. There have long been people that used their social and professional networks mostly as a resource for personal gain. In fact, you could probably find a lot of people that don't even find that the least bit sinister. But Facebook has really made it systematic. South Park's You Have 0 Friends includes a bit where Cartman does a Mad Money spoof on social networks that correlates with this idea. Before there was Twitter, I tweeted in my away messages. Before there was Facebook I collected my friends into the “Bloody Revolution” (the first to join was Andy U. and the last was Jessica; Joe ended it with five words) and sent lots of mass, random emails (I never did recover Episode 3a). I still have copies of all this stuff (except Episode 3a), from the letter I wrote to the DI about pressure to exaggerate to prospective employers (it didn't get published; for some reason I signed it as a Junior in Engineering but with my address from Sophomore year... suspicious...) to the secret blog I kept on my University webspace in the vain hope that someone would run a directory listing and get curious. Facebook doesn't do anything more than all this stupid stuff I used to do, but it somehow does it in a different way, changes the whole nature of it. Not least because Facebook makes money at every turn. Sort of like a hedge fund. Sign a petition to save a tree or break up with your boyfriend, it's all water rolling into the dam for Facebook.
By the way, quote from my secret blog, 15 February 2003: “but it's like i said. i base my self-worth on 3 things: my aim profile, other people's opinion of my taste in music, and being better than my peers.”
Moving on. As far as compulsion goes, again, we've all had compulsions before social networking. Any successful game creates some compulsion in its users to spend time unproductively by playing it. I think of Perl Golf and other programming challenges. They're artificially constructed problems for programmers to solve when there are plenty of real programming problems to solve out in the world. But sometimes at work I randomly think of a possible improvement to my solution and email myself a quick note so as not to waste work time on it. I'm drawn to it as an interesting problem. Bogost claims that social gaming exploits our compulsions, but I think all successful games do that. Social games do so perhaps more effectively, or in a more systematic way at least, but I think that has more to do with enframing than that they've created a different kind of compulsion. As the fourth point, Time Destruction, depends on the second, I think the same holds. To whatever extent social games as a different kind of time-waste than other kinds, it has to do with their enframing of social networks more than anything else.
As for the third point, optionalism, there's an interesting question. Is it that gameplay is so weak as to optional, or is it that something like Farmville is more of a creative space than a game space? Like The Sims or Mario Paint? As a creative space it doesn't allow much expression, but there's precedent for this sort of thing in real-life social settings. Karaoke comes to mind. You sing someone else's song, usually some meaningless top-40 drivel (although my cousin Ryan likes to do What's so Funny 'Bout Peace Love and Understanding, which is awesome), you sing it badly, you wave at your friends, your friends clap, you buy another beer. Farmville is more shallow than that, to be sure. But it's not all that much more shallow.
So to me Bogost's argument really falls to the Heidegger-based idea that social games are different from games that have come before because they enframe our social networks. As social games have laid bare the empty time-waste that games can be it's important for more traditional game designers to come up with an ethical framework that lets them differentiate themseleves, stay out of the muck. It's clear that enframing, that manipulating, social networks makes the compulsive pull of social games stronger. But as a consumer, not a producer, I don't have any interest in differentiating between social and non-social games. I just have an interest in my own time. If I waste time in a traditional game it's no different than if I waste time in a social game. The social game just might be harder to quit.