Who killed videogames? Beautifully written account of behavioral economics and social games

Tim Rogers's essay "Who killed videogames? (a ghost story)" is one of the most interesting pieces of technology reporting I've ever read. It's a long (long!) account of the mechanics of "social games" where psychomathematicians or behavioral economists or engagement designers (all variations on the same theme) create systems to make games compelling without being enjoyable. The sinister science of addictive game design is practiced -- in Rogers's account -- by people who don't like games or gamers, who actually hold them in contempt, and see no reason not to entrap them in awful, life-sucking systems designed to separate them from their money without giving any pleasure or service in return. I've always suspected this to be true, and Rogers's account is awfully well-written and convincing:

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.

As Alice notes, this is long, but the epilog is the best part, and it loses its impact if you haven't read the rest. Keep reading.

(via Wonderland)


  1. See, this is why I never wanted to play those Zynga games. My first interaction with them was people spamming my news feed begging for game crap, and I reacted the same way I react to MLM schemes. “Whatever this is, it’s made you pushy and annoying. I don’t want to become that. And everything you say about how great it is just sounds increasingly desperate.”

    Then I found out from talking to people what was actually involved in these games, and my reaction was “Dude, I already have a job. I already have a thing where I have to jump through boring hoops to earn money. I already have a thing that ties me to a certain schedule. I already have a thing that I can’t play hooky from, even if I really feel like doing something else. How is that a fun game?”

    Then I found out that people actually spend real money to jump through fewer hoops to earn fake money. And I just goggled.

    If you actually read “Reality is Broken,” which talks about what makes fun games fun, and compare to these games — a lot of things become clear.

    1. Try EVE Online.  That game is 10% spreadsheets and 90% waiting to get where you’re going, and you can’t pay to accelerate it.  You need to pay even just to sit there and wait.

  2. AWESOME articles.

    Don’t miss his other article, his review of The Sims Social: 


    Who was it that stood up at GDC and yelled out, This is a War, and you’re either on the side of real games that are meant to be fun and are intrinsically enjoyable, or you’re on the dark side — bullshit social engineering games that motivate you with extrinsic factors tto keep playing.

  3. Not to be over critical of the article, but it seems aimed squarely at a specific type of game.  Games that are typically designed for the casual gamer (say people who don’t own a 360 or PS3 or play PC games.)  In those respects it’s spot on.  But what is more frightening is the fact these same metrics and “upgrades” are being applied to more and more games.  Where once you were forced to grind away in a game to get enough money for the best weapons, or at least get far enough in the game to get them, now you can just purchase them with real money.

    In some ways game design like this makes having unbiased game reviews even more important.  Sometimes the big studios get it right, sometimes not.  And sometimes an indie company that just likes good games builds a stellar one that you might not ever hear about.  Video games aren’t dead, the definition has just been greatly expanded.

    1. Games that are typically designed for the casual gamer (say people who don’t own a 360 or PS3 or play PC games.)

      This is only sort of true. These games are designed for the casual gamer, yes, but they are not the only kind of casual game. Compare, for example, Angry Birds or Words with Friends. Both very casual games, both played by a ton of people who don’t own a game console or play PC games — but both truly fun games that aren’t trying to manipulate you.

      On another topic in your comment — I never liked games where I had to grind for anything. Unlocking
      achievements by getting farther in the game is fine, as long as the
      process of getting farther is itself enjoyable. Unlocking new songs in
      Rock Band by playing it with my friends often enough that we nail a
      bunch of stuff on Expert? Awesome. Chugging through umpteen low-level
      monsters to get enough gold to go on a quest? How about no.  I play
      games to escape tedium, not recreate it. The interesting parts aren’t
      any more interesting when I have to slog through a bunch of boring
      repetitive crap first.

      So games that say “Hey, you can skip the boring repetitive crap by paying us some money!” make me just wonder, why did you even put the boring crap in there in the first place? I think I’ll go play a game where I don’t have to pay extra to avoid bad game design.

  4. I can’t read this; the font is too flimsy to be used white on black. It would be better a higher font sizes but the paragraphs are rigid; it you zoom the page they become wider than your screen and you have to scroll horizontally. On Firefox I could sidestep design fuckups like this by disabling CSS but we’ve switched to Chrome and Chrome doesn’t let me do that.

    I know the true solution to this class of problems is politically unfeasible at the moment, but can we please please leave white-on-black to Myspace anyway? Can we please please please please stop linking to sites with this kind of shit design? If everybody just stopped linking to that sort of pathetic emo angst wank it would go away very quickly.

    1. Yes, yes!!! If I had been in that audience I would have given her a standing ovation!

      Games didn’t kill games. Games are well and thriving, and enjoying (in my opinion) a really big boom at the moment, especially on the social gaming side. At least in my country new indie game companies are popping up like crazy!

      Sure there is Zynga, sure there might be some others that do the same thing. But mostly people are in the busines because They. Love. Games! If you don’t love games and making games you are in the wrong business. I’ve only been working on two games in two indie companies, but every single guy and gal were there because they love games, and that is the reason we were making games. Not money, not fame, but for the love of games. And it is because of this I applaud the speach from Brenda Brathwaite. The guys who are doing what the article is talking about… they are not one of us!

  5. “these Zynga guys were making literally a quadrillion dollars a month”.

    I’ve LITERALLY just laughed my head off. BANG.

    1. “these Zynga guys were making literally a quadrillion dollars a month”.

      I’ve LITERALLY just laughed my head off. BANG.

      That was the figurative sense of literally.

  6. I can’t imagine ever playing these “social games”.  Of course I have played video games pretty much since they existed.  (I played Pong at an arcade for instance.)  So I get I’m not the target for these games.  And just because “big bucks” can be made by designers that decide to do these (soul killing in my opinion :) ) games, it doesn’t mean it’s killing other gaming.

    One reason I really prefer PC gaming is there can still be great independent games both small budget/ no-budget games like Minecraft and larger budget but still “indie” games.  Games like Galactic Civilizations, Sins of a Solar Empire, and Sword of the Stars to name a few I like.

    And of course  there is always the elephant in the room: WoW.  I don’t think Blizzard is hurting for cash.  Sure they are trying to integrate more with Facebook, but the core game is still there as an MMO. 

    So while it’s interesting to see just what these social gaming designers are doing since I’m interested in game design in general (even if it’s not a game type I would ever play), I’m not really worried for more traditional video games.

  7. Ugh. A good friend of mine, a highly talented programmer, was just offered 150k a year + loads of benefits to work at Zynga. Even though he hates his current job, and is making half that…after taking a tour of the Zynga offices, and the stultifyingly creepy feel around the whole place…he just had to turn them down. 

    His dream is to make games, not soul sucking money drawing shitstains.

    1. Nobody I know got into the video game business to make social games. Nobody I know who makes social games plays social games. However, most of them work at Zynga.

  8. You know, I used to play MUDs back in middle school, in the early 90s. Basically the first MMORPGs, the text based precursors to WoW. And the MUD I played, dark castle…yeah, you could totally buy your way into it. For about..$250 I think, you could buy a complete set of weapons and armor which was far and away the best in the game and wasn’t risked when you died.

    But it was OK, because the game underneath it was fun as hell. Free-wheeling, involving, dynamic, anarchic, imaginative, able to simultaneously host 1000s of players back in the early 90s…to this day, I can credit learning both how to type 80WPM and how to find my way around a Unix shell to playing that game. The game didn’t play itself, the story didn’t unfold for you…you really had to put time, effort, and risk to explore and get the most out of the game.

    Modern games do everything for you; they have worked to minimize the cost in terms of time and investment to get going. It makes them easier to play, easy enough for anybody..but crushed whatever value and learning they might provide.

    I have read that Blizzard/WoW has a team of PhD addiction psychologists on staff. Scary stuff.

    1. I remember MUD1 even. :)

      Both MUDs and even the old text based adventure single player games were great fun.

      Although I don’t play them anymore, MUDs are still around. So even they haven’t been killed off by all the new money making stuff.

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

    Pong is the only non-broken game: http://edition.cnn.com/2011/SPORT/02/03/sumo.japan.fix.hanaregoma/index.html

  10. 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.

  11. Wow one of the best articles I’ve read in a while! Seeing the monetization creeping into console games I can tell Zynga is just the tip of a big evil iceberg on the horizon.

  12. And this article is another example of why I slog through so much crap on the internet.

    Now, for extra gold coins, cross-reference this with that tedx talk CD gave about protecting children in social media environments where their personal information is used as currency.

  13. Hmm, I’m getting a little tired of these confessional, inside-man, “sorry we wrecked the world” articles from journalism students who went to the dark side, made a bunch of money ripping people off, and felt bad enough about it to apologise, but not bad enough to give the money back.
    “Well sure, I signed up mentally ill pensioners to unsustainable mortgages, but unlike all those other nasty guys in the office, I’ve studied enough sociology to know it was wrong!”

    And of course the punchline is that we’re all monsters!  Well, how could I hate on the guy who spent the last ten years throwing up ten-thousand-dollar champagne into a gold toilet bowl when, with my dark desire to work nine-to-five in exchange for money, I was participating in the very same economic system he subverted?

    1. hey, man, i just checked, and i am Definitely Not Rich, over here.

      i have spent a decade honing my skills as a designer of levels in 3D shooting games. i enjoy — and i would like to think i’m good at — designing experiences and honing fun little frictions of action games. i can’t help it that every group of well-intentioned people i end up working with ends up realizing that these dumb games are worth More Right-Now Money than their more ambitious, action-packed products, and then asks me to apply my minute attention to detail to scrubbing some numbers into a spreadsheet and making sure the system is broken in favor of the house and not the player. 

      actually, maybe i can help it — maybe i could just quit. lord knows i’ve been trying to do that. 

      my article was a bit hyperbolic and over-the-top and born of a groaning frustration, and i’ll admit that it’s more about social networks in general than just facebook games. sorry if it rubbed you the wrong way!

      however! you have assumed a lot of things in this post — for example, that i both drink alcohol AND binge-drink alcohol. in fact, i don’t drink alcohol! i am deathly allergic. i have never tasted a single sip. and i don’t have a gold toilet — i don’t even own a bicycle. 

      so. . . . yeah!

      maybe my frustration is that i am not the founder of any of these companies i work for — i’m not even getting a %. i’m just some jerk charging a flat rate for some number-tweaking.

      1. Ok, my comment was more about the recent string of stock traders and mortgage brokers who show up in Rolling Stone to tell us all about how they ripped us off, but in a really clever way that’s fascinating to read about and expect forgiveness because they have trouble sleeping at night.  I’m sorry for giving you the same level of vitriol I direct at them.

        But you know, you have a choice whether you make things better or worse, and I don’t think that being the “good vampire” who feels remorse means you’re doing the right thing.

        What did rub me the wrong way is the final paragraph, where aren’t we all a little bit guilty?  Wouldn’t you have done the same thing?  It’s the same line that you get from the subprime bandits, and I don’t buy it. You can’t just say “I blame society” when society gets conned.

        You’re a smart guy and a great writer, but I can’t praise you for making something so rotten sound so enticing.

      2. I think the fact that you aren’t getting a percentage is a big deal, and you should be frustrated. Do you even get performance bonuses? I can’t think of any other industry where someone could directly make a client so much money and not be rewarded for results. (LOL Can you tell I’m a fellow monetization designer?) 

  14. Yesterday shilling for glitch.

    Today posting the best criticism of the entire genre that I have ever read.

    You puzzle me, Cory.

  15. The striking thing about Glitch is that it doesn’t follow the model at all… you have different types of currency (energy, mood, time, favor, credits, votes and tokens), of course, but the place where real money (credits, votes and tokens) intersects with the game is in avatar customization, the ability to teleport a little more and a say in the direction of future game development. All the gameplay elements, like skill learning or producing drinks or building streets are unaffected by the influx of real money. Although I would be amused if people started hiring gold farmers to dig holes and nibble on pigs.

  16. Tim Rogers is a pretentious hack. I’m disappointed that anything of his has been considered “good” – he can ramble on for ages and have still not said anything of substance.

  17. Here’s the first problem: This is not the first person to make this argument. Nor have they made it succinctly or in a novel fashion. Anyone who follows games knows that Zynga actively uses psychological manipulation to motivate its players. It has a entire team of game architects whose job it is to make the games more addicting. This is all very old news.

    Here’s the second problem: Folks that criticize these games and the folks that play that fail to recognize that the games are more like digital collectibles a la stamp collecting or birdwatching. They are hobbies that involve shared social experience of building a personal library of stuff that is for most purposes useless. The psychological rewards of this experience can be great, but that’s no reason to denigrate all games or to suggest that the gaming industry is going down the tubes. If anything today’s gaming industry is better than ever before and publishes more items of quality than almost any other artistic or entertainment industry. This fall we’ll get more than a dozen top tier games for the PS3 and XBOX 360… far more value than what Hollywood or the book industry is putting out. The financial benefits of those industries so dwarf what Zynga and its competitors are doing it is hardly worth talking about. Would we have a big article complaining about a kid’s lemonade stand being an inferior model to Dell Lemonade or Minutemaid?  

    1. Zynga is a multi-billion dollar company. You can buy Farmville and Mafia War gift cards in the 7-11.

      Kid’s lemonade stand = 15 year-old that just made his first Flash game

      This article is more akin to the RedLetterMedia review of Phantom Menace. The internet is not short of people who will complain about social games, but this article is more thorough about it than most.

  18. If you look at the progression of Zynga games, they are getting more and more intricate and “hardcore” with every release.  Because at the end of the day, these “evil useless gamers who don’t understand” are indeed demanding more. It’s just not what most of the gamers or designers that came along beforehand would demand. 
    The millions of players who are playing these games aren’t being stolen from some mystical userbase that would love Master of Magic 2 to be released if only “they KNEW the glory of REAL games!” This is another example of the games industry refusing to admit that some people will like games that most designers themselves wouldn’t like. Game designers refuse to make games they woudn’t play, even if people would love them, leaving only businessman to fill those gaps. Zynga is run by these types because that’s all that’s out there willing to target a long term, tension free gamer demographic. These games exist for the exact same reason games with realistic female protagonists don’t exist…because the people making them don’t even understand how other people could enjoy them as opposed to the games they grew up playing. Yes, people who love games don’t make social games… that ITSELF if the problem, not a result of bad design.  

  19. The problem is not video games.  The problem is not Zynga, or social games, or businessmen who like to make money.  You can spin this as a modern problem, but it’s not.  (I mean, has everyone forgotten the monotonous grinds of our original classics like Final Fantasy?)

    I don’t think Tim is sad that people have figured out secrets to making addictive games.  I think he’s sad because he has glimpsed the dark, feral heart of human, subconscious need, and so he perpetuates the myth of a “video game Valhalla” where the “true” gamers will get the “real video games.” 

    I think it’s sad he (and so many others) need a concrete box to store their gaming nostalgia in, because that has defined who they are, and gnosis of its crude mechanics is divorcing them from their childhood.

    And I’m also sad, because he’s a pompous blowhard with logorrhea getting coverage on BoingBoing.

    Regardless, peace upon him and our tribe.

  20. I have complained about Tim Rogers’ extremely digressive writing style before, but it remains that it was reading his article on Katamari Damacy that got me interested in that amazing game, and once you excise a lot of the details of his life his article on Earthbound is a ringing tribute.

    He could use an editor, but so could I.  And he’s certainly got social gamings’ number.

  21. Having a video game addicted son I have some small measure of understanding (from the outside of the process).  The digressive style fits perfectly the moral ambiguity of our age.  Late capitalism has made a villain of workers (those bastards want benefits!) and left those that fabricated the Ponzi scheme wealthy and unpunished.  It looks like capitalism is finding new ways to profit producing nothing of value, the new model for our society.

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