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.