Saturday, December 11, 2010

If game's secret is 'making users anxious,' maybe it's also key for books

Via BoingBoing, this interview with a man who designs online games has this very interesting tidbit: Games like Farmville are...
...about exploiting the players -- and yes, people report having fun with that kind of game. You know, certain kinds of hardcore game players don't find much interest in Farmville, but a certain large segment of the population does. But then when you look at the design process in that game, it's not about designing a fun game. It's not about designing something that's going to be interesting or a positive experience in any way -- it's actually about designing something that's a negative experience. It's about "How do we make something that looks cute and that projects positivity" -- but it actually makes people worry about it when they're away from the computer and drains attention from their everyday life and brings them back into the game. Which previous genres of game never did. And it's about, "How do we get players to exploit their friends in a mechanical way in order to progress?" And in that or exploiting their friends, they kind of turn them in to us and then we can monetize their relationships. And that's all those games are, basically.
I think people knew this intuitively -- or you did, at least, if you know what Farmville is or even (like me) have never played but have talked with people who have -- but this is the most cogent, direct way I've ever heard anyone explain it.

And if a game is compelling because it provokes anxiety, the same must be true for narratives.

Now... frankly, watching a film or TV show where anxiety is a large ingredient makes me squirm very uncomfortably, sometimes to the point of turning the channel or walking out of the movie. I started walking out of movies in 1979 with Alien and I've been walking out of movies ever since for exactly the same reason: not solely because of the anxiety the film provokes, but because I felt so manipulated. And indeed, there's now a backlash against Farmville because people are seeing through how it manipulates players. It's fun in exactly the same way slot machines are fun: You feed money into it, you get to see a bunch of whirling, flashing images, and there's just enough possibility that you will somehow win that you keep going back for more.

The question for novelists is how to take advantage of this effect without making readers feel as if they're being exploited.

Or at least that's the question for me; I'm sure there are many who feel no compunction about exploiting readers or viewers, just as there is a huge audience that willingly embraces being manipulated. There's no other explanation for, say, horror movies. (Then there are the films of Quentin Tarantino, who goes beyond mere exploitation to sheer contempt for his audience.)

(In related news, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak says society is now addicted to technology: "All of a sudden, we've lost a lot of control. We can't turn off our Internet. We can't turn off our smart phones. We can't turn off our computers.")

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