Wednesday, November 23, 2011

In which a theorist discovers something unsettling, exhilarating or both

There seems to be a natural human compulsion to keep checking the soup to see if it's boiling, to check the weather, to check the latest sports scores and stock prices, to check for messages, and so on and so forth.  One of the less savory properties of the web is that it provides the means to indulge this compulsion to the nth degree.

I personally try to steer clear of this, which is the main reason I'm not on Facebook or Twitter (and not particularly active on Google+), but I'm certainly not immune. Are there any comments on Field Notes?  Has anyone read the latest brilliant post (there are at least three ways to check, each giving its own opinion)?  Anything new on the few sites I do follow?

Since I'm not on Facebook, I don't play Facebook games, but evidently a lot of people do.  Zynga's Farmville, for example, has over 80 million subscribers, still a small minority of the gazillion on Facebook, but a big number in most normal contexts.  This has irked traditional computer game creators, sucked up untold hours of human life, and intrigued computer gaming analyst/critic Ian Bogost.

Bogost noted that games like Farmville involve relatively little actual gameplay.  Rather, it's the social aspect that seems to dominate.  This is nothing new in gaming, but again the natural "I need to check what's going on" factor of the web in general and Facebook in particular acts to intensify this.  Bogost coined the term "Cow Clicker" to describe games like Farmville where the action seems to consist mainly in, for example, clicking on depictions of animals when various timers run out.

Unable to leave it at that, Bogost took the next logical step and created a Facebook game called Cow Clicker designed to distill the social gaming experience to its purest elements.  It goes like this:
  • You have a picture of a cow on your page.
  • You click on it.
  • It does nearly nothing -- I think maybe it moos or otherwise makes a sound?
  • You can't click again for six hours.
Yep.  That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

If you don't want to wait six hours, you could spend "mooney" -- Cow Clicker's own virtual currency -- to get the right to click sooner.  You could earn mooney by clicking on your cow, by having your friends click on feed stories about you clicking on your cow, or by paying a small amount of actual money.

People played this.  Not 80 million, but somewhere around 50,000, not too bad for a joke of a game with no marketing behind it.

Clearly the actual cow clicking is a MacGuffin.  No one cares much about it.  What people care about is whether their friends are also playing and clicking on their feed stories, thereby generating not just more mooney, but, crucially, another thing to check in on.

Bogost had mixed feelings about this.  Among other things, he found himself, despite his intentions, checking in on whether people were playing the game and what they wanted from it.

Naturally, people wanted upgrades.  They wanted their choice in cows.  Cowthulhu was a popular request.  Eventually Bogost put up an "app store" with a selection of cows, and (I gather) added another feature or two.  If you were really hardcore, you could pay $100 (or the equivalent in mooney from whatever source) for Bling Cow.  Why on earth would anyone do this?  Well, your friends would all know that you had splashed out for the Bling, and wouldn't they be envious?  Again, people actually did this.

Eventually, Bogost was unable to shake the feeling he'd created a monster, and so he brought about the Cowpocalypse.  At a preset time -- which players would hasten by actually playing the game but could defer by, yep, paying mooney -- the cattle would all be "raptured", leaving only the empty spaces on which they had once stood.  And so the Cowpocalypse eventually came to pass.

At this point, it may not come as a shock that people kept playing.  To recap: people were now paying (small amounts of) money for the privilege of clicking on an empty space and letting their friends know about it.

You couldn't ask for a better illustration that when economists talk about "rational consumers", they only mean people that behave as though there's some sort of "utility function", be it ever so screwy, that they're bent on maximizing.  "Rational" in the usual sense has got nothing to do with it.

If people were actually rational in the usual sense, Cow Clicker would never have happened, but of course they aren't.  We are, at a very basic level, social animals.  We want to know what other people are doing.  What in particular they're actually doing is often much less important to us than whom they're doing it with and the fact that we know this.  If the entirety of Facebook were pushing a button from time to time saying "I'm here", selecting people to notify of that and having the system tell people you're notifying know whom else you're notifying, it would not be outlandish to think people would still use it.

The cynic would say that that really is the essence of Facebook and "social networking" in general, but I wouldn't go quite that far.  I said above that what people are doing is often much less important than knowing it and knowing who knows, but that doesn't mean it's always more important.  Content can matter -- of course -- but it's worth noting that it doesn't always.

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