More than two hundred million players check in every month to play Zynga games, and yet, those and other Facebook games are often derided as exploitative "Skinner boxes", their appeal reduced to sinister mind-hackery. Ian Bogost, a professor and game designer, went so far as to create his own Facebook game, Cow Clicker, and a "cowclickification" app to drive home these points. But Playdom Design VP, Steve Meretzky, provides a counterpoint: "when you come down to it, basically all games are Skinner boxes -- meaningless activities where you're not getting anything out of it other than enjoyment." And enjoyment really is the point here.
If the mechanics to creating good Facebook games were as simple as the theories behind Pavlov's dogs and Skinner's rats, Facebook game designers wouldn't need to garner input on what works and what doesn't. This suggests that we need new models on assessing player psychology in social games. Jason Brown, who works as Zynga's VP of player insights believes that "Our games tap into some fundamental drivers of human happiness. . . They give people moments of pleasure (and) a sense of accomplishment. And they help people connect with each other."
Nicole Lazzaro, an expert on gamer psychology who's been studying player experience for two decades, breaks down just what's so appealing about games into four elements that she calls "Keys", and says that most Facebook games attempt to ace three out of the four following traits:
Hard Fun "For many players overcoming obstacles is why they play. Hard Fun creates emotion by structuring experience towards the pursuit of a goal."
Easy Fun "Other players focus on the sheer enjoyment of experiencing the game activities. Easy Fun maintains focus with player attention rather than a winning condition."
Altered States "Players report that how a game makes them feel inside is one of the major reasons why they play, or 'games as therapy'."
The People Factor "Players using this Key see games as mechanisms for social interaction."
Last week, Lazzaro was asked by the Los Angeles Times to put Zynga's games to the test. Lazarro's "fun meter" is based on a game's level of engagement, facility of socialization, "intrinsic fun" and "extrinsic fun". ("Extrinsic fun" is defined by collecting points and badges, while "Intrinsic fun", said Lazzaro, is "what I call hard fun or serious fun, relies on engagement beyond just rewarding players to click.") Her conclusion? Facebook games are terrific at the first two elements and terrible at the last two.
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