Like Call of Duty? You’ll Love FarmVille

So, you’re a gamer. This seems a reasonable assumption given the website you’ve chosen to read. That means that you’ve likely played Call of Duty, judging by the sales of Black Ops and its two immediate predecessors. You may even have spent two hundred hours earning its many weapons, unlocks, and badges. Congratulations, you’ve killed me more times than I’ve killed you.

So now what? Instead of deliberating what next to download from Steam or load into your console, my suggestion is to click back to Facebook. Play FarmVille, Pet Society, or any of that family of social games. After all, the gameplay is remarkably similar to what you’re used to.

What, you say? What can this award-winning and record-setting console game have in common with some game on Facebook? Look past graphics, genre, and business model for a moment. Break the games down into core actions. When you’re done, you may find that we have paragons of directed, efficient, and repetitive stimulus-response.

  • Repetitive: Click the mouse in one game, and you harvest a crop. Over and over and over. It’s nearly the only action you can perform. In the other game, click the mouse and you will shoot. Again and again.
  • Efficient: The action offers a good return on effort. You may perform secondary actions, and special actions may offer greater reward in some situations, but the core gameplay verb requites the game’s challenge.
  • Directed: The game explicitly tells you to perform an action in order to succeed. The action isn’t a trick, a strategy, a tactic, or even a combination of actions. It’s a verb.

Click your mouse (that’s pull your right trigger for you console players) and, little lab rat, you get a reward. And you get the reward often enough that it’s worth your time to keep clicking. The rewards add up over time, and you keep pulling the lever to see your score climb, whatever the genre.

Couldn’t this be said for any game? To a point. Black Ops and social games, though, have boiled the stimulus-response equation down to its most concentrated and most simplistic form. Instant gratification. When it comes to shooters, Black Ops delivers the most kills per minute, helped by low health avatars in crowded, tiny environments. Ironically, it may be a better simulation for it, but less of a game. Facebook gaming has the same appeal. Low investment of skill and time, high reward and praise. Sugar rush all the time. The fast food of gaming, I suppose. Draw a parallel line of popularity to McDonald’s.

What’s more, both games deliver rewards in a online, social environment. So the value of their reward holds up longer.

Now, there are some differences. Shooters make some demand of the player’s skill, such as requiring the player move a center-screen HUD element onto an enemy’s pixels. But this is a reflex game, not a “series of interesting choices.” Social games only reward investment (time or money). Time, of course, is a more democratic way of doing things. Of course, if equality is the goal in our games, Vonnegut charted that future for us with Harrison Bergeron. Thankfully, gaming hasn’t gotten there yet. Not even World of Warcraft.

But wait. More and more, developers of shooters have incorporated player investment rewards, for the same reasons that Facebook games have them: to increase player attachment (and prevent used game sales). If you keep playing, you level and acquire new outfits, guns, gadgets, etc. Shooters have become RPGs. Is that what Cliff B meant when he prognosticated the future of the genre? The only thing left to bridge the gap to social games is for shooters to start selling in-game advantages for real world currency. Who will be the first major shooter to let me buy the rewards instead of earning them over time? Oh, wait. That already happened: Team Fortress 2.

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