Social Games and the Pastoral

When I hear the term “pastoral”, my mind immediately jumps to Vergil’s Georgics or maybe Daphnis and Chloe. It’s a peaceful, idyllic setting where the concerns of politics and the city are far away. The music of shepherds’ lutes and birds’ chatter fills the air while a soft breeze carries the scent of wildflowers from the nearby meadow. The sun reflects off the glass surface of the lake and sheep pasture closeby.

Our modern time may be quite different than it was then but there is still the keen desire to escape the concerns of the “real world”. Our Rome is just as busy, just as stressful, just as demanding as ever it was. Peace is not as distant as it was perhaps, but rarely does it stay long in our souls.

Out of all the many games on the Facebook platform, Farmville alone has claimed numbers reaching above 70 million. It is not a pretty game by any definition I don’t think, nor is it complex. Its mechanics are accessible and its ideas common. In the US where agriculture as a profession has fallen ~70% in the last 140 years, is it no wonder that so many idealize the life of their forebears? Surely, one may think, it was better in those times when one simply hoed, and planted, and watered, and harvested. Tend the animals, weed the crops, prune the vines. No hustling and bustling, just the sweet rhythm of hoe/plant/water.

Most of us realize that life, in fact, wasn’t just a peaceful utopia then. It was hard. I remember reading the Little House on the Prairie books as a child and thinking I would never want to be her. Thank you very much for my computer and A/C , I’d like to keep them. Even so, the thought of no deadlines, no emails, and no facebook sounds just a tad enticing…for a moment.

Metaplace’s My Vineyard I think does an even better job of creating a pastoral setting. Even the music in that game is relaxing. Sadly, it hasn’t had the time or marketing that Farmville has had, and I’m not sure it actually is different enough to be a success, yet it illustrates the same thematic concerns.  Other games have recently also tried to capture this peaceful kind of utopia, but through a desert island.

A desert island is quite similar to the pastoral setting of agriculture. It isn’t actually all peace and pretty. If you were actually alone on a desert island, not getting killed by raptors and perhaps finding some food would be your main concern, not completing a collection of Renaissance paintings. (I here reference Zynga’s Treasure Isle). And yet, suspension of disbelief is no struggle in this game either. Millions again are happy to click around, digging up treasure and decorating their personal island with seashells and baby (vegetarian) jaguars.

It doesn’t really make me happy that Zynga is our culture’s Vergil, but perhaps it’s telling. Actually, I’d more like to compare Zynga to Cicero’s failed attempts at poetry since they are equally as artful.

It’s also somewhat ironic that our window to the ideal is through that very thing we are trying to escape – modern technology. Just as the readers/listeners of Vergil’s Georgics were going to be elites far from the world of shepherds and sheep, so are the people playing Farmville likely quite far from the world of the constant woes of real farmlife.

This ideal is just one of many which games help us to realize, if only temporarily, a wish we have that our modern society and/or lifestyle is unable to fulfill. I also think that many fantasy MMOs play off another such wish, the need and desire for prestige and honor among modern people who live in a world with few opportunities to be heroic. They also provide opportunities to be useful to a community by plying a trade, opportunities to be a social leader, build/decorate dream houses, have a beautiful face, fantastic wardrobes, etc. The pastoral is really just another manifestation of fantasy where people can create something they wish they had in real life – quotidian peace. I sincerely hope the next iteration of the pastoral is closer to Vergil than Cicero’s poetic drivel.

Social Games: MMO?

This is another entry in my series on social games – a nice, sterile term for those annoying applications that spam your Facebook News Feed. You know the kind – someone’s farm needs fertilizer, someone’s dog needs a treat, someone’s restaurant needs spices.

In the series, I will be looking at questions of endgame, reward/punishment, society, and narrative, from the perspective of a “traditional” gamer, meaning someone who primarily plays non-casual video. (Yes, that term is heavily loaded and ill-defined, but for now, going to use it.) Today, I want to look at the question of social versus MMO.  I see similar things like levels, social interaction, personalization, avatars, and economy in both the social games on Facebook and the more hardcore MMORPGs like World of Warcraft or Aion. What is similar about these different kinds of games or are these just similar kinds of concepts being used in completely different ways in completely different games?

I’m not the first to have addressed this question, but hopefully my answer will provide something new to the discourse of just what an MMO really is and why social games feel different.

First of all, let’s just look at their very names – massively multiplayer and social. Although it may seem that these two things are the same, they aren’t necessarily so. Considering the current trend to make MMO play, at least the leveling part, a potentially fully solo experience, one can perhaps see how despite a world populated by thousands, one can have an entirely asocial experience. Look at the recent revamp of the “epic” questline in Lord of the Rings Online. What used to take a full party of six members can now be done on your own. Regardless,  I am going to stick to my old-fashioned understanding and experience of MMOs and say social is part of the game. Most people still interact with other players to some extent during their playtime and the vast majority join guilds or clans so they can feel like part of a group.

In a “social game”, however, other players add substantively to player experience although its possible to play purely on one’s own. Playfish says, “Social games are games designed to be played together with friends.” (I tend to play MMOs with my friends too).  In these social games, not only do you reap concrete benefits like experience or currency, you also can individualize, compete, and share. Wait, how is this different from an MMO? Sure, you can play solo, but it’s much better to play with others. You get more experience and loot when playing in a group and joining a guild or clan often makes many parts of the game, if not easier, more accessible. It seems then that both MMOs and social games both offer the same benefits of group play while still allowing the player to solo if he desires.

If it is not the social aspect, perhaps it is the very mechanics of gameplay. Most MMOs have a leveling system that guides character development and governs one’s access to areas in the game. Interestingly enough, social games have these too. Almost all of them have levels one earns, and as one gains levels, one also gains skills and access to new items, equipment, or actions. Not only Farmville behaves in this manner, but most ZyngaPlayfish, and other game companies’ offerings.

Perhaps an MMO feels different because  one’s character is part of an overarching narrative. I’m not just some avatar, I’m a particular elf helping other elves take care of corrupt trees. Although Farmville’s “narrative” is a very poor excuse for one, it is still there. The new co-op play has you and your friends plant flowers for someone’s wedding, for example. If you do so fast enough, they’ll give you a wedding gazebo gift. Sounds like a quest to me. The new Sony social game, “The Agency: Covert Ops” has a very detailed narrative outlining the actions one takes. Other games, of course, have almost nothing one could call a narrative. Yet, even in those games, you can typically find some kind of NPC who guides your experience with (meaningless) narrative. For example, another Zynga game Cafe World has you cook dishes and serve them to customers. You don’t know why you’re doing this, you simply run a cafe and cook. However, there is this overarching figure named “Amelia” who occasionally tells you things like, “this bride needs help with a wedding cake!”. So, although the narrative is pathetic and barely existent, it is there.

The one thing perhaps you’re all screaming at your screen right now is persistent world. This was the big thing about MMOs in the early days and perhaps still – the world goes on existing even when you’re not there. Things are happening, people are questing, boars are dying. Are the worlds of Facebook not persistent? I think that they actually are. In My Vineyard, for example, a game put out by Metaplace, one’s vineyard is a potential gathering place for all of your friends, even when you are not online. They can all visit your vineyard, sit on your benches, look at your pond, and talk to each other when you are not there. In most games, one has some kind of “home” whether a restaurant, a farm, or an HQ, that one decorates as desired and exists at all times for people to visit. In Café World, while you are offline, your friends can come to your café and spice your dishes, providing you with benefits or saving food you’ve left to spoil. On your return, you will see who has visited and what they’ve done.

These worlds of social games, though persistent, are not free for their players to explore. One cannot take one’s avatar outside, down the street, to another farm or vineyard. The interface is much more mechanical and governed by addons and loading screens. I do recall the day though when zones in Everquest were bordered by zone walls and traversing passes between them brought on a loading screen.

Rather than any difference in quality between MMOs and social games, there seems rather to be simply a difference of scale. MMOs have much more depth, more players, more geography, etc. But why is it valuable to even come to this conclusion?

If many social games are just mini MMOs, we can judge them on the same principles. Are the quests interesting? Are the themes innovative? Are the narratives engaging?

Further, if many social games are just mini MMOs, perhaps they can inspire each other to go in new directions. Since they are on such different platforms and appeal to different markets, yet share the same concepts and base mechanics, looking at social games could help us understand the motivations of players in MMOs as well as vice versa or at least provide a testing ground for hypotheses. Communities and their interests, differences in features and expectations, as well as design goals and philosophies can all be compared. Traditional definitions of game genre can be explored and evolved  – for example, there are not just simulation games of farms and restaurants on Facebook, but also city-building games, civilization games, card-collecting games, secret agent games, etc. What defines and separates these genres and how do motivations and interests of players change across those genre lines?

As you can see, there is much to think about beyond just how much money Zynga is lining their velvet cushions with.