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Addiction and Profits in the Land of Casual Gaming

It’s the newest buzzword: Micro-transactions. What does it mean? Money. Who are corporations, social networking sites, and your average feeder in-between getting this money from?

The answer is “casual gamers”. What is a casual gamer? These are the people who play mini-games, or games which focus on a few tasks. They won’t go out to the video game store, and invest in the latest console.

They will, however spend hours on games like Farmville, Vampire Wars, or Mafia Wars, in between frequent checks on the status updates of friends. I know, because I have often made fun of my wife for checking her pies in Cafe Ville, Farm Kitchen, Pie wars, or whatever they call it.

How are corporations extracting this money, from people who are playing “free” games? It’s very simple: Leveling and doing tasks in these games takes a long time, lot’s of dedication. But, you can grease the skids a little, through buying various tokens, trinkets, and special items, with real money.

How much? Well, I joined a “casual game” recently, over at Kongregate. And I should really stop complaining about how much time my wife spends on Cafe World. Really. These little games are addictive, because they were built to be so.

They are Pavlovian in their reinforcement. Lots of little, meaningless rewards that reinforce your behavior are immediately available upon completing some equally meaningless task. The need to acquire money, grow your empire larger, make that stat kick up a tick: Those factors are all there in abundance.

The worst problem is, even though you are aware of the problem’s existence, you are helpless to do anything about it. You must grow, or stagnate. There is always something that you could do, to incrementally boost your progress. It is a demand on your potential, as a human being…not to fail, walk away, or outright quit.

It is this demand, and the sense of community, built into some of these games that keeps you involved. Peer pressure and a need to achieve are two of the largest pressures in anyone’s life. These games do a masterful job of applying these psychological forces, in a devastating and paralyzing manner.

It’s no wonder that Zynga (the maker of Farmville, Mafia Wars, Cafe World, etc.) was recently valued at close to 3 Billion dollars. You heard me correctly. The monies they are making when people spend $5 here, and $10 there, add up to massive revenues.

Addiction is a major problem for many of the highly ranked players, and whenever the big boys level up, they add more features, increasing the chances that players will stay addicted to the game.

How “casual” can gaming be, if you have a large population of addicts? And when will start to see game addiction counseling become a major offering? That was once the domain of hard-core gamers like World of Warcraft players, or those who played a little too much Halo. Now, it may be Grandma Meg that needs an intervention.

The question remains to be asked, in fact, it is begging to be asked: Will future games be banned, because of their addictive nature? You may scoff at this, but I predict lawsuits in the near future, claiming that people just couldn’t keep from spending money, or questing, or even getting that last meaningless badge.

Will we one day regulate these games, based on their level of engagement? They are regulating gore in Australia, why not something that gives you a compulsion, to buy, quest, or save?

Or, will people eventually tired of these games, and move onto something else? It’s unlikely , but…hold on, I have to level, and add a few buffs to my character. Back in five, I promise…

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May 17, 2010 - Posted by | Games | , , , ,

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