The early game industry itself has trained us to be reductive, to look at any problem and ask how you “win,” or what score it gets out of five, whether it was worth our money or not. The attitude of the media shapes the outlook of its readership and vice versa, in an ongoing struggle to comprehend the simple idea that it takes all kinds.
-Leigh Alexander, “It takes all kinds: Video game culture’s weird identity crisis”
“So sophisticated ‘cause them hits be calculated”
-Rick Ross, “So Sophisticated”
I’m a business and technology reporter. This means I’ve been writing a lot about Zynga over the past three months. The strange, sometimes unsettling fascination I’ve developed for this struggling company puzzles a lot of the other games writers I know, along with coworkers and my (relatively) normal friends who also play video games.
The question they often ask is more basic than “What do you think is going to happen to this company?” or “Do you think that the overvaluation of social media companies and their ilk is a sign of a collective obsession with Silicon Valley’s startup culture and will only trigger another dot-com crash?” It’s usually just a confused stare as I flip idly through “FarmVille 2.” They ask, disgusted, “Why do you even care about this company?”
My answer for a while was just to say, “Because that’s what business reporters do,” begging the question of why this group people with which I now identify myself should give a shit about virtual crops and the virtual people who tend to them. But reading reports in the hallowed publications that define the business world, it was easy as someone who plays a lot of video games to see that these writers had the same confusion about why they were obsessing over the free-falling stock ticker ZNGA.
After being a distant witness to some vicious infighting in the British gaming press last week, I think I finally have an answer.
We write about Zynga because we want to talk about ourselves. We obsess over the fate of “freemium” business models because we’re scared. As journalists, critics, writers, bloggers, or whatever else one wants to identify as, we live in a insecure time when the very notion of what constitutes a “journalist,” at the very least in the professional sense, is in question.
Zynga and its close brethren of free-to-play games—everything from “Angry Birds” to “League of Legends”—are scary because they represent the impending disruption of an industry that, for a brief moment, seemed like it might be able to weather the storm of the first wave of the internet economy as cable companies have shown themselves uniquely capable of doing. Game publishers had legions of fans that were willing to pay incredible amounts of money every year just to keep themselves up to date in preparation for the inevitable sequels they could once again eagerly line up to purchase. The thought that you wouldn’t fork over $60 up-front to shoot terrorists or slaughter orcs and demons for a few hours seemed laughable to publishers.
Editorial publishing, meanwhile, surrendered its battle with freemium content before it was even clear that there was a battle. The hope ever since has been that websites could somehow find a way to inch their way back to profitability, maybe even begin charging readers for their content once again.
Free-to-play game developers, however, realized that making people pay for stuff was an ancient relic in the age of the internet. In fact, amassing millions of users that don’t pay a cent could prove better for a business in the long run if a massive user-base provides its own rewards.
Free-to-play games can be monetized in a number of ways. But a common criticism that runs across the entire spectrum of freemium video games is that they favor a type of short-form, impulse-driven design and aesthetic. From a business perspective, this makes perfect sense: publishers need to draw in as many players as possible through mere minutes or seconds of gameplay. Then just as quickly, they need to separate out the serious players from the chaff, the core “customers” and the nonchalant users.
The same model works for the vast majority of editorial websites where text suddenly needs to fight for its very relevance against things far more viscerally provocative than words can often be. But as far as journalism is concerned, a key component is suddenly tossed by the wayside: storytelling.
If you look at the most successful freemium games, none offer much in the way of narrative content. League of Legends claims to be “the most played video game in the world” with 70 million registered players. “FarmVille 2” falls just shy of LoL with some 64 million monthly active users on Facebook. Facebook itself recently crossed the threshold into 1 billion members, amassing a user base larger than most countries. These three companies and their teeming ecosystems of users are no doubt a sign of things to come. Yet they all rely on user-generated content to people their vast digital worlds.
Game designers and critics alike have recoiled in horror at the advent of “gamification” as a business tool nearly as vehemently as they had when FarmVille became a necessary part of any critical discussion of games. But, really, the advent of an internet economy fueled by social games and social media secured the place of gamification before gamification itself was even a concept. As Tom Bissell once wrote of the colossal failure “Dead Island,” games themselves have even become gamified.
What scares game critics about gamification is the thought that it saps any of the artistry from games themselves. Stripping them to their bear essentials, they worry that the magic of games may be revealed as nothing more than a few titillated nerve endings, quivering at the excitement of a possible reward. I’m offended by the suggestion that games are little more than filling up bars and trying to increase numbers, and yet I realize that that is basically all I do in many video games.
The traffic-hungry portions of the internet were more ripe for gamification than any other industry. It’s easier to measure the number of hits than it is to assess length or quality, and soon enough journalists responded. In other words, they chose, whether they realized it or not, to play a certain game—one where points equaled page-views. There were countless ways to iterate on this concept, no doubt, but the game remained the same.
And a new generation was born, of which I am a small part—the so-called “digital natives” that never lived or worked in a world where the rules might be different. We may dream of one day writing for The New Yorker or The New York Times, but we are rarely asked to write more than 300 words. Adrift, we stick to the rules. We may complain about the game itself, but the certainty of its metrics grants a much-needed comfort when jobs themselves are scarce to nonexistent.
The problem, of course, was that this was game suddenly being played not only against other journalists or publication, but against a teeming ecosystem of cat videos and pornography. Trying to compete with Redtube and Lolcats is sort of like bringing a knife to a gunfight, but they played anyways. Some played it well, many more didn’t.
One of my first jobs was as a staff writer for a now defunct site that tried its hardest to win this losing battle. Each day the team of writers would assemble in a chat room and dole out the biggest news stories we’d could find, then run them as quickly as possible through the necessary tweaks to seem vaguely original (read: “aggregated”) and try to post them on several prominent online video game forums. We’d sprint with these stories, passing them off to each other like a baton race and hoping that with enough writers clicking “approve” on n4g we might just make it.
We rarely did. The site failed quickly and spectacularly. But before I filled out my last invoice, I realized that I’d been running so fast in this virtual race I’d lost any comprehension of what the words I was writing meant to me or any other human being who might lay eyes on them. Did the words “iPhone [X] release date” mean anything to the millions of people Alexa and Chartbeat claim read them? Did one more hashtagged phrase about “Call of Duty” say another meaningful, or did it just enable our collective obsession? But, of course, my boss reminded me quickly that there was another unsubstantiated rumor to add the words “allegedly” in front of.
I didn’t do any of these things because I enjoyed them, or because I felt any intrinsic pride in any of the work I was producing. I did them because I wanted to be able to tell myself that I was, in some small way, making money off of my ability to write.
But eventually I realized that I wasn’t even writing at all, I was producing hits. “All the news that’s fit to print” had been replaced with the glib proclamation “So sophisticated ‘cause them hits be calculated”—a phrase that might as well be the banner headline of countless news sites today.
An alumni from my alma mater put it bluntly when I met him in the pristine office of the prestigious publication that he now works for, a publication that I’ve dreamed of working at for much of my adult life: journalism is a tough field; you may not like it, but to succeed, you have to play the game. Yet the sad irony is that “the game” itself has changed, and changed us, with little recognition that a game itself is arbitrary and open to our own revisions. Co-workers have told me enough times they want to write “real stories” that I’m beginning to wonder if the stories themselves could be found.
They’re clearly there, after all, but who is left to tell them? The entire conceit of search engine optimization—the massive hungry Google-powered beast that allows sites to get the page views they so desperately need—is to standardize editorial language online to the extent that everybody can be speaking the same language. But standardizing language inherently flattens it, hammering out the small gaps where new discoveries can be found. Many a defensive editor cites the traffic-breaking records of, say, the latest Apple event and counters that its stupid if not downright irresponsible to ignore the needs of readers. But part of the journalist’s mission is to tell the stories that remain uncovered and hidden beyond what readers think, or even know, that they “need.” Without that, we’re left with a blip of a keyword and a press release.
“Maybe what we’re seeing with Zynga, or with games like ‘Diablo III’ or ‘World of Warcraft,’” Ian Bogost told me when I contacted him for a story about freemium’s pitfalls, “is a playing out of this industrialized entertainment economy where it doesn’t really matter what you’re doing for your sake, it’s just a matter of your attention being captured by some organization that’s speculating on it.”
Can the same yet be said of journalism in the age of the blogosphere—an ecosystem that feeds on ever-shorter bursts of content, demands exclusive content while mitigating the very ability to provide it?
Tomorrow there may be thousands of stories posted about Hurricane Sandy. Photographs will be revealed as fakes. Memes will be generated from their fiction. A new game or gadget might be released, only to be overshadowed by the flirtatious hint of its bigger and better sequel. Twitter will squeak and squawk about these things, then gesticulate further about its own power to talk about things in the first place. The self-described “fanboy” will lure an audience of millions to an exclusive look at another few seconds where we can feel infinitesimally closer to the desired object for a moment. A chorus of thousands will rise up, and not a single voice will be heard.
About the Author:
Yannick LeJacq is a reporter for the International Business Times. His work has also appeared in Kill Screen, Salon, the Atlantic, and the Wall Street Journal.