Facebook games and the privileged people who oppose them

[Trigger warning for fat shaming, ableist slurs, class privilege, also general warning for thought rambling]

An image of a FarmVille farm with cows, tractors, crops, and barns, with a "Play Now" button.

 

A long article was released yesterday in the San Francisco Chronicle about FarmVille game developer Zynga, claiming that the company is one of the largest growing firms in the city.  Like any article in any mainstream publication about social games, the comment section quickly turned into an insult-fest of people throwing around privileged-filled comments about the kind of people who play Facebook games.

Reading through the comments, I saw the following statements:

  • These people are absolutely pathetic to be wasting all of their time playing these mindless games. (Says people who are ‘wasting time’ commenting on news articles)
  • Why don’t these people go outside and plant a REAL garden? (Have you personally planted a garden before?  It’s not exactly easy, and not everyone can do it)
  • These people are all social outcasts who cannot communicate with real people outside of their houses. (Although they have plenty of friends on Facebook to play games with?)
  • These people are just addicted and depressed, they hate their lives and social games have filled a void. (Ah yes, no one could possibly be playing these games because they ENJOY it)
  • People who play games on Facebook are fat and lazy and contribute nothing to society. (Of course you bring out the fatphobia, you can’t possibly forget the fatphobia)
  • You have got to be a “retard” if you spend one minute playing FarmVille. (Ableist slurs make you cool, you know)
  • I’m going to go run my “real business” while these Facebook gamers sit on their asses and collect unemployment checks. (Don’t mind me, I’m just a privileged asshole who owns a business)
  • These games are unhealthy for the people who play them. (Weee-oooo weeee-ooooh, the health police are here!)
  • These people are mindless consumers. (Here, let me make your decisions for you since you are incapable)

I normally ignore these comments, because I’m one of those people who plays these games.  Sure, I’ll completely own up to my personal privilege here – I make these games for a living so I play them for business purposes as well as a personal hobby, and I get more chance to play them than most people probably do.  None of that changes the fact that reading through these comments makes me almost feel like a complete waste of space because I have fun playing Facebook games.

Social games are all about accessibility, which is a huge reason that they have become so popular.  They are free to get started and players can enjoy them without ever spending a dime if they choose not to.  Anyone with an internet connection can enjoy them, compared to a console game that costs $50+ just for the retail box, or a subscription-based MMO that requires a $15/month fee.  These kinds of games open up the world of casual gaming to people who might not be able to afford the luxuries of buying games.  Let’s not fool ourselves, video games are freaking expensive.  If you are lucky enough to afford the latest console, you still have to pay out a lot of money for each individual game.  Not to mention if you want the DLC or additional content, you can be paying an awful lot for your gaming experience.

A wide variety of people play video games, and you know what?  Some of them might not leave the house.  This can be for a huge variety of reasons – they could have social anxieties that prevent them from going outside.  They might have health reasons for staying indoors.  They might not be able to afford to go out and do much.  They might be taking care of their kids all day at home and stopping in to play FarmVille now and then while they’re taking a nap.  Social game players might not be able to plant a garden because they have a disability that prevents them from doing that.  And frankly, who are they to tell someone to go plant a real garden instead of play a game?

The Treasure Isle logo, showing a tropical island with a small female cartoon avatar.

What I do with my personal gaming time is my business, and why do people I don’t even know care about how I can spend that time?  Why is it a “waste” when it is my personal time to spend the way I choose?  Why do they assume that I am a mindless person who is blindly consuming products because I am incapable of making decisions for myself?  People seem completely unable to grasp the idea that social games are fun.  I play these games because I find them enjoyable.  I’m fortunate enough that I could be playing my Xbox 360, or another game on my rather beefy computer system, or the Wii, but I choose to play Facebook games because they fit the kind of short gaming sessions that work with my schedule.

I’m a Community Manager, and I hear from my players all the time that they appreciate our game because it gives them something to do in their wheelchair that connects them with other people.  They make friends through our game and work together on common goals.  I’ve had players thank us for making a game that’s affordable on their disability income, or their retirement income.  I’ve had people tell me that playing our games helps them get their mind off of a recent tragedy in their life.  I’ve known players who play our games together with their kids, and their whole family comes together around the game every night before bed.  The Border House is all about how games are meaningful beyond just mindless drivel and that extends to all categories of gaming – be it hardcore, MMO, casual, social, puzzle, or co-op console shooters.  Social games bring people together in meaningful ways on social networks where players already spend time.  It is easy to play games on Facebook, and that opens up doors that bring new people into our world of gamers.

I am tired of people belittling those who play Facebook games.  So you don’t like them?  So what.  We’ve heard this before about MMOs, about the people who enjoy them being lazy and antisocial.  While it’s absolutely fantastic that these commenters don’t have a disability or other issue that prevents them from going outside and shooting people in paintball instead, it’s complete ignorance and lack of understanding about the concept of privilege that makes them blind to the fact that others might not be in the same boat as them.  It’s great that they can afford to buy expensive games and pay monthly fees, but other people have to make do with less expendable income to spend on hobbies so that they can feed themselves and their families.

I am perfectly fine with people simply not playing Facebook games because they don’t find them fun.  Go ahead and insult their game design and call them spammy clickfests.  But this incessant need to slam and ridicule social game players for doing something they like to do is just privileged bullshit that really has to stop.

About Tami Baribeau

Lead Editor and co-founder of The Border House, feminist, gamer, lover of social media, technology, and virtual worlds. Pansexual, equestrian, dog lover, social game studio director and producer. Email me here and follow me on Twitter!
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24 Responses to Facebook games and the privileged people who oppose them

  1. Anton says:

    I can relate to how frustrating it feels when people are critical of games and make uneducated comments about them- especially in a public space like a popular news site. Your right, browser and mobile games are all about accessibility, but it’s a bit of a hyperbole to say that other games are a luxury.

    A more important question to discuss is why people make these points, what we did to reinforce these ideas in their minds, and how we can change their perspective with actions in the future.

  2. Kristin says:

    So. Much. Word.

    What’s even more sad is that so much of this resentment comes from people who do play games – people who consider themselves “serious” gamers, while people who play social games are “idiots” who “can’t handle” real games and instead play “brainless” Farmville or whatever. It’s geek hierarchy bullshit all over again.

  3. TMH says:

    While I don’t use Facebook, I am a physically challenged woman who appreciates the efforts of people like yourself who create fun things for people like me to do. I used to confront the sort of privileged jerks who make remarks like the ones you included, pointing out that many of us have disabilities that make these games some of the few recreational activities available to us. The general consensus was that we’re just that much more pathetic, because we play video games AND we’re disabled.

    I’ve since given up on trying to reason with them. Glad to see you haven’t.

  4. Jayle Enn says:

    I used to be really, really annoyed with Facebook games, not because of the content (which still doesn’t really thrill me) but because they were so obnoxiously invasive. The addition of the Games Dashboard has gone a long way to soothe that, but I’m still wary of playing a game through my Facebook account.

    I’m not going to debate the ableist comments that Cuppy reports, because they really are as stupid and vile as anything one might encounter in a game of Halo or watching /trade in World of Warcraft. In fact, it reminds me so strongly of the kind of abuse ‘traditional’ video gamers have put up with -and- inflicted that I suspect people are beginning to realize that social gaming is here to stay– and that makes them feel threatened.

    PC gamers vs. ‘contards’, console purists vs. one another, and all against a public that scoffs at change and is still convinced that video games are for children. Most gamers have at least a vague inkling that money drives the industry– a console or a video card is already a multi-hundred dollar cost to be defended, before worrying about whether a publisher will release Titles A, B and C on their platform of choice. Social games are new, expanding at an incredible rate, and highly lucrative– and this terrifies a lot of ‘traditional’ video gamers because of the possibility that the games they want could be shelved in favour of vastly cheaper social games. And so, the unwitting social gamers get villainized in a new phase of the console wars.

    The comments quoted from the Chronicle are unfortunately par for virtually all of the on-line news commentary I’ve seen: mean-spirited, ignorant people lashing out from the safety of their living rooms. It’s the same abuse that other adult gamers get– games are for children, after all, so there must be something wrong with adults who pursue them, and the arguments to that effect are just as specious. “Why don’t you plant a real garden?” “Why don’t -you- go flip houses in Atlantic City, instead of playing Monopoly?”

    Bloody awful welcome to the new members of our increasingly broad hobby. I hate to say it but hopefully, with people who haven’t become inured to this kind of abuse and who are used to demanding at least a semblance of respect, we might be able to turn things around.

  5. Well, if you “give me permission” to insult a certain game design, from where I’m standing, it follows that I would analyze what kind of player it takes to enjoy said game. I’d hesitate to call someone who plays only the most sexist games a feminist, and I doubt I’d respect someones taste in video games if they played one armed bandits–I don’t find it to be good game design–and I’d claim that they’re in a self destructive pattern. Neither do I believe most of the social games to have good design, and even if it is from a privileged position (much critique/patronizing is), it would be immoral not to try to change the future of gaming by sitting on, indeed, my fat ass, and simply wait for farm villagers to take over! With the cross genre thing going on and game makers seeing where the money is, I’m afraid that even more bullshit design decisions will show up in all kinds of games that at least have some content in it which I like.

    Directing questions to those specifically involved and sitting on some of the answers (probably), sure, but to some degree one must not neglect ones fellow people even if it goes against their own opinion!

    Good call out on the idiot remarks, but I do not agree with the issue of accessibility to full extent though; I had a pretty good computer and 100mbit broadband, still farmville was lagging like hell. So one must have the patience of an angel in order to play it on certain computers (or, well, you know, no life :P) And indeed one must be good at setting limits for oneself so that it doesn’t become compulsive, a problem which I and it would seem some of my friends do not have with many other games with different design ethics/choices. And oh, time. Time time time. Oh what the hell, here’s a link for those interested:

    http://edtech.rice.edu/cms/?option=com_iwebcast&action=details&event=2349

  6. Doug S. says:

    Personally, I have nothing against “social games” – I just don’t like Zynga, because I have the feeling that there’s a lot of bad press out there about questionable ethics.

  7. Robert Yang says:

    I’ll agree with you on this popular mainstream discourse — that a lot of unfair criticism of Farmville and social games seems to be about demonstrating privilege and “taste.”

    However, I think much of the critical discourse condemning Farmville has centered on its mechanics and lack of meaningful choice.

    A crop grows, then withers; planting and harvesting is always in your best interest. Therefore, it’s not an actual choice because you’ll always plant and harvest if you can. Why would you do otherwise?

    Meanwhile, other games about farming might incorporate a “fertility” mechanic; if you overplant, you drain the soil of its nutrients and render your land useless and infertile. Thus, sometimes you plant and harvest, sometimes you leave the land fallow. Now that choice is meaningful because you actually have to think about it.

    Of course, not all choices in a game must be meaningful. But this choice, whether to plant / harvest, is the main mechanic of Farmville — and to the degree I described, it’s somewhat mindless.

    There’s also Ian Bogost’s argument that such “social” games, to a certain extent, are about dehumanizing your friends and commodifying your relationships to help you in your game… Which is probably bad, whether you’re poor or rich or straight or queer.

    (In comparison, Parking Wars is seen as meaningful because you have to know your friends really well to predict when they’ll check their Facebook. Meanwhile, I barely have to know anything about my friends to spam them about Mafia Wars; they’re just a resource for me to tap.)

  8. melponeme_k says:

    Unfortunately many game developers have the same opinion of their customers as these random people on a news site. That we give them money for their game entertainment just makes them sneer more.

    At least with the older entertainment venues (films, theater, TV and books) their basic impulse is to please.

  9. Sagan says:

    I was going to post the same link that Ava Avane Dawn posted. That talk by Jonathan Blow really is a must watch for anyone interested in social games. Jonathan Blow is smart enough and knows enough about game design to articulate properly why you shouldn’t play social games.

    So with that I have to respectfully disagree with the article. There are very valid reasons to not play games like FarmVille. There are also good reasons to play those games, but watch that talk by Jonathan Blow and see if those reasons hold up for you.

  10. Maverynthia says:

    (I actually think that’s a man in the picture there, since I use that hair for my male character, but I’m not certain since the mouth I think is both genders since Zynga puts all women in lipstick.)

    I’m willing to bet that those people that made those comments are people that probably “waste their life” on games such as WoW. Many of those people don’t like the “microtransactions” and feel it’s going to die out. Though the only difference between the games is that I can finish a game of Farmville in maybe 10 minutes, while they’ll spend maybe 12 HOURS trying to raid a boss. Who’s sitting on their ass now?

    Honestly people should be more ambivalent about the company than the people. Zynga was one of the people that was cited for selling private information to Rapleaf, but did not get their games pulled from Facebook like the creators of Ravenwood Fair did. From what I’ve heard, they haven’t corrected it either.
    I’d like to see comments along the vein of:
    “The people are idiots playing this game when they know their private information is being sold.” At least it’d be more informed then.

  11. Alex says:

    Sagan:

    There are very valid reasons to not play games like FarmVille. There are also good reasons to play those games, but watch that talk by Jonathan Blow and see if those reasons hold up for you.

    She’s not saying there aren’t ANY good criticisms of social/Facebook games, she’s saying that a great many of the dismissive comments made about them are elitist and privileged, and don’t take into account how or why social gamers actually play those games. There is a difference.

    And really, trying to convince people not to play them is deeply inappropriate and unwelcome. In doing so, you are doing the exact thing that Cuppy is criticizing.

  12. Sagan says:

    @Alex:
    Yep, I agree with the first part of your post. A lot of the criticism is just bad criticism and it wouldn’t even occur to me to defend the comments quoted in the article.

    But then the article goes on to say that there are good reasons for why people play games like FarmVille. And while that may be true, Jonathan Blow, in the talk that Ava Avane Dawn linked to, presents pretty excellent reasons for why you should not play these games. And I just couldn’t let a defense of those types of games stand, when there are such valid reasons to not play them. Just because a game is compulsive for the player does not mean that it is a good game design. And if people enjoy something, that does not mean that it is good. There are a great many things that people enjoy that are not good for them. (and I know it would be appropriate here to repeat the points that Jonathan blow makes, but he spends a long time just setting up his argument, and I would pretty much have to write a long article just to repeat his points)

    So yeah, I think I’m justified in trying to convince people to not play those games. And for each of the points mentioned in the article, there are other games that people should play. There are better games that are easy to play. There are better games that are free to play. There are better games for short gaming sessions. There is stuff outside of gaming that matches all of this. No matter who you are, there are better ways to spend your time than play FarmVille like games. I understand that these people just do something they like to do, but those games fall in the category of “things that people like even though they’re bad for them,” as Jonathan Blow argues very convincingly.

  13. BobSagat says:

    Most people I know who do play Farmville are always complaining how it sucks up all their free time or that it’s like an addiction. When I tell them that they should probably just stop, they’ll grudgingly say they don’t want their farms to wither and die. Jonathan Blow already covers this in his talk, but the most concerning for me with Farmville type video games is that the game determines when the player plays and not the other way around. You are no longer given a choice you are only expected to put in an input at the correct time. Farmville “rewards” its players to act like cogs in the machine.

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  15. nanasuyl says:

    This generation of gaming is so frustrating on this aspect of labelling things. Why do we need to label anyway? Before this generation, I’ve never thought if I was playing a casual or hardcore game. It simply didn’t matter. Nowadays, it seems as if you’re not playing a first person shooter online, you’re not a gamer. What?

    I don’t understand all the prejudice against “casual games” and the need some people have of putting others down ‘cos they like these games. It’s sad and incredibly stupid. People should play whatever pleases them. It’s that simple and yet, too difficult for some minds to understand.

    As for those who think gaming is a waste of time, they should stop and reflect if other people couldn’t say the same thing about their favourite hobbies.

    In the end, everybody would be better off if everyone just stopped criticising what others do with their free time. Unless it’s illegal or is hurting someone.

  16. Alex says:

    @Sagan No, you are not justified in trying to convince other people to not play social games. It’s deeply condescending and egotistical to think you know what is good for people you don’t know and have never spoken to. For the last time, this is not the place to evangelize against social games. It is unacceptable. If you don’t understand that, then you should refrain from commenting.

  17. Alex H says:

    Sagan, BobSagat, etc.

    First of all, you all need to stop. Not because you’re wrong, but because it’s not such a simple issue.

    Jonathan Blow is obviously someone who has spent a lot of time thinking about video games. I know people who work at Zynga or other social game companies that probably would agree with Blow. That being said, he is human, after all, and a privileged white dude at that. So despite his intellect, there are going to be some legacy problems with anything he says or does unless he deals firsthand with them.

    Which brings me to the problem of Blow et al’s descrying of Facebook games. I understand that you aren’t attacking the people who play these games (which would be completely absurd as a response to cuppy’s post) but the games themselves as the real problem. The players are merely victims to some dastardly, evil game designing. I haven’t watched Blow’s talk, and I don’t plan to, but I imagine him saying something along the lines of what he said about WoW being unethical for the whole BF Skinner/Pavlov thing going on there.

    At first this seems pretty right on. From a cursory glance, yes, it does seem like here is yet another example of how “the man” is getting richer and oppressing people. But like I said above, it’s not that simple.

    In order to best illustrate the complexity issue I’ll use an analogy: casinos. Imagine if this conversation was about casinos. “They’re evil!” “They take advantage of the way people’s brains work in order to make money off of them,” etc etc. Let’s demonize casinos. Let’s make casinos absolutely terrible. Let’s say they’re unethical, deplorable, and let’s keep doing that. Let’s get online and do it. Let’s continue to do this in forums, blog posts, conferences, classrooms, parties, etc. Let’s build a subculture of hating casinos. Casinos are bad, and (insert whatever the opposite of a casino is here) is good. What happens to the people who go to casinos?

    Remember, we’re not demonizing *them* we’re demonizing the institution of the casino. And yet, what happens? People are going to casinos (I’m one of them), and if we aren’t going to fault them for it, what do we do? We pity them. We feel bad for them because they’re victims of the casino’s evil machinations. They’re just so gullible, so naive, so innocent, so unfortunate, so however-you-want-to-characterize them. How else can we reconcile something that is inherently SO BAD with people who are NOT BAD? Indifference? Sorry, you lost the opportunity for “I don’t have an opinion on the people who play social games” back when you were helping create a festering shitpile of hatred.

    So either way we’re fucked. We’re either saying casinos are bad and therefore people who go to casino’s are bad, or we’re saying casino’s are bad and the people who go there are just misguided (which is in many dishonest/disingenuous ways, worse than just saying they’re bad).

    OR you’re saying Casinos are bad, but the people who go to them are good, which doesn’t make any sense in my head and I’d want someone to explain how it does in theirs.

    “Good” is subjective, and therefore “good for you” is also. And therefore “There are a great many things that people enjoy that are not good for them” begs the question of a certain viewpoint, and when it’s coming from yet another privileged white dude, it’s already been said many times over.

  18. So saying that hitler was misguided is wrong then? Must we demonize hitler and say that zie is evil?

    If ya’ll like to hear it from a suicidial, chronic depressive-crip, white, dykie transsexual who has had problems with gaming addiction instead: farmville make me do it! But this doesn’t seem to be the place to talk about this, so I’ll stop. Good to some people seem to follow the whole blow/bogost cow clicker scene though. :)

  19. Alex h says:

    Manichean dichotomies are always problematic, Nothing is that simple

  20. DSimon says:

    I think you can make a pretty good case for FarmVille being a poorly designed game, but whatever its flaws, those are the flaws of that one particular game. You can made casual games that avoid FarmVille’s problems. Heck, lots of designers have!

    And of course, getting on the case of the players rather than the game itself: always uncool.

  21. BobSagat says:

    @Alex H

    If you’re just going to throw your hands up and say that determining what’s good and bad is impossible what’s the point of discussing anything?

    Farmville’s game design is fundamentally bland and uninteresting, invasive and addicting. You can argue for perspective all you want, but I’ll try to appeal to your common sense and ask how does that NOT sound “bad”?

    And you really should watch the Jon Blow lecture before you start saying how wrong he is.

  22. Alex says:

    BobSagat, it doesn’t matter whether or not social games are bad. (Though there are, in fact, very good ones, such as Echo Bazaar.) The point is, it is extremely fucking rude to come in here and tell people what they should and should not play. It is condescending, patronizing, and unwelcome. So–and this is your final warning–cut it out.

  23. Clarissa says:

    I am just going to say what I see around.
    All my classmates in college play these social games, and a lot of them have “expensive” consoles and stuff. They only play farmville because it is there. Because they have nothing to do on the internet, while they wait for someone to answer them on the msn.
    Sorry if this mess things up, but this opposition social gamers vs. consoles gamers does not exist. As far as I am concerned, these social games, somehow, fill a gap of time.
    Besides, some os my classmates gave up this game, with the statement: I got fed up because it is too repetitive.

  24. Jules B. says:

    how ironic!!! I actually consider people who play farmville to be LESS risible and pathetic than adult-aged people who spend hundreds of dollars playing games.

    Of course, they’re all such intensely pathetic specimens of the species that it makes me pray for nuclear holocaust, but people who at least don’t shell out hundreds of bucks for the “privilege” are slightly easier on my gag reflex… the way a grown man who collects little toy soldiers from thrift stores is a little less sad than a grown man who collects $50 “character figurines” from japan.

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