As friend and colleague Adam Liszkiewicz has recently noted, FarmVille is a terrible game. It doesn’t even really qualify as a game, under Roger Caillois’s six criteria of games, and no matter what credence you give to classical ludology, you have to admit — there is an unprecedented number of people who continue to play, despite the absence of any of the rewards of play, or any of the rewards of labor. Zynga, the company that runs FarmVille, continues to make an absurd amount of money from hooking or scamming its players. Which is something that Jesse Schell neglects to mention in his DICE 2010 talk about design outside the box.

Now, before I begin, let me make perfectly clear that I am skeptical of the idea that Caillois’s criteria constitute a complete and definitive measure of a game. (i.e., I think that Caillois’s criteria are necessary but not sufficient.) Nor am I resistant to the idea that this definition can change. However, thinking about Martin Roberts’ talk at a conference this past fall and reading a bunch of Adorno has turned me a bit curmudgeonly. Ultimately, I think there are not a lot of people who are really enthusiastic about the things that games can do, while simultaneously being skeptical about certain deployments of gaming and the “fun” buzzword. And, as an industry and community, we desperately need more of that attitude.

In Man, Play, and Games (1961), Caillois defines six criteria by which we can determine a game. Games must be free from obligation, separate from real life, uncertain in outcome, unproductive, governed by rules, and make-believe. In his paper “Cultivated Play,” Liszkiewicz illustrates how FarmVille fulfills none of these criteria. Though we might argue that FarmVille is still make-believe, since the player is, at least nominally, pretending to be a farmer, FarmVille is absolutely not free from obligation, entirely separate from real life, uncertain in outcome, and unproductive. So let me reiterate Liszkiewicz’s point, from a softer standpoint: FarmVille does not satisfy all of Roger Caillois’s six gamic criteria, therefore it is not a game.

If FarmVille is arguably not a game, Schell’s “games” are definitely not games. The fact that Schell introduces his ideas about the future through the avenue of FarmVille’s puzzling success should be telling. To be clear: the games that Schell describes are certainly not free from obligation, moreso than FarmVille. Nor are they separate from real life (the games are real life — again, a more extreme position than FarmVille). These games are bit more uncertain in their outcomes, yet specific actions will always lead to specific reactions. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be good marketing and data mining. Schell’s games are absolutely productive. They are in no way make-believe.

And while they might be governed by the same kinds of “rules” that FarmVille is governed by, the game logic expressed by the rewards system is, I argue, not a true rules system in the sense that say, chess or Halo 2 has a true rules system. While there is a pleasantly simple mathematical logic to the way that a game like FarmVille works — e.g., the player executes an action, is rewarded with a predetermined result — there is no rule structure above and beyond that. There is no strategy. There is not even a way players can break the implicit rules of the game, except to cease play. The structure of the kind of games that Schell describes is no different.

So to call what Schell describes “games” is disingenuous at best, patently false at worst. The need for a critical eye on the development of non-games is more important now than it has ever been, with a class-action lawsuit filed against Zynga, and an alternate reality game sponsored by the World Bank Institute. I don’t think that there is anything wrong with an organization like the WBI sponsoring a game. Nor do I think game companies should not try to make money. What I am calling for is a careful examination of what we call a game, and what we esteem in the games we play.

A healthy attitude of skepticism is missing from the games industry, and I don’t mean criticizing Grand Theft Auto for graphic depictions of sexuality and violence. This is bigger than that: it’s about the way our society thinks about and values games in general, not just the ethical implications of their content. Just because it is marketed to us a game does not mean it is fun, or pleasurable, or even a game, for that matter. It does not mean that it is a good. And it doesn’t mean that there is not underlying ideology that drives design and implementation.

Yet it’s easy to forget that, with the games industry trouncing Hollywood in profits and encouraging data coming out of more experimental forms like alternate reality gaming. The cult of fun is something that worries me, from a moral and aesthetic standpoint. Fun may be blinding us to the ideological quandaries our play is built on.

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