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Jonathan Blow says social games are "evil"

Indie dev says most so-called social titles are anything but

Outspoken indie developer Jonathan Blow, currently working on adventure title The Witness, has described social games as evil, saying that he believes them to be designed selfishly, to take as much from the player as possible whilst giving the absolute minimum back.

Speaking in an interview with PC Gamer, Blow left no doubt as to his opinions on titles like Zynga's Cityville, saying that many of them are even designed intentionally to degrade a player's quality of life.

"Yes. Absolutely," Blow replied when asked if he thought social games were evil. "There's no other word for it except evil. Of course you can debate anything, but the general definition of evil in the real world, where there isn't like the villain in the mountain fortress, is selfishness to the detriment of others or to the detriment of the world. And that's exactly what [most of these games are].

"I'm not trying to say 'I know what's best for players and they shouldn't play these games'. It's okay to play social games to an extent. Like it's probably okay to smoke cigarettes to an extent, but what these designers do - and this is why I always go to it from the design standpoint - they very deliberately design the game to not give the player everything that they want, to string the player along and to invade the player's free time away from the game.

"Designers know what they are doing. They know when they show up in the office - 'My goal is to degrade the player's quality of life'," he continued.

They probably won't think about that exact phrase. But [will think], 'My goal is to get people to think about my game and to put more money into my game and get other friends to play my game to the exclusion of all other games and all other things that they might do with their free time.'

That is the job description of those designers. And that's evil. It's not about giving people anything. It's about taking from people."

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Latest comments (44)

Terence Gage Freelance writer 10 years ago
This is a bit dramatic though, isn't it? According to the Cambridge Online Dictionary, 'Evil' means morally bad, cruel, or very unpleasant. Whilst I'm sure many games are designed in such a way to keep the player wanting more and coming back for just ten more minutes, it's hardly evil or corrupt to play on peoples' addictive nature. Does this mean that TV shows that deliberately always finish episodes on a cliffhanger are evil too? Or how about books that are cleverly written so as to be page-turners you can't put down?

Anyway, I don't have any interest in Facebook games or social games generally and I think they're a bit of a fad, but I don't begrudge others playing them. I mean, he's comparing playing Zynga games to smoking cigarettes -- is that really any less sensationalist than calling Bulletstorm "the worst game in the world"?
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Nicholas Lovell Founder, Gamesbrief10 years ago
Good publicity for Jonathan, but pretty ill-conceived. He sounds like Jack Thompson over GTA or former Lt. Col. David Grossman calling first-person shooters "murder simulators".

Millions of people love social games. They offer successful entertainment to audiences far in excess of those that even Jonathan reaches. They are no more a time sink than Angry Birds or Tetris.

If you think those games are evil, then maybe Jonathan has a point; if not, he's just, like many before him, scared of a change to his industry.
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Michael Armer Studying Games Development National Diploma Level 3, Lancaster and Morecambe College10 years ago
can you really blame the developers at all tho. if they decide to make a game and people will play it and pay for it, then how are they in the wrong for making a game that will make them money. if you don't like it stop playing them.
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Show all comments (44)
Rick Lopez Illustrator, Graphic Designer 10 years ago
I remember when Pokemon were evil... Seriously, I was hooked on farmville for a time, but its up to a person to play or not play. It took alot of my time and all i was really doing was growing plants and just decorating my farm, and having played most of their games they are almost all the same, just dressed differently. What discouraged me was the fact that all the cool stuff you had to actually buy and you even had to pay for storage. Like when you filled up your farm, you had to either pay for storage or ask for shovels, alot of the game mechanics involved spamming friends for materials to build things. Farmville isnt evil, its boring. Ultimatly people decide what to do with there time and choose how a game affects their lives. And if a person cant choose between farmville and feeding his family, then by all means he deserves to be fired from his job.
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Kam Star Managing Director, PlayGen10 years ago
... and Chinese Social Games are Super Evil Preying on human vulnerabilities for commercial gain.

We make social games at PlayGen - but our social games are practically saintly, like <a herf=""></a>, and okay we don't get as many players as the Evil ones, but we sleep really well at night knowing we're really helping youngster be more inspired, rather than mindlessly entertaining them without aim or purpose.
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I love my AAA games as much as the next hard core gamer.
However, if social games are not up your street. Chances are you are not the target market audience/demographic.

Maybe they are a bit of a fad, but they are currently a alternative to the traditional markets on a wide variety of platforms - online, console, PC and handheld.
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Victor Perez CEO, Games GI10 years ago
ok, fine... you dont understand so.. it is a evil's product.. fine.
I dont play "social games", because they are boring (for me!!).. I design online games becouse is fun.. but never to say they are evil...
If I do, I have to add..
Social Media..
Well... who will be the police?

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Victor Perez on 16th February 2011 3:07pm

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Robbie Kazandjian Director, SoundBoy Ltd10 years ago
welcome to the dark side of capitalism my friend.
Advertising is evil, product development is evil. When things are done for gain, they are done for gain, not some charitable act of good will. A perfect capitalist model will squeeze all the benefit from a situation whilst giving as little in return as possible, in order to maximise gain.
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Luke Smith Design Director, Monumental Games10 years ago
I agree with Robbie above. That these games are successful, in making a player comeback, play again, and spend money - is evil? Would you rather games were unsuccessful, ie made no money and didnt make the player come back? I suppose Elvis was evil for gyrating his hips in a way that made young ladies come back?

Or its because they dont give back? So how do you quantify giving back? You cant - it can only really be judged by looking at how often a player returns, because they are returning because they are being entertained.

More than naive though I think these comments are evidence of a lack of understanding. What cityville et al do well is explore nurturing, and present it in as quicky and easily digestible a format as possible. And ultimate they are financially very succesful. And we are in this industry to make money, or we dont survive.
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Alan Pierce Programmer, Digital Delight10 years ago
I suppose Elvis was evil for gyrating his hips in a way that made young ladies come
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Chris Karpyszyn Programmer, King Beaver Software10 years ago
Isn't it the modus operandi of any company to create something that sticks in the mind of their consumer 24/7 and to make the most amount of money off that consumer?

Unless they are deliberately taking advantage of people who cannot readily make proper decisions for themselves then I do not see a problem. Social gamers are not idiots and can think for themselves how they wish to spend their time and money.
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Saehoon Lee Lead technical artist, Kuno Interactive10 years ago
'My goal is to get people to think about my game and to put more money into my game and get other friends to play my game to the exclusion of all other games and all other things that they might do with their free time.'

Let's be honest here, if you can do this as a game developper you would not tell your mom but you would want to do it.
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Robin Clarke Producer, Zattikka Ltd.10 years ago
It's possible to design a social game wholly cynically, but the same goes for any kind of game. MMOs for example have institutionalised design that demands investment of hundreds of hours, and are prone to monopolising their players' leisure time in a way that's not comparable to spending ten minutes a day checking in to CityVille.

It's also easy to discount the positive aspects of a game based on personal preference. Lots of activities (from playing Animal Crossing to owning a cat) demand attention, expenditure and tedious tasks to be performed while seemingly offering nothing in return.

Truly cynical games can't last. I think it would be more constructive to figure out why these millions of players are putting up with them and how they can be better served.
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pierre dumas creative director, Ubisoft10 years ago
I met and discussed with Jon Blow a couple times. I felt like his arrogance hid a faithful, very intelligent, fiercely indie and suspicious person dressed like a tibetan monk :) He genuinely thinks what he says. Play his games... they are by no means mass market. I am not sure he cares everyone gets his message and would prefer you suffer to deserve winning...
All in all, I don't think he believes social games are evil... but rather social games designers are evil because they make social gamers even more stupid.
I usually disagree with him but I think the world needs people like him. Not because he's right but because it counter-balances the all-money-approach with a little more soul.
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Tony Coles Account Manager, Peppermint P10 years ago
"It's not about giving people anything. It's about taking from people." Is an interesting point.
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Tim O'Donoghue Information resources, Crunch10 years ago
Well if Mr. Blow thinks social game developers are evil where does that put the people who market them? Ultra despicables? Dastardly malevolents? Nefarious rancours?

Actually that does describe marketing rather well...
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Brian Dreyer Managing Director 10 years ago
I'm going to assume the 'press' guy took comments out of context to make a story more sexy because no-one could be this... you know...
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There's an element that the extreme nature of this story (the 'evil' bit), and the reactions to it, mean a valid point is missed a little.
Arguably with these types of games the natural instincts of many game traditional developers, designers, programmers, artists are being suppressed by the need to create mechanisms to encourage investment, and re-play.
For most game developers, that natural instinct is simple - to make games that they are proud of, games that either they would like to play, or think others would like to play. This instinct isn't necessarily compatible with creating games with the business models referred to here. It's a different approach to development, and one which some existing developers will be reluctant to embrace.
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John Blackburne Programmers 10 years ago
One might as well say WoW (on any subscription based MMO game) is evil, for taking money off you every month no matter how much you play. Or full price console games for charging $50 no matter the quality of the product. At least social games let you participate as little or as much as you want, pay as little or as much as you want. Not everyone enjoys quirky puzzle-platformers with painterly designs. Just because (many, many) more people like Cityville than Braid it doesn't make the developers evil.
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Brian Schmitt Art Director, Buzz Monkey Software10 years ago
Well, I guess we should praise Blow for employing a modicum of restraint here. At least he didn't invoke Nazis in this over-dramatic nonsense.
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Santiago Elizalde Game Developer, Vostu10 years ago
I think the article's "extreme" position is generating extreme opposites on the comments. I guess its none of the extremes, but a mix, like everything else is.

Ethically speaking, I think that the way in which social games are designed is rather shady. As in advertising, Players are intentionally pushed to buy all the time, Ive seen some nasty things like changing button colors or positions to confuse them (and that could certainly be called dirty tactics). Also, people who play the games are referred to as "Users" and not "Players", which gives you a hint on the marketing-centered design approach.

On the other hand, as some already said, people can choose not to play the games, so they are not captive audiences. Social gaming, in its current state, could very well be an ethically smelly business, just as TV, ad campaigns and private healthcare. But all are perfectly correct when analyzed from within our capitalist framework. Another good thing is that it introduces gaming to a very wide audience, of which a small portion could "upgrade" to hardcore gaming (which is nice IMHO), opening the market.

Personally, I think that social games are boring, dull, and that take from me more than they give, and so I don't play them. As for those who do play social games and get milked by "The man"...well...maybe they enjoy it, who am I to blame them? If we tried to tell these people what they should like or consume, we would be doing the same as the "evil" people...

just my 2c..

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Nikolay Tretyakov editor of the information service, ND Videogames10 years ago
Most of the comments here may as well be examples in Wikipedia article.
Name of the article?
- "Hypocrisy".
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Terence Gage Freelance writer 10 years ago
Actually, he's been on a rant before at MMOs as well (specifically referencing WoW), calling them "unethical" and exploitative, and this was well over three years ago, long before even Braid's release.

The guy obviously has strong beliefs and it's great if he can follow this line of thought and still be successful, but it seems like quite a naive viewpoint in a western capitalist society. Particularly when his rants are directed at what I assume is the single most profitable piece of entertainment ever created.
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Nikolay Tretyakov editor of the information service, ND Videogames10 years ago
Dunno about Blizzard (because WoW IS rewarding) but most of the people who produce FarmPetShopWildWestVilles shall be put on fiery strapons in Hell. Not the coders, the decision makers and beneficiaries OFC.
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This article's been up for, what, 4 hours and already it's the most commented one I've seen on here in weeks. If nothing else, he's succeeded in getting a rise out of the dev community on here.
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Alex Dawson Technical Art director, Firing Pin Games10 years ago
I was saying something similar to this earlier on in the day about the whole smurfville iphone game.

While not quite as full on as Blow I still feel similarly that a lot of social games use shady and underhand tactics in order to keep the player spending money for imaginary objects, these objects also have no value in the real world and can be snapped away by the developer at any given time should they wish. Thankfully I don't know anyone stupid enough to spend money on smurfberries or the like!

I don't blame the designers either, I blame the suits!
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@Nikolay Nah, Blizzard has already been sent to hell. This shambling atrocity that takes its name nowadays is not shy of any Lovecraftian horror of choice.
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Frankie Kang Producer / Consultant, First Post LLC10 years ago
Chasing the proverbial golden carrot is hardly a new game mechanic. Social online games of the 'Ville generation just built their entire philosophy and game design around it. As with all games, consumers will eventually get bored and move onto the next carrot chasing product.

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Bonnie Patterson Narrative Designer, Writer 10 years ago
I actually kind of agree with Mr Blow there. Consider smoking - an addictive product, often regarded as evil. If cigarettes used the same model as some social games, then in order to have my after-work ciggie, I'd have to go round to my friends' homes and ask them if they wanted a cigarette until they either took one or kicked me out. If I didn't do that, then large groups of burly smokers would come round and asthmatically punch me in the face and take my ciggies away, day after day.

But not all social games use the spam model - FailBetter Games' Echo Bazaar is a good example. My friends started playing it because they wanted to join in with two of us who were trying to puzzle out the "mysteries" and giggling over the plot. It had a genuine social element because it was something we could talk about in true, multi-speaker conversations.
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Sergei Klimov Director of Publishing & Business Development, Snowbird Studios10 years ago
Jonathan is a great guy.

He's on the spot when he highlights the role of game designers in making social gaming so stupid.

To all who mix in the comments definition of artistic, creative success and commercial success, I say - why don't you go to ICE 2012 in London and see for yourself another industry, online gambling?

It has the same things you attribute to social gaming: a cleverly designed one-armed bandit videoslot machine makes the players come back for more, and makes a ton of money for the operator. But would you call this a real job, designing the next "fruit superjumbo" with blinking lights? Would you really say that these designers have players's best interests in their hearts, when they make the design?

But come on, of course not. The game designers of the gambling industry are focused on designing a machine that will generate the most of $$$, based on compulsive nature of players, on the basis of psychology. And it's not a noble profession.

Same thing applies to social games. Zynga is not about design, it's about marketing. They are great people but they could also market and sell vodka, or sofas, or civil airplanes.

We, meanwhile, are in games industry for another reason - to create ricj interactive experiences for our players, to play a part in the ancient art of storytelling, to give as much as we take, or more.

So, please, do not tell me that any design which is profitable, is a good design.

The most successful poker machines in the gambling world are some of the worst looking, and technologically retarded things. But they are on the top because the people who make them, are a tremendously efficient sales force, and they push them everywhere. I bow not to them, but to those who innovate, and offer much more. In the same fashion, I believe that Jonathan brings games industry forward - while social games, for most part, do not achieve that.
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Burton Posey Game Developer 10 years ago
I've been trumpeting this call for the last few years. They've essentially distilled the process down to a Skinner Box, . It devalues the player in a way that says, "you play when we say you can play, unless you'd like to continually swipe your credit card." I've personally got no issue with someone making a ton of money. I'd love to myself. I have issue with the way in which it's done. It's not respectful of the participants enough to call them gamers. It puts them on a schedule. If you had a good product and wanted people to enjoy it, why would you limit access to it?

I personally think and sincerely hope there's a place on Facebook for games that say, "Here's a product, part of it's free, part of it's not. As long as you want, you can come and play this experience for free. If you'd like to experience all of it, you can pay for that content, and that too is available whenever you'd like." The bonus is you create an XBL type of experience that leverages a much larger type of network.

The stuff that's there now, and trust me I know it's incredible profitable (doesn't mean it's necessarily right as far as I'm concerned), is something I find more akin to the human energy-harvesting fields of the Matrix than a game.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Burton Posey on 16th February 2011 6:45pm

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Sergei Klimov Director of Publishing & Business Development, Snowbird Studios10 years ago
@ Bonnie: great comparison! If you work at British American Tobacco, and design great cigarette packs, you can claim that your customers come back for more - and pay good money - and therefore you're in good business. But compared to running a winery, where you give your heart, your best effort, and put your soul into the vintage year; or compared to running a restaurant where you charge customers money, sure, but you give them so much more than just some food on the plate, the cigarette job is just a shadow of what the real talent can make. Jonathan has the balls to say what a lot of us won't say because we need our paychecks and we need to make it seem that any business paying us money, is a good business. But it is not.
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Don Hogan Game Artist / 3D modeler 10 years ago
There are a lot of great comments here, and some good comments in the article, too. What I see more than anything is that Blow is passionate about what he does and how he wants to do it. Ultimately, this doesn't strike me as any more extreme than many things said by industry notables on any given day. The recent interview with Richard Garriott comes to mind, just actually.

In both I see things to agree with and to disagree with; but more importantly to get me to challenge my assumptions, think for myself and not be content with being told the state of our industry.
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Ben Herman CEO 10 years ago

Lots of discussion about the category that is sucking the blood out of the traditional home console packaged goods games. My question remains....."Do we really enjoy social games that regress 20 years regarding graphics?" I will stick with my console games, wait for 3D games and keep my money away from the Zynga Ka-chinga's. Did you see the Apple press release today about subscriptions? Bank accounts will have zero soon.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Ben Herman on 16th February 2011 8:58pm

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J. Goldmaker Community Management 10 years ago
I really liked it when Bejewelled Blitz on Facebook was giving away cars and laptops each week rather than some vapourware points. Did they run out of cash? If so they need a better formula the way shows like Deal, No Deal operated, where everyone never wins big and the cash stays in the pot. This will motivate players to come back again and again and never be bored. Money talks. Buy your customers.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by J. Goldmaker on 17th February 2011 1:19am

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Private Industry 10 years ago
Not sure I would call them evil, but I would say games like FarmVille or any other Ville isn`t exactly quality entertainment. Cut the rope or Angry Birds are fun with a bit of brain needed, your typical adventure games are fun with a lot more brain needed, MMO`s are fun with social interactions, Bulletstorm or Duke Nukem are mindless fun, as for FarmVille it`s mindless not much fun or social elements except for all the spamming of "send me some crops" or "help me build my new barn".

I see his point where you give more than you get, you don`t get much from the game and for most of the things you have to pay for or get other people to join the game. In that sense it`s a bit like a pyramid system "you want to progress in our game? well then pay up or get other people to join us otherwise you don`t get the good stuff" and those new people need again other people to progress. At the end it`s the same people just spend money, but are they really entertained with it and get anything back? With most Zynga games just being mods of their other games? People would be way better off buying Harvest Moon or Civilization V, pay once get everything no need to spam others on facebook until they put you on ignore to try to recruit them and at least Civ V has a lot more social elements than your "Social" facebook game.
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Tim Carter Designer - Writer - Producer 10 years ago
I'm sure he won't get much sympathy here. Game developers aren't really known for introspection.
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Krasimir Koichev Producer, Riftforge10 years ago
In the OLD days, you had to create a good (as opposed to evil) game so that players bought the game and told their friends. That's old-days viral.

Facebook has distorted this by providing huge incentives to game developers to make money by spamming you and everyone in your friends' circle with countless "Share this... truffle".

In addition, to make their games more enduring, they have 200 levels of everything now: 200-level scryscraper, 200-level gold mine, etc. These games are an endless grind that never leave you a sense of completion.
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It's really mostly about the payment model, isn't it? If you had a pay-once, or flat rate plan, nobody would complain.
I personally know how to stay clear of addictive money holes, which is why I'm not the target audience for afforementioned games.
I have (real life) friends who immensly enjoy the free-to-play parts of social games, so not all is bad in farmville land, but they don't fall into the classic gamer roles. They never wanted to invest time into "sit down and focus" games, they just want their quick fix.

This article shows how far we, as developers have come from making games we want to play ourselves, to making games that keep us fed. It's a business now, like so many others. I' wager that given the chance and financial security, most social game dev's would go indie.
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Having tried a few of these games myself I have to agree within reason with several points made by Jonathan, obviously he said this to provide himself with free publicity and perhaps evil is to headlining a word and in a world full of the morally ambiguous labelling poor quality time/money sinks as evil is a stetch, but referring to Terence's dictionary quote of evil, very unpleasant is not a stetch, a fact that may not be realised till some time later to the addicted players, it is certainly designed without any consideration to the players, and entirely based around generating maximum revenue from players and providing the bare minimum experience per pound possible, and they are indeed utterly selfish and their development focus is on trying to make them as addictive as possible whilst extracting every ill-gotten penny, whilst not illegal or neccessarily "evil" they are some of the most morally questionable game systems by design around, just because you can do something doesn't mean you should, and unquestionably many will waste allot of time and money on a game that offer's a generally poor play experience and requiring much time and money to get it, hardly likely to encourage the mainly less "gamer" type players to try other titles after the experience looking back in a few years so they operate to the detriment of the rest of the industry.

Having said that talk is cheap, I have no doubt that there is a great potential for new development in the area and done well could provide a much more satisfying experience, and perhaps if Jonathon feels so strongly about it to generate such publicity on this issue, how about he create some titles for them himself and improve the lot of social gamers.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Alexander McConnell on 17th February 2011 2:01pm

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Josh Jonsson Studying Bcomm/CompSc, University of Calgary10 years ago
I expected more than pseudo intellectual teenage bs from this site as I thought the audience was more mature, but I guess even trolls grow up and get jobs. Anyway, I am surprised that so few people give this article any credit. Simply dismissing it as ill-conceived publicity or exaggeration is lazy. Of course its easy to say "Oh im blind and everything will work out in the end so if it exists its gonna sort itself out." The social games are exactly as illustrated by Mr. Blow. They are OVERTLY greedy, selfish and detrimental to time. Arguing that "If you don't like it shut up about it and just don't play them" is idiotic and am amazed that anyone can write something like that and not feel like a total douche. If that's your philosophy, don't read the article or comment on it idiot... The games are designed to waste time, give the bare minimum amount of return on time spent, suck money at amounts surpassing what one might call "legitimate" games. People are instinctual and often get caught in behaviors that seem illogical or poorly thought out but that's no reason to say "let them go to hell it's their own fault" these games prey on the exact type of psychology that Facebook utilizes to keep up its huge user base, constant involvement with updates, groups etc the idea is to draw people back to their social 'Nexus" as frequently as possible, these "games" are even stricter in their requirements as you can't even play them at your leisure as they have a limited amount of plays per time unit meaning that to progress at anything nearing a satisfying rate one must be constantly checking in at times dictated o the p[layer. Its an industry bent on controlling players time and schedule, unlike the games we love to come to home to who loyally wait for us (metaphorically) to play them and once paid for are sources of entertainment at our leisure, these games are built on a model that, if one can call a simulation/game by a moral concept, evil. And if your definition of evil precludes this possibility, consider this, something that exists solely to control others for its own selfish purposes using subtlety, extortion and has no regard for the well being of those it comes in contact with. If this definition can be applied to something other than a textbook evil character I would be surprised at your ability to delude yourself (or in some outlying case, some excellent wordplay).
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Martin Klima Executive Producer, Warhorse Studios10 years ago
Really, it should be obvious that the games designed to facilitate vapid killing of time to the players are something quite different from games that allow players to experience something they could never experience otherwise. Jon's (and Sergei's) comments are spot on.
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Shane Sweeney Academic 10 years ago
I've seen Jonathan Blow give a talk where he treated MMO's with the same disdain and compared fast food to World of Warcraft. In any case, I can at least appreciate his perspective.

Jonathan always had some interesting views on game play and diversity of views can only make this industry better. He mentioned point and click adventure games were inheritantly deceitful because they used "unfun" game play like rubbing a bunch of objects to unlock the next step in the narrative. So the "unfun" game play was something we had to grind through and we slowly were rewarded with narrative chunks.

Blows view was the game play should be inheriantly fun first and not rely on regular paced rewards. So in that context, I can understand how he reaches such an extreme position on casual games.
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Chris Lee Automation Engineer, Rocket Ninja, Inc.10 years ago
This sounds so much like fear about a group of things/people you do not understand and are not a part of. The sweeping generalizations of how Social Games work is just staggering. Every game is it's own little beast, unique in it's situation no matter the similarities it shares. Honestly, it's just shameful.
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