August 23rd, 2010 by Mike Fulton

When I started using Facebook regularily last year, I started playing several of the various games like FarmVille and Mafia Wars.  The main reason was that they seemed to be popular attractions for many of the old friends I was reconnecting with and playing seemed to be a means of continuing that reconnection.

The various “games” on Facebook seem to fall into several basic categories.  The first of these is the theme-based “WAR” games like Mafia Wars or Pirates!  Then you have the build/decorate games like FarmVille.  Casino games like Texas Hold ‘Em Poker are also popular.

It’s War!

In most of the theme-based “wars” games like Mafia Wars, you start out at level 1 with a fixed amount of “energy” and a fixed amount of “health”.  You advance by doing “jobs” or pulling “heists” or whatever else the theme in question might specify.  Each job uses a fixed number of energy points and rewards a certain amount of experience points that go towards earning the next level.  When you reach the next level, your energy and health is reset to maximum, and you’re given additional points to distribute between your maximum health value, maximum energy value, and other various offensive or defensive attributes.

In order to keep holding your attention just a wee bit longer, your health and energy regenerates over time, so that if you just sit at the computer another few minutes, you’re able to do another mission and maybe reach that next level.

Another aspect of these games is the “send a gift” mechanism whereby you can send some virtual item to Facebook friends playing the same game.  The recipient gets a message on their Facebook home page that they’ve been sent an item, and then they accept it, which brings them back into the game.  These items may provide some in-game advantage or they maybe purely decorative.

The other social component to these games is that you and whatever Facebook friends also play the same game form a team of sorts.  The games generally feature some sort of “combat” where you can attack another player or be attacked by another player.  When this happens, it’s actually your team versus theirs.  Both the size of your team and all the various attributes of the individual players are combined in some fashion to see who wins.

Game or Software Toy?

We keep referring to these things as “games” but many of them are nothing of the sort.  They’re really more like software toys.  You might call them an “activity” but “game” is not really all that accurate.  It may be mostly semantics, but there are several attributes of being a “game” which don’t apply to many of these Facebook applictions. Here’s a few of the reasons why I would say that something like FarmVille is not a “game”

  • There’s no particular goal.
  • You can neither “lose” nor “win”
  • There’s no particular skill required, no real strategy involved, or an element of chance, either.  All you really need to do is put in the time.
  • You can advance your standing by spending real money to obtain game items.

Think of traditional games like “Monopoly”.  There’s a clear goal: collect the most money and property while the other players go bankrupt.  When that happens, the game ends.  There are different strategies that affect your success… like when and where you should improve your properties — do you buy a hotel on Broadway or a bunch of houses on New York Avenue and the surrounding neighborhood?

By comparison, FarmVille has no particular goals other than reaching the next “level” and buying more stuff with which to decorate your farm.  There’s no particular combination of “stuff” that’s inherently more desirable than any other and nothing you do will ever cause the whole thing to end, other than to stop playing.  (In that case some might say YOU’RE THE WINNER!)

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