Written by Halie Miller. Media by Kelsey Kuethe.
My FarmVille 2 chickens weep on weeks I’m swamped with homework, and every day I’m away from my townsfolk brings my Sims Freeplay a day closer to destruction. With my Happy Aquarium fish starving and my Sims Social character the most antisocial of the lot, I can’t help but wonder about the phenomenon that is social network gaming and how much time it takes out of our lives. Are they harmful at worst and useless at best, or simply entertainment? I insist they are both, but neither results in the other. Most of us participate (some of us to excess) in social gaming, and we enjoy reaching pre-established goals and completing game quests. Along with these motivators designed to justify the hours we spend with our eyes glued to the screens, we appreciate the asynchronous game play allowing us to play in cooperation with each other without our simultaneous presence online. Finally, we delight that they are often free.
Controversial company Zynga, currently the top social game developer, boasts its FarmVille 2 the most popular app with 46,500,362 monthly active users (MAU) as of March 27, 2013; the developer’s CoasterVille holds a respectable second place with 41,117,696 MAU. Eventually those numbers (and those of their competitors) will drop off, though not as suddenly as one might assume, making the way for the next gaming trend as YoVille did when replaced by its successor, The Ville.
Though network games are designed to keep users playing through continuous goals, in-game events synchronized to real world time, and sharable achievements, most people eventually succumb to boredom and, as previously mentioned, drop out of the MAU masses. Addiction, however, isn’t as uncommon as one would think, and that’s where the real trouble with social network games lies. Examples include FarmVille-addicted mom Teresa, as seen on Dr. Phil, neglecting her family in favor of her FarmVille fix, and disgusting, infamous Alexandra Tobias admitting to shaking her infant son to death when angered that his crying interrupted her Farmville play.
In an age where social network games are addictions made easy, do we blame behavior ranging from annoying (“My sister won’t get off Texas HoldEm Poker and let me use the computer!”) to potentially deadly (“She hasn’t fed her children for three weeks in feeding her obsession with Mafia Wars!”) on their existence, or on an individual’s susceptibility? I lean toward the latter. Just as alcohol can be charged with facilitating alcoholism, social networking games can be blamed for facilitating obsession, but there is no accounting for individual susceptibility toward addiction in either case, and so the objects of addiction cannot be blamed. In most cases, casual users don’t suffer lasting side effects from stints on one social game or another.
All in all, social network gaming, while admittedly a waste of time, provides harmless, enjoyable ways to procrastinate or unwind; however, sometimes these games are best avoided if one is prone to excess.