Click, click, click
“I did,” I said.
“And yet there you are: click, click, click.”
I’ve actually given up Mafia Wars several times over the past few years, and, believe it or not, this last time has largely stuck. I may have mastered the New York, Cuba, Moscow, and most of the Bangkok job tiers, acquired more weapons, vehicles, and armor than one could ever reasonably hope to warehouse, but several months ago I went cold turkey. I de-authorized the application on Facebook, and I stopped requesting and accepting energy packs, mystery bags, and random “limited time” items from friends and strangers.
I gave it up.
It took me a while to figure out why I would want to log in to Facebook ever again.
Mafia Wars and other social networking games (particularly games like FarmVille, Treasure Isle, Café World, and FrontierVille, all from Mafia Wars developer Zynga) are often described as the bane of Facebook. Users who just want to catch up with old friends are deluged with requests to adopt a lonely cow, or to join a mafia, or to help eat all the extra hot dogs someone made. It makes no difference that I had my own personal guidelines on sending or not sending requests, or that I only played one game instead of several. The fact remains that I was one of Those People.
What my wife saw me doing was just research for this column.
Whatever your opinion of social network gaming, it’s out there, and in a big way. Zynga claims 4 million daily users for Mafia Wars and 230 monthly users for its games as a whole. Clearly, this isn’t unique users—that is, not 230 million different people—but that’s still a lot of lonely cows. To give you some sense of scale, the wildly successful Grand Theft Auto series sells about 15 million copies per title.
More importantly, for a column with the words “casual gamer” in its title, Zynga’s social network games reach out to demographics who may never play a console or a PC game. A recent study found that the “the average player of . . . online social games is a 43-year-old woman.” Whatever the mechanics, whatever the demographics, social network games are video games, and anyone who wants to think about what video games do needs to take games like FarmVille and Mafia Wars into account.
But even more than that, my own intensive use of the Mafia Wars game forces me to question my thinking about what it is I look for in a video game. I’ve written before that what I find interesting in video games is linked to what I find enjoyable in literature—narrative, syntax, inventive structure—but Mafia Wars has none of these things. For another user, a good argument could be made that the social functions keep users interested, but I almost entirely neglected the social aspects of the game, and the structure of the game encourages all-or-nothing sociability. As you advance in the game, you quickly find that the majority of players with advanced levels also have the largest possible mafia, and the bonuses the game provides based on mafia size far outweigh individual stats.
So instead of focusing on social “fights,” my Mafia Wars play revolved almost entirely around “jobs”—tasks I could complete based on how much “energy” I had. Completing a job requires energy, and when a player uses up that energy, they have to wait a certain period of time to be given more. Mastering job tiers (or completing all the jobs within a certain set a certain number of times) provides bonuses which mean more energy in less time, or that jobs cost less energy to complete. More jobs leads to more bonuses leads to more jobs.
It’s not much, but it kept me playing. In fact, I played a lot. I devoted hours and hours to the game, usually in short, discrete bursts. In fact, that might be the real genius of Mafia Wars and similar games—the marginal cost of participation is close to zero. You may invest hours into the game, but you can do it minutes at a time. It’s easy to fit a quick session into other tasks, and it’s often refreshing to do so. The game itself is monotonous—mind numbingly so, in fact—but it provides a constant stream of little rewards.And it requires no technical mastery. If the strength of the Nintendo Wii is allowing people to enjoy video games without asking them to master incredibly involved and abstract console controllers like Sony’s DualShock 3 controller, then Zynga has Nintendo beaten at its own game. Mafia Wars is played almost exclusively with a single mouse button. As my wife observed, a person in the room with a Mafia Wars player hears nothing but an unending series of clicks.
It’s true that Zynga’s games are repetitive. It’s true that they function as a virus, providing incentives for players to bring other players into the game, and inflicting de facto penalties on players who don’t. But it’s also true that Zynga’s games offer free, attractive alternatives to $60 games (on even more expensive consoles) that are so complex that a substantial portion of early gameplay is devoted to a series of tutorials. I’m not ready to claim that Zynga’s games offer a gateway into more “serious” gaming, but for a large number of people who would otherwise never touch a video game, growing their farm or their mafia is serious enough business on its own.
Gavin Craig is co-editor of The Idler. You can follow him on Twitter at @craiggav.