The more I think about the rise of social-media gaming culture, the more it breaks my heart. Gaming giant Zynga, in particular, makes me feel unplayful.
At the risk of sounding like a spoilsport, I just want to point out the sad, rather blatant subtext riding just below the surface of some of Zynga's biggest recent hits. Though the 3-year-old company initially catapulted to prominence with its Facebook game Mafia Wars (still going strong with 25.9 million MAU -- monthly active users), it became a Silicon Valley obsession thanks to the rise of virtual-farm game FarmVille, with, as of this writing, 61.9 million MAU. Zynga knows that online game players have short attention spans, so it's constantly refreshing its lineup of time wasters, with FrontierVille (32.1 million MAU) and Cafe World (28.6 million MAUs) lately ascendant. (Zynga's been on a tear this summer, branching outside of Facebook by announcing a partnership with Yahoo, introducing its games to the iPhone/iPod Touch App Store and just this month buying two social-gaming companies, Tokyo-based Unoh and Boston-based Conduit Labs.)
In FarmVille, of course, you "work" your own plot of land, while FrontierVille stokes nostalgia for Manifest Destiny. ("Howdy, Pardner! Come join us on the frontier, where you'll carve out a home in the wilderness and raise a family.") Cafe World makes you a small-business owner/operator.
Think about all this for a moment: An American gaming company is captivating millions around the world by getting them to obsess about fake food, fake business and fake real estate. How America-right-now is that? The country that gave the world the housing bubble and the KFC Double Down (according to figures recently released by the World Health Organization, 67% of Americans are overweight) is betting big on pixelated playgrounds filled with sprawling plots of land, farm-fresh produce and fantasies of "cooking, slicing, chopping, sautéing and baking your way to the top of the culinary world!" in Cafe World's words. To date, more than half a billion dollars of venture capital has flooded into Zynga's coffers.
And that's just the start of it. Everybody wants to play. Google recently bought Slide and online-currency-management company Jambool specifically to edge in on Zynga/Facebook's territory. Facebook itself last week announced that it's cranking up its location-based services, moving aggressively into the LBS market that Foursquare made hot largely by turning "checking in" into a sort of social game, with its goofy badges and "mayor of" honors. (Personally I'd like to see Mayor McCheese finally forced out of office at McDonald's. If my colleague Ken Wheaton ever gets on Foursquare, I'm backing his campaign.)
Twitter is more and more becoming a word-gaming platform, whether users realize it or not (hashtag trends like #untilfurthernotice are about text-based play/entertainment, basically). And Disney is shelling out at least a half billion (an earn-out provision could bring the price tag closer to three-quarters of a billion) for Playdom, the company behind, among other things, Sorority Life (4.4 million Facebook MAU), a game in which, as The New York Times dryly notes, "players shop, party and go to the spa" -- and buy virtual goods, like digital outfits for $2.50.
In other words, if your house has been foreclosed, you've lost your job and you can't even swing T.J. Maxx anymore, well, as Sorority Life coos, "the Hamptons Summer outfit is the perfect addition to your summer wardrobe!" The totally fake, nonexistent Hamptons Summer outfit, that is. (I bet fake fashion goes out of style way faster than real fashion. Sigh. If only you could give hand-me-downs to the "people" on Second Life.)
Or maybe you do have a job still and you're "shopping" and "farming" or "cooking" on the clock -- while looking terribly productive, tapping away at your keyboard. That's the beauty of Web 2.whatever: We've automated time-wasting. We've made it insanely "sticky." We've made it look, and feel, like work.
For some reason, every few months in Britain someone seems to do a new study claiming that social media in general is wasting everyone's time. The numbers always seem a bit dubious and overreaching. The employment site MyJobGroup.co.uk, for instance, most recently made headlines in early August by calculating that workday use of Facebook, Twitter, et al., are robbing the British economy of $22 billion a year in employee productivity. Of course, we all know there's a grain of truth to such calculations, but they also miss a larger point: In the Great Recession, those of us lucky enough to still have jobs are often burned out at work and/or bitter and/or entirely disengaged.
And so we escape without actually escaping. We may try to convince ourselves of the business value of social networking -- which, helpfully, has that bizzy word "networking" baked right in -- but more and more, when you get right down to it, we're just playing.
By the way, if you can bear yet another level of poignancy, eMarketer just released projections that marketers worldwide will spend $220 million on advertising in social games this year -- up from $183 million last year.
Building distractions within distractions: Now there's a solid growth area.
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Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.