Social gaming’s social engineering

By Anne Collier

Zynga, creator of Farmville, claims 70 million active players in all of its social-Web games a day (Farmville getting nearly half of them), reports eModeration CEO Tamara Littleton in, and Zynga’s just-launched Treasure Isle “gained an extraordinary 5.4 million players in its first week.” Littleton says Zynga CEO Mark Pincus chalks it up to meeting three basic criteria: “interaction with friends; self-expression; and long-term investment in the game.” Makes sense to me. But there’s one requirement that hasn’t come close to getting enough consideration: user security. Littleton refers to reporting by TechCrunch and PC World earlier this year that unearthed a YouTube video in which Pincus said “he did ‘every horrible thing in the book’” to get to profitability, with scams that got players “to download toolbars that they couldn’t get rid of” and to take “‘free’ offers of virtual currency that turned into monthly contracts with third parties,” contracts that ended up costing players more than the virtual money!). Zynga reportedly has cleaned up its act a lot, but at what long-term marketing cost, due to those early betrayals of user trust? Blogger Littleton points to a learning-curve period for both users and companies, the time it takes 1) users to figure out how to protect themselves and 2) companies to figure out that tricks and bad behavior hurt their brands and that user security is great marketing. Maybe we’re ALL on a one-time learning curve for social media in general: Maybe we’ll collectively realize that, in virtual worlds, social gaming, social networking, texting – all use of social media – what goes around, comes around, whether you’re a user or a company!

Meanwhile, Mashable reports that Farmville may soon be on Android smart phones, the iPhone, and the iPad. Don’t miss this wry explanation for Farmville’s popularity: “because it entangles users in a web of social obligations” so that they have to play because their friends need their reciprocal kindness to advance in the game. Sorta like Amway, the new pyramid marketing?

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