Question:I have long described both MMO gaming and Facebook social games as being a “well-padded Skinner box” for their staggered/random reward system. Do you see any possibility for anything else to eventually replace this model?
IB: I don’t know. Certainly the gold rush associated with a very bare version of these mechanics isn’t helping. If anything, the Skinner boxes seem to be finding their way into other genres. I haven’t played Diablo III yet, but someone who tried the beta opined that it’s “Farmville for hardcore gamers.” Then again, I suppose we might have said the same thing about World of Warcraft half a decade ago. These features have always been in games, but there’s no question that we’ve begun refining them in the way one refines oil, making them more pure and useful to drive the engines of commerce rather than experience.
We can’t just will ourselves out of this situation. It’s not simply a matter of developing a new design philosophy that will replace the old one through pure unfettered rationalism. Since the games industry responds only to economic incentives, perhaps what we need is an implosion. Just as the housing bubble was burst by the revelation of inviable lending and the related artifice of constantly-inflating property values, so perhaps something similar needs to happen to the behaviorist bubble. It may already be starting, thanks to the apparently disappointing performance of Zynga’s IPO. Still, it’s worth remembering that the founders and executives of today’s big tech companies have been enjoying the privilege of making liquid parts of their equity on secondary markets, so the tech investment community may not have the same deterrent to bubblethink that the market in general does.
In any case, this trend should remind us that the whole media ecosystem has been built on this promise of high-leverage value derived from the aggregated behaviors of a very large base of patrons who are actually the product of these services rather than their customers. Google and Facebook are the obvious examples, but Zynga derives all of its revenue from 2.2% of its players. The remainder are there as viral marketing infrastructure. Is it even possible to opt out of this situation? Not if you also want to live productively in contemporary society