“Jane and 56 other friends are playing Jumpy Jumpy” is the new word of mouth marketing. We’re naturally a competitive species and wouldn’t miss out on a chance to showcase our prowess to our peers. All the decent games with multiplayer capabilities have implemented a leader board feature where players with the highest number of points at the end of the day/week/month earn bragging rights.
Zynga is one company that has capitalized on our desire to compete and has created a myriad of social games. Farmville is the most popular one. Just like at no account casinos, there’s no “official” registration procedure: Login with your Facebook account and that’s it. Everyone starts off with a small parcel of land and limited farming resources. You then compete with friends on who will have the most profitable farm. In Zynga Poker, a social game from the same developer, players can buy virtual chips with real money: Except that it’s always a one-sided transaction as players cannot cash out winnings. ZyngaPlusPoker is an improvement to Zynga Poker and here, players can win (and lose) real money. This is technically gambling. Where do we draw the line between social gaming and actual gambling?
The International Gaming Research Unit professor Mark Griffiths argues that social gaming falls under the umbrella of gambling. He notes that the more time and effort we put into a game, the greater our desire for a payoff. He argues that the companies who create these games want to maximize profits and will do so by limiting the ‘payoff’ until we have spent ample time playing. We are then lured into spending our own money to play them. The only difference here is that instead of inserting coins into a slot machine, we are spending money on microtransactions – smaller transactions where players can buy virtual currency or resources such as gold and gems in games like World of Warcraft which can be used to purchase equipment, special moves, potions, and food items to progress through quests faster. In Farmville, players can purchase a tractor using real money or sell products at market prices for virtual currency (which is bought with real money). Both activities are intertwined with real-world consequences: Real money used to buy a virtual currency which is then used to purchase in-game items (like a tractor) that give players an edge; virtual currency is converted into real money if players choose to sell products at market prices, etc.
It’s easy to see why social games are popular and profitable. Statista estimates that social gaming will make $6 billion in 2022. Clearly, the companies who create these games know what they’re doing! They have created the perfect environment for their players whereby they are spending more time playing than real-world activities that require money like working, earning, and saving which yield no immediate satisfaction or gratification. They’ve also increased their profits by minimizing the risks of paying out actual cash as winnings whereas, in gambling, we must continue playing until we reach the pay-out or lose all our bets. And nowhere does it say that you’ll earn $20 for every 10 hours played as it does in Farmville (assuming you have a 100% efficient farm).
If you were to ask me whether I prefer social gaming or gambling, I’d say that the latter gives me greater pleasure. Any time spent on social games feels like a waste of time and effort just so I can achieve something intangible (a higher score) that will give me bragging rights against my friends. It’s an arms race where the goal is always to be one-up on your friends and it doesn’t feel gratifying. It doesn’t feel like ‘winning’ because you have spent $1000 on virtual money to beat your friend who has spent $10 on the same game but has been playing for 12 hours without any reward in sight. By contrast, casinos are designed to be gratifying. In casino games, payout amounts can be determined by probability alone and there is no ‘arms race’ with other players; Everyone has their own set of odds, odds which they cannot influence.