How Long Will Social Games Keep Us Hooked?

Not long after I started my farm (pictured above) on FarmVille, the leading social game on Facebook, I got a message from a friend. He was relaying a question from his wife, who had seen countless semiautomated posts to my Facebook Wall chronicling my progress in the game. Her query: “What’s the matter with him?”

It wasn’t the only such reaction I got from playing Farmville. I started the game as research to write a story on their rise for Graduate School of Business alumni magazine at Stanford University, where a surprisingly large number of social games founders or managers got degrees. It seems that people either love social games (one friend either is doing a very deep research project on them or needs an intervention) or hate them. But it’s hard to deny that they’re a game apart from most previous online games, because millions of regular people who don’t even know the term “gamer,” let alone touched an Xbox console or joined a World of Warcraft guild, are playing them.

I hope my story explains some of the reasons why, but what I’m uncertain about is how far social games can go. Clearly, Zynga and other social games leaders have found a way to provide entertainment people enjoy–and, let’s not mince words, appeal to people’s addictive nature by adroitly manipulating game mechanics to keep players coming back again and again. As a result, Zynga is raking in big bucks and seems headed for a blockbuster IPO. And games may well support a second big business in virtual currency for Facebook.

Given their undeniable appeal, it seems that social games are here to stay for a good long time. But I also wonder if the slowdown and churn we’ve seen in social games this year indicates a certain weariness on the part of players. I’m afraid I don’t have the addictive gene, so much of the appeal of social games is lost on me (although I would like to reach level 12 in FarmVille so I can plant chile peppers…).

But even people who respond to the rewards of these games can feel like they’re on a treadmill. As a result, social games companies are trying to add more wrinkles to their games to keep users from getting bored. But then, like so many tech companies that have fallen victim to the Innovator’s Dilemma, they may start losing the mass market, for whom the simplicity of social games is key. Only a few companies, I’ll wager, will be able to walk that thin line.

When Will People Understand Virtual Goods Are Real?

Look, I know virtual goods sounded kind of exotic–four or five years ago. But when it’s a multibillion global business today, it’s past time to dispense with the notion that crops on Farmville and flowers on Facebook aren’t really real. While I’ve been guilty of describing virtual goods as imaginary at times, what set me off most recently was a story in the New York Times that couldn’t seem to hammer enough on the idea that they don’t actually exist in any meaningful way.

Consider the language in just the headline and first two paragraphs: “Fanciful items.” “Things that do not exist.” “Pretend merchandise,” in contrast to “actual goods.” “Make-believe items.” Later, the article asserts that “virtual merchandise is in its infancy.” Perhaps that’s true compared to what it can become, and it is relatively new as a sizable business in the U.S. But estimates of the value of virtual goods sold worldwide range from $2 billion to as much as $6 billion a year. That seems well beyond infancy.

The thing is, what we call virtual goods are really no different in the pleasure or utility they offer people from other virtual things we consider “real”: Digitized photos. MP3 files. Videos uploaded to YouTube. And of course, online newspaper articles.┬áSo why the continual amazement that people will pay for virtual goods?

Partly it’s because the very term “virtual goods” connotes an air of unreality. But I think it’s also partly because, even 15 years after the World Wide Web took off, many people still haven’t quite realized how much of our lives have moved online. You can argue we’ve gone too far, of course. Hey, I’ll choose a walk in the woods with my family over leveling up in Farmville every single time. But it’s time to get over the idea that virtual things aren’t real.