Meaning in Modern Games

Thu, Nov 17, 2011


A recent NPR article on Farmville starts by describing Zynga, the company behind Farmville, as “a company that makes money by selling nothing.”  Instead, they sell virtual goods that do not exist, goods so valuable that Zynga rakes in a handsome $1 billion.  So what gives?

The key to unlocking this apparent paradox is to analyse the meaning that such games bring to their players.  I call this meaning analysis.

According to meaning analysis, such games must engage players in an activity that brings them significant meaning.  Now looking at these games we generally see three kinds of activities: first, players build.  They found cities, put down buildings, grow their resources, grow their skills, enhance their weapons, conduct research, upgrade buildings–in other words, they grow and expand their stuff.  Second, players fight, attacking computer generated enemies or other players.  And third, players socialize, generally using chatrooms.  Together with these three activities, game designers meld prompts for players to pay, either through a subscription, or through incentives to progress or unlock parts of the game.

Not all games have all three activities, and in fact, Cityville, Zynga’s wildly popular game, only offers building with very limited social interaction.  All games however offer building in one form or another, provided we think of building as some activity that involves growth and progress.  So given building is central to all these games, we must ask what about building is so compelling, or more precisely, what meaning do players associate with building.

The crucial point here is that such games create a psychological space and as such, game activities are reflected in some way in the player’s psyche.  Building does two things, it creates a place that is like a home, both created and arranged by the player.  As such, such spaces provide a place of retreat from everyday life.  You may call it escapism, but in actual fact, such a space might be essential for a person to relax and recover from the stresses of everyday life. As such, these spaces are an outer manifestation of an inner psychological space, which mediates physical existence.

But building also represents growth, progress and expansion.  Accumulating points or resources, no matter how trivial, is reflected in the inner psyche as some form of personal growth.  And games provide the best way to grow, which unlike life, give results that are predictable and guaranteed.  You click on this building or undertake that quest, and you will achieve the next level, albiet with some effort and patience.  So building also feeds the second need for expanding consciousness.

The way other activities (fighting, socializing, and paying) are combined with building will either enhance or detract from the game and thus determine its success.  For example, if fighting creates some means for players to progress, then perhaps fighting can enhance the game.  Yet if fighting puts the player under constant strain and is wholly unpredictable, or worse, guaranteed to produce a negative outcome, then fighting will detract from the game, as it removes the primary meaning players associate with the game.  Similarly, if paying to play is done in such a way as to not interfere with game play then it’s effect might be minimal.

No matter what, we can see that such games are not selling “nothing,” but are in fact selling activities that create real results, and just because such results are not physical or tangible does not mean that they are nothing, for if that was the case we could consider much of our economy today as “nothing” as well.  What is different is that these activities are exclusively producing results inside the mind, and these results primarily depend on the meaning players associate with the activities they undertake.  As such, companies such as Zynga are succeeding here because they have knowingly or unknowingly tapped into a powerful tool for creating meaning.  In a very real way, building a city, tending it, and leveling up its components reflects building towers of meaning, the primary structures of meaning.


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