Do Social Games Exploit the Mentally Ill?

From reading my surprise guest rant at GDC this year, you might think i’m a card-carrying member of the Zynga Fan Club (a club which forces you to re-confirm membership every fifteen minutes, and which sells you an auto-re-confirmation cantelope for $2).

i think a lot of what motivates people to gripe about Zynga stems from either jealousy, or the fear by core gamers that Zynga will become so popular that their precious triple-A first-person-head-exploder games will fade from existence and they’ll be forced to decorate bunnies and rescue little lost restaurants for the rest of their lives.

Don’t cry, little boys: these games will be around for a long time to come.

i think the money Zynga makes is well deserved, and that players should be able to decide for themselves when a game becomes too rote or too addictive without it offering them enough value for their time or dollar. But i don’t give Zynga or its competitors a license to exploit. There’s one area in which i feel that social game developers need to act far more ethically, and if they fail to do so, i may even advocate the same type of government regulation that limits the use of tobacco, alcohol, drugs, gambling, and any other addictive substance or activity.

A Moment with Mitchell

A few weeks back, i was at a very small gathering of students at the Herve Velasquez School for the Digitally Inclined, where i used to teach until they fired my ass. The game development students run a club, which offers everything from Magic: the Gathering tournaments to 3D speed modeling competitions (in which the students use all three dees).

Magic: the Gathering

Ah, youth.

This particular week, the students had invited Mitchell Smallman to speak. Mitchell is a writer for a social game on Facebook that’s raking in money left right and centre, as Facebook games are wont to do. Throughout his talk, Mitchell tried to dislodge the students from their biases against social games, and making games (of any stripe) with profit as the main intent, his first bullet point being “get over yourself.”

This was all fine and dandy. But toward the end of Mitchell’s rant, he dropped a megaton bomb: Mitchell Smallman said, in a clear but apologetic voice, “the problem with social games is that they exploit the mentally ill.”

Going Off the Whales on a Crazy Train

To explain himself, Mitchell began describing his game’s “whales”. This is a term borrowed, uncoincidentally, from the gambling industry, which decsribes enormously rich people who jet in to Vegas, drop a disgusting amount of cash at the tables, and jet back out again having had, one supposes, tons of fun.

Las Vegas

What you happen to spend in Vegas, stays in Vegas.

Mitchell talked about some particular whales in his social game: two Bay Street (Wall Street) investment bankers who were competing to knock each other off the high scores list, and in doing so, dropped over ten grand apiece. We had a good, if nervous, laugh over this.

Piano Movers

Last time i dropped a grand, i was a piano mover and i … lame joke. Abort.

But Mitchell’s tone turned serious when he confided in the group that a good number of the whales he sees are actually people who spend an alarming amount of time in the game, and who spend an enormous amount of money not necessarily because they’re having fun, but because they feel they have to. These are the first people to angrily harass the live team when the game is down, or when something doesn’t work as they expected it to.

And simply from the timbre of their forum banter, Mitchell said he could tell these folks weren’t of sound mind.

Michael Jackson post

Um … lame comment? …. abort?

At this point, of course, you can interject that Mitchell Smallman is not a licensed psychologist. But come on, friends. We regular people can smell crazy on our own just fine. If we couldn’t, we’d all be wearing Snuggies out on the street like they’re haute couture.


Well Katie, it’s Fashion Week here in New York, and …

Let’s Agree to Agree

With Mitchell’s confession in the back of my brain, i attended a GDC “debate” on the validity of social games, called “A Debate: Are Social Games Legitimate?”. i put “debate” in dick quotes because, like many of the panels in the conference’s social games discipline, obvious croneyism kept the session from being truly worthile. The panelists were three developers who made social games, and one academic who had made a satirical social game but was nonetheless doing well by it.

So that’s three “fer”, and one sardonically “agin”. That’s supposed to be an argument? That’s like asking four members of the Wu-Tang Clan to debate the merits of “peein’ on bitches.”

Ol' Dirty Bastard

The Chair recognizes the Right Honorable Ol’ Dirty Bastard.

The debate unfolded with all the ferocity of a sorority slumber party pillow fight, with the only true opposition coming from Ian Bogost, who gently massaged the other panelists with soft suggestions of how they may be gently bruising the industry, if you please.

Daniel James, CEO of Three Rings (Puzzle Pirates), who i figured was supposed to be quasi-oppositional (merely because his game wasn’t on Facebook?), clamped up pretty early in the debate when he very visibly realized that any criticism leveled at the Facebook developers could easily be aimed squarely at him, and at point blank range to boot. (Daniel said he would be “personally distressed” if his game relied too heavily on gambling tricks, and despite being a fan, i wondered what planet he was on? Puzzle Pirates hosts regular POKER MATCHES, ffs)

Puzzle Pirates

Thank God our game doesn’t rely on GAMBLING HOOKS …

By the time the back-patting was over, i was still hoping to see a little fur fly. i took to the mic during the question period (as i do), and laid the groundwork with Mitchell’s initial whale stories. Then i asked the panelists point blank: do social games exploit the mentally ill?

Getting the Heck Out of Dodge

Nabeel Hyatt from Zynga performed a classic dodge: “What do you mean by ‘mentally ill’?”

Ah. Would this be an argument over semantics?

“You know – mentally ill,” i said. “Like manic-depressive, schizophrenic, or obsessive-compulsive. That type of thing.”

Nabeel gave it another shot.

“I … don’t understand the question?”

i reiterated: were social games primed to exploit, or even promote, players’ mental illness to encourage them to play more often and to spend more money than they really should?

What followed was a bent-over-backwards dodge of Matrix-esque proportions. The panelists, primarily Nabeel, began by redefining mental illness as “fandom”. “i used to collect a ton of comic books when i was a kid,” said Nabeel, “was i mentally ill?” To my dismay Ian Bogost, in what i saw as an abuse of his intellect (and sole devil’s advocate status), came to Nabeel’s aid, asking (with patronizing pedagogy) whether enthusiasm for popular culture didn’t border on madness?

Heavily Medicated Beatlemania

My time at the mic was up, but i thought No, you creeps – i’m not talking about Bieber fever here … i’m talking about the kind of people you watch every week on Hoarders. Actual, real people who can’t, like the rest of us, reason their way out of playing an addictive social game because it’s eating up too much time, money, and sanity.


Please – just one more bushel of Smurfberries!!!

Of course, no social game developer in his right mind would suggest that these types of people need to be limited in their play time and spending. These are their whales, after all. These are the people pushing up their ARPU and scoring them the cash. If anything, social game developers would do well by attracting (or even CREATING) more mentally ill players, because only someone out of their mind would spend real money on things that don’t really exist (as the panel’s moderator Margaret Robertson suggested, jokingly).

Your Stand on Instanity

So, the question: should companies like Zynga and Playdom be regulated by the government to limit time and money spent when players cross a certain activity threshhold? Or should the governemt stay out of it, and should these companies voluntarily develop these limitations borne naturally of their own corporate ethical policy? And if these companies continue to be left to their own devices, will these innate ethical practices ever emerge?

We regulate and legislate smoking, drinking, drugs, and gambling, but we don’t throw shopaholics in prison. Aren’t these people just online shopaholics?

COUNTERPOINT! Isn’t the key difference that we’re not tracking the every move of brick-and-mortar shopaholics, but we ARE tracking every move of our online players? Since we already know everything they’re doing, isn’t it incumbent upon us to act to prevent them from harming themselves?

REBUTTAL! Die in a fire, Ian Bogost! (panelist Curt Bererton tears his shirt open and leaps across the table, his splayed fingers aimed at Bogost’s tender face)

Moderator: FINISH HIM!

Kirk vs. Spock

Erm … sorry about that. i got carried away. Knowing that social games aren’t leaving any time soon, let me know if you think social game developers should be externally limited, whether they should be self-limiting, or whether they should be free to gouge as much time and money from as many people as they like, crazy or sane, as our God-given free market allows. And also, please let me know who you think would win in a bare-chested pit fight between Ian Bogost and Curt Bererton. i’m writing the Bogost/Bererton slash fiction as we speak.


Mitchell Smallman has responded with a wonderfully thoughtful take on whales and the damage they do to player communities, and the responsibility of designers to create games that strive for more than vapid box-ticking as a mechanic.

28 thoughts on “Do Social Games Exploit the Mentally Ill?

  1. Jessica N.

    Daniel said he’d be distressed if Puzzle Pirates relied *too heavily* on gambling. There are regular poker matches in PP, it’s true, but it’s not the soul of the game by a longshot, and it’s not the main activity of its players.

    1. Ryan Henson Creighton

      Truesay. i love Daniel’s game – i think it’s great, and i’ve sunk many hours into it myself. (Never purchased a single item, mind you.) i think he really nailed the social element by, as he said, putting everyone (literally) in the same boat. Boat goes faster if everyone plays their puzzle games well. Brilliant, brilliant stuff.

      But even if it’s not the primary activity, does it nullify the fact that it’s even in there? What if there was a very brief hardcore sex scene in the next Dora the Explorer episode? What if there was one tiny drop of muskrat piss in your glass of water?

      The whole thing calls this vaguely to mind:

      Video Games Teach Kids to Gamble

      1. Daniel James

        I don’t think that being on the hook, also, means that I can’t raise the concern. My point was that all developers have to consider how far their ethics allow them to go. I think it was illuminating that a vast majority of the room were not prepared to say they’d work on slot machines.

        I also think there’s a great deal of difference between Poker and a slot machine. That said, have you seen our new game, Space Pirate Slots? It’s awesome*

        * Joke

        1. Ryan Henson Creighton

          (i love that you have to footnote your joke, lest your fans mob you with hate/love letters about your new game)

          (i largely missed you at GDC this year … what IS your new game?)

  2. Joseph Cassano

    I’m not sure if there should be external limiters, but that’s mainly because I’m unsure where the line would be drawn between “this game is addictive because it feeds on addictive personalities” or “this game is addictive because it is fun”. We’d have to lay out some pretty extensive requirements to avoid accidentally rounding up games that don’t necessarily belong in the pile.

    That’s not to say that I don’t think addictiveness in games is a problem; it very much is. Players should be playing because they want to, not because they feel obligated or that they NEED to. And I don’t mean “need” in the sense of “I need to finish this game, I’m so close to the end”, but in the sense of performing the activity without pleasure, as brought up in your post. Grinding is the very epitome of this problem.

    Oh, and my vote’s on Bogost.

  3. Chris Harshman

    Unlike smoking, drinking, drugs, gambling, etc there isn’t a clear cut line of what defines a shopaholics?
    Unlike smoking/drinking/gambling which have no limits place of spending money, and drugs well you just are not allowed to do those.

    Regulation would be very difficult to enact and would mostly likely be struck down anyways for one if not more of the following reasons.
    You can based it on money spent because people have different amounts of money, and you cannot base it on money spent/money earned because that crosses many privacy issues or the frequency of money spent for without considering amounts.
    I suppose you could built a spending model for each player and limit the money they spend, but they you would not be a company, since a companies primary goal is to make money.

    If really boils down to a personal choice, which education will play a big role, teaching children meaningful money management early in life would be a start, and maybe not just rely on parents, not that they cannot do a great job, but not all do.

    I do see some solutions like not limited the amount of money they can spend, but limited how fast they can use the items they bought, but this only covers certain aspects of the large field of microtransactions.

    1. Ryan Henson Creighton

      Too right … it’d be way too difficult to police. But it hasn’t stopped Korea and China from trying.

  4. Brent Gulanowski

    Whether or not social game makers exploit the mentally ill, they certainly exploit human weakness, in much the same way as virtually every other company in any the entertainment industry (fashion, porn, alcohol, Hollywood, etc). There are probably some people who shouldn’t play social games (like some people shouldn’t drink alcohol) because they are lacking necessary social or emotional abilities of restraint.

    It would be nice of the makers of social games were socially responsible and took it upon themselves to help protect vulnerable people, and didn’t take their money. But that’s not how business works. Businesses are not socially conscious. They are sociopathic, by human standards. Because businesses are not people. Capitalism has a dark side (duh).

    The problems with social games are singularly aesthetic. As in, some people (like me) find them stupid, repetitive and dull. The fact that they are not deliberately laced with life lessons or other moral content, or whatever it would take to ennoble them, is irrelevant. It is disingenuous to criticize social game developers on moral grounds, unless you want to take the whole (capitalist) system to task.

    In fact, you’d have to take human nature itself to task. Which is sheerest folly.

    The cure for social games is learning to think, to pay attention, to be creative, to be critical. But that’s a personal choice.

    Pardon my rant.

    1. Ryan Henson Creighton

      i’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, and i think you’re totally bang on. Exploitation is not unique to social games … it’s the birthright of bidness.

    2. Ryan Henson Creighton

      i’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, and i think you’re totally bang on. Exploitation is not unique to social games … it’s the m.o. of all bidness.

  5. Facebook Indie Games

    You can’t stop people spending a lot on virtual items in social games. But you CAN force social game developers to have a very clear and easy refund policy. If a parent discovers their child has spent a load on virtual items it should be easy to return those items, close the account, and get a decent refund. Perhaps anybody with a diagnosed mental illness should be able to get a refund if they can produce a doctor’s note saying that they didn’t make a rational purchase decision (although of course in the States they won’t be able to afford to see a doctor to get the note).

    1. Ryan Henson Creighton

      Yeah … but closing the account is key. Otherwise, you’d have players taking advantage very easily. i do think that folks like Capcom should have refunded the money for Smurfberries tho. That was just douchy.

  6. Amy Blankenship

    I can tell you categorically, they do. I have a friend who is mentally ill, and she has actually made the suggestion that I’d do much better at Farmville if I gave up working for a living, had myself declared mentally ill, and lived off SSI for the rest of my life. This would free up valuable time for collecting sheep, pigs, etc.

    But here in the US the mental health system primes the mentally ill to be taken advantage of. Because if you thought even for a second that the doctor’s primary motivation is to keep you ill and under medication for the rest of your life, then you might look for some way to actually get better and out from under the thumb of the system. And then there goes a meal ticket for the doctor.

    The thing is, if it weren’t social games, it would be ebay or online shopping or whatever. Because the root problem is people with nothing productive to do–ever–and disposable cash (no matter what tiny amount). So they’re bored, and no matter how many financial management classes they’re forced through the boredom will always win out, because nobody in the system benefits if they ever develop something that resembles common sense.

    1. Ryan Henson Creighton

      You speak of the US mental health system as if those problems are unique to your country.

      i agree that if not Farmville, something else. i get annoyed when people act all arrogant about how awesome science is. If science is that awesome, why doncha go fix a little mental retardation or schizophrenia? Thanks. That’d be ssssuper.

      Anyway, the day we see an uptick in common sense is the day they learn to bundle it in pill format and put a price tag on it.

    1. Ryan Henson Creighton

      Yeah … Twitter bird is feeling a little sick lately. And i’m no ornithologist. (And by that, i mean i have no clue how to fix it)

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  10. Wahooney

    Asking social games developers (or rather, the corporate types behind them) to self regulate how their audience can spend money is giving monkeys the keys to the banana plantation and getting them to decide business hours.

  11. Ian

    You make this sound like it’s some evil scheme plotted by social games companies and the rest of the industry and any other market has no part.

    Every freemium MMO out there focuses on getting the users who spend a lot of time to spend as much as time and money as possible on the game. Every single game company out there will milk there IP for as much as it’s worth whether it be with microtransactions, sequels, add-ons etc. until its no longer profitable and I’m willing to bet if they could sell console titles and add-ons at $1000 per person they would. This is just how a business is run and is, make as much profit you can per customer and isn’t unique to the social games industry.

    This is an issue with addiction and compulsion. It has absolutely nothing to do with mental illnesses. The fact your insisting that people with mental illnesses will suddenly be sucked in by farmville and be unable to control themselves is ridiculous. Sure certain illnesses might be more vulnerable and prone to addiction, this doesn’t mean we should start slamming everything they could possibly get addicted to and make decisions on what they spend there money on for them. Ever thought help and education on money management might be more empowering than trying to control their finances for them?

    Sure there’s that small percentage of people that spend ridiculous amount’s of time and money on these games. These people probably need help and educating like drug addicts and alcoholics. Sure we can get governments to cap how much we spend on games…. on alcohol, ciggerettes, clothes, junk food and everything else in our lives. I for one wouldn’t enjoy being told I can’t have a 5th beer on or can’t spend $100 on a new MMO because a minority have been addicted in the past.

    1. Ryan Henson Creighton

      “This is an issue with addiction and compulsion. It has absolutely nothing to do with mental illnesses.”

      Addiction and compulsion, in extreme degrees, are mental illnesses.

      “I for one wouldn’t enjoy being told I can’t have a 5th beer.”

      As i mentioned, you already ARE told you can’t have a fifth beer. Bars are legally obligated to deny alcohol to their patrons if they decide the patrons are overdoing it. What’s the difference between that, and being told you can’t buy that fifth hat for your character?

      If you ask me, i think the difference is that beer cut-off prevents you from hurting other people, while hat cut-off prevents you from hurting yourself. We’re a selfish, individualistic society. Who cares if someone hurts himself? If it’s physical hurt, he can be committed. If it’s financial hurt … well, carry on.

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