It’s a holiday afternoon, and I’m at home, enjoying the California winter weather and a cup of coffee. I’m sitting in my favorite chair, hunched over my tablet, clicking away. Just five more minutes, I tell myself; just five more minutes.
I have never been much of a gamer. I don’t have anything against video or computer games; I’ve just never been particularly attracted to playing them. I find first-persons boring after a while; I lose patience with strategy games. The one big exception is city-building games, which I have a deep and abiding fondness for. I have spent more hours of my life than I care to disclose playing SimCity; SimCity 4 still ranks as the king of the genre, as far as I’m concerned. I am not interested in the Sims; I like the actual building, the placement of roads and power stations, and the progressive, 2-steps-forward 1-step-back nature of these games. It fulfills some deep interest and need in me, the same part of me that is attracted to infinitely large and progressive projects (Wikipedia, libraries, cities).
Recently in a fit of procrastination-induced boredom (I am turning in a manuscript, late) I went searching for Android-based city building games for my tablet. I discovered Megapolis, which (the developers claim) has a million players a day. It’s like SimCity, but not. You build stuff, but it’s all about acquiring experience and money and there is a real-world time element. There’s also a real-world money element — while you can play the game for free, you can also spend cash to acquire things (buildings, levels, expansions). These, of course, lead to more things one wants to acquire. Finally, there’s a social networking element, either in-game with random other players or out of game, on Facebook.
I am not, as I said, a gamer and thus not much of a casual gamer either — I don’t play phone games, or Facebook games. But I am finding this game hopelessly addictive. It’s beautiful and complicated, and becomes more so the longer you go. I feel I know enough about UX and design to recognize every way in which I, as a player, am being subtly manipulated by the developers to stay with the game longer and longer, and thus probably to spend more real-world money on it, or at least to make friends who might do so. And yet I don’t particularly mind, or care. Just one more click.
There’s one important thing I’m not doing when I play, besides not writing and turning in my manuscript. I am not editing Wikipedia, which is what I was doing last week with my free procrastination-induced internet time. (I’m also not editing Wikivoyage, or even Wikidata, which has the same kind of fast click-induced pleasure when editing). If you’re reading this, you likely know the academic thinking as well as I do: Shirky’s theory of cognitive surplus (how we spend our free time matters), Benkler’s work on internet distractions taking away from peer production projects. Here those theories are, demonstrated in the flesh. I suspect I’ve spent around five hours on the game, perhaps more, in the past week. As an experienced Wikipedian, I could probably rack up a few hundred highly productive edits with the same time. One builds the sum of all human knowledge, for everyone; the other makes a Russian game development company a tiny bit of cash.
So what’s the difference between these activities, beyond their relative importance? I believe in the wikis as much as anyone (and probably more than most); I find working on them pleasurable. But there’s no denying the game is more fun. It’s explicitly progressive, with the illusion of achieving and working towards goals. It also has (the illusion of) sociability. There’s a time pressure; if you don’t interact every so often you lose things (points, coins). (In contrast, the time pressure of Wikipedia is massive but difficult to grasp; it follows the arc of human history). And it’s pretty; there are animated, clever graphics.
If I’m the rat and the internet and its myriad pleasures is the cage, there are many ways to achieve a tiny endorphin rush, a food lever’s worth of pleasure. But some are more fine-tuned than others. We talk about not wanting to gamify Wikipedia — it is explicitly not social media. I agree with that; I believe in and firmly want to preserve the project’s academic aspect, its seriousness. But this week brought home to me the importance of small tweaks in creating pleasure. There are levers that are pretty well understood — if a game shop can figure it out, so can the rest of us — for creating motivation to stick with something. For an encyclopedia, the spectrum of levers might be broader, and different; there is real work going on here, and people have many motivations for doing it. But that work need not be unpleasant; and it should be compelling, to drag us back from the siren song of everything else we could be doing online.
Excuse me: I’ll be right back. I have a building to build.