Desert of My Real Life

{August 8, 2010}   Social Games

I recently traveled to Oxford University in England to present a paper at a conference called Videogame Cultures and the Future of Interactive Entertainment.  The conference brought together aabout 25 people from all over the world and from a wide variety of disciplines.  It was one of the best conferences I’ve ever attended and I got great feedback on my paper, which was called Social Media and the Performance of Self

In my fairly recent move from computer science to digital media studies, I’ve become interested in how adults use online play to gratify a variety of needs, particularly their need to express and play with identity.   The paper that I wrote explores the fact that Farmville is a hugely popular game on Facebook and that the players of Farmville are largely women in their 40’s.  Farmville is a game in which the player owns a virtual farm that she manages.  The player plants crops, cares for those crops and harvests them.  She has neighbors who visit her farm, sometimes watering her crops for her.  She earns money within the game, which she uses to buy more crops or houses or animals.  She has control over how her farm is organized and managed.   The game has been disparaged as a crappy game–in fact, my co-panelist at the Oxford conference argued that it was a crappy game and explained why.  And yet, it is the most popular game on Facebook.  It is hugely popular.  So in my paper, I argue that it is because the demographic that plays this game is gratifying needs that are different than the typical “gamer” needs.  Typical gamers are looking to gratify their need for diversion (escape from reality, satisfaction of curiosity, and so on) when they play games.  The typical Facebook user, on the other hand, is using Facebook for gratifying their need to maintain relationships.  And so I argue in my paper, using the work of Erving Goffman, that the fact that a player can customize her farm, her online space, means that she is performing a “self” for her audience.  She is presenting this “self” to her audience, the neighbors of her farm who are in actuality her friends, and this helps her to maintain and cultivate her relationships with those friends.

As I said, while at the conference, I had a bit of a debate with one of my co-panelists about the nature of Farmville as a game.  She (and her graduate student) argued that it is a terrible game because it doesn’t really allow the player to be “social” but instead is a “viral” game.  I understood her point but disagreed with her conclusion.  I think it is true that the game is a crappy game if you are looking at games with a traditional lens, that is, with the needs of traditional gamers in mind.  But the whole point of my work is to argue that this perspective is too narrow, that people use media (including games) to gratify a variety of needs and to ignore the fact that this game is indeed gratifying the needs of millions of users is to miss an important point.  It was a great debate.

So I was surprised to see the debate is being carried out elsewhere as well.  Jesper Juul organized a debate about social games at NYU recently.  Ian Bogost, one of my favorite game theorists, argued against social games like Farmville, saying that they present no challenge to the player but instead require the player to do nothing more than click on something at regular intervals.  Bogost has gone so far as to create a Facebook game that he calls Cow Clicker.  You own a cow.  You click on your cow and get “mooney” as a reward.  That’s it.  That’s the entire game.  Bogost says that this game is social commentary, that it boils Facebook games down to their essence.

As much as I admire Bogost’s work in games, I think he’s missed the point here.  Who says that THIS is the essence of Facebook games like Farmville?  A big part of Farmville is about creating and organizing your farm.  Why isn’t THAT the essence of the game?  I think the reason is because current game analyses focus on certain aspects of the game (clicks that result in tangible rewards within the game, in this case) and not other aspects of the game (designing and organizing one’s farm, in this case).  Current game analyses focus on the things that interest traditional gamers. 

I think there is room in game studies for valuing a variety of game types.  I’m not arguing that Farmville is a good game for traditional gamers.  Clearly, it is not.  But it is clearly tapping into something for the millions of non-traditional players who play this game every day.  We should try to figure out what that something is instead of insisting that only games that gratify the right type of needs count as good games.

Anyone who knows anything about me knows that I am an agnostic.  So it might be a surprise to learn that this post was inspired by a sign on a church.  I was out on my bike this afternoon, a place where I do some of my best thinking.  I was reflecting on the challenges that have faced me and my close friends over the last year or two and how we have supported each other through some very difficult times.  Near the end of my ride, the sign on the church in the center of Campton said, “If you’re headed in the wrong direction, God allows U-turns.”

People who know me also know that I am interested in games.  Any game, anywhere, any time.  That is, I’ll play any game, anywhere, any time.  But I’m also interested in studying them as an academic topic.  One of the game scholars that I ask my students to read is Greg Costikyan.  He wrote an article in 1994 (long before game studies was recognized as a legitimate area of academic interest) in which he tried to provide a definition of “game.”  The article, called I Have No Words and I Must Design, identifies six elements that an activity must have in order to be considered a game.  I don’t completely agree with Costikyan in his efforts in this article but I think that’s because I have the benefit of having read tons of articles that analyze games and “gameness.”   So even though I disagree on some points, I respect and admire most of what he says.

Costikyan says an activity must have six elements in order to be considered a game.  If it is missing any of the six elements, it is something other than a game, perhaps some other kind of play, but not a game.  His six elements are: tokens, goal(s), opposition, decision-making, information and managing resources.  By the way, here comes the geeky part of the post.  If you aren’t a geek and are just interested in the philosophical part, jump ahead six or seven paragraphs.

A game must have game tokesns.  He means that there must be something within the game that represents the player and the player’s status within the game.  In Monopoly, for example, the player’s piece (top hat, race car, horse, and so on) is a game token because it represents the player.  But the cards with the various properties that the player owns (Broadway, Marvin Garden, Illinois Ave, and so on) are also game tokens because they also represent the player’s status within the game.  In addition, the fake money that a player has represent how wealthy or poor the player is and, therefore, are game tokens.  In some games, like basketball, the player’s body is his/her game token.

A game must have a goal, something the player is striving for.  In Monopoly, for example, the goal is to be the last player with money or, in other words, to bankrupt all the other players.  in War, the goal is to obtain all of the cards in the deck.  This is an item that makes some activities that we normally consider to be games not games in Costikyan’s point of view.  For example, SimCity and The Sims are not games according to Costikyan because they don’t have goals that are set by the game.  The player can create a goal to strive for but the game doesn’t impose that on the player.

A game must have opposition, something that gets in the way of the player reaching his/her goal.  This is a simple, yet profound, statement.  By entering into the realm of the game, the player agrees to try to reach the goal of the game in a kind of circuitous manner.  The particpant in the game of War will not just grab all of the cards in the deck but will instead abide by the rules of the game and attempt to overcome the obstacles that the rules place in his/her way.  The opposition in a game typically comes from the rules of the game as well as any opponents who are trying to achieve the same goal.

A game must have decision-making.   This is perhaps the most important characteristic of a game.  A player must be presented with a series of choices, each of which impacts on his/her chances of reaching the goal before his/her opposition.  In fact, Costikyan would not consider the card game War a game because there is no decision-making.  In War, a player simply flips an unknown card at random from his/her deck and hopes for the best.  Decision-making allows the player to control his/her destiny (to an extent).  Through decision-making, the player expresses a personality, a strategy for how to win the game.

In order to make good decisions, a player must be presented with some information about those decisions.  To understand this concept, think about the game of War (which, again, Costikyan would not consider a game).  The player in this game is not presented with any decision-making opportunities.  He/she simply flips a card and hopes for the best.  Many of my students, presented with the challenge of adding decision-making to the game, suggest that the player’s deck of cards be split into two decks and the player must decide the deck from which to flip a card.  If the cards are all faced down, this clearly does not add a decision to the game, because the player has no information about the contents of each deck.  That information, in other words, is hidden from the player.  So in order to make a good decision, the player must be presented with SOME information.  In Chess, the player is presented with perfect information, that is,  nothing is hidden from the player.  In a game like Texas Hold ‘Em, on the other hand, the player is presented with imperfect, or mixed, information, that is, some of the information is known to the player while some is unknown.  The player must use the known information wisely and make an informed guess at the unknown information in order to make the best decision possible.

Finally, the player must manage his/her resources.  A resource is something the player uses in order to achieve the goal of the game.  For example, in Monopoly, one of the player’s resources is the space s/he lands on.  If the space has not currently been purchased, the player can use the information they have about who owns what, the price of each property, whether s/he will make a monopoly, and so on, to determine whether to purchase this property.  The relationship between decision-making, information and the management of resources is an intimate one, one that is difficult to pull apart.

So what does all of this have to do with philosophy and my bike ride?  On my ride, I was thinking about my life and the lives of my close friends.  Nearly all of us have dealt with major life changes and difficulties in the last year or two.  We have been an incredibly supportive community for each other while we make difficult decisions about our lives.  This made me think about games and decision-making.  I can only speak for myself, but my guess is that we are all seeking a particular goal in our lives.  For me personally, that goal is to be happy.  I want to live a happy, healthy life.  But many obstacles (my opposition) have been placed in my way.  So I have had to use my resources (which include these very friends that I am writing about) and the information given to me at a particular moment in time to make the best decisions possible to try to achieve my goal.  The information piece of things was really interesting to me as I thought about this.  In our lives, our information is always imperfect.  We never know everything as we’re trying to make decisions about the direction of our lives.  We must use the information we have and make educated guesses about the information we don’t have in order to make the best decisions we can.

I was thinking about all of this as I rode, thinking about the decisions I’ve made in the last year or so and how I came to those decisions.  And I was thinking about my friends and the decisions that they are being presented with and how they will go about deciding.  It’s all very game-like, especially if you think about our goal in life being to achieve happiness.  There are probably other goals but that’s what I was thinking about today.  And then I rode past this sign that said, ” If you are headed in the wrong direction, God allows U-turns.”  And suddenly, it was like everything came together in my head (even though I don’t believe in God). 

Here’s the connection.  Given imperfect information, we all make decisions about our lives that push us in a particular direction.  As we move forward, more information presents itself to us.  We use this new information to make new decisions about where to proceed.  At various points in our lives, we may figure out that at some fork in the road in our past, we have made the wrong decision,  We are now using the wrong strategy, headed down the wrong path to acheive our goal of happiness.  But  these are our lives.  It’s not too late to make a correction.  The fact that we have headed down a particular path for some amount of time in our lives does not condemn us to continue down that particular path, to use that particular strategy, for the rest of our lives.  We can reverse course and revisit our decisions.  It’s allowed.  We can use all of the information presented to us to try to achieve happiness.  It’s allowed.

Is that a philosophy of life?  I don’t know but I feel like I’ve lived it for the last year.  It’s been difficult but I think I’m on the right path now.  At least according to the information that has been presented to me up to this point.  That’s the best I can do.

{February 28, 2010}   Impressive Perform

Ann said I should write a post about this latest comment to my blog.  It was posted on my iPad and Education entry but I think it’s spam.  What do you think?  “Impressive perform on your own send. Hold up using the specatacular work.”

The website that it came from is:  Don’t put that website into your browser.  It’s spam.  But the poetry of the comment is priceless, almost as good as the classic: “All your base are belong to us.”

So why didn’t my spam filter catch this comment as spam?  It’s not clear to me since it seems so obvious that it’s spam.  How did the authors bypass the spam filter?  I have no idea.  But I have my blog set up so that I have to moderate any comments from new posters.  So I was able to mark this particular comment as spam and not have it actually post as a comment.

I do, however, like “Impressive perform on your own send.”  Praise, even nonsensical praise, makes me feel good about myself.

{January 14, 2010}   Google in China Follow-up

A new perspective, one that I hadn’t thought of yesterday when I wrote my post about cheering Google’s decision to stop censoring search results in China, comes from a Business Week article.  The article speculates about Google’s suggestion that it may pull out of China altogether because of concerns about censorship and the hacking of GMail accounts, presumably by the Chinese government.  The article suggests that Google’s withdrawal from the Chinese marketplace would be bad news for the Chinese people since Google’s search results are less heavily censored than the results provided by Baidu, Google’s main competitor in China.

This is an argument that has played out in a number of places throughout history.  Think of the US embargo of Cuba as an example.  The US forbids trade with Cuba because of the actions of its leader.  The pressure of the embargo is supposed to make the leader change his policies and yet, in the forty years since the imposition of the embargo, Castro’s policies have remained unchanged.  The result is an impoverished, isolated population.  In other words, the embargo’s impact is felt almost exclusively by the Cuban people, not by Cuba’s leaders.

I still applaud Google’s decision to stop censoring search results in China, even though Chinese leaders may force Google to shut down because of the lack of censorship.  The case for Google voluntarily pulling out of China completely is complicated.  Things are always complicated when trying to deal with dictatorships and repressive regimes.

{August 18, 2009}   Playing With Swine Flu

Everyone seems to be talking about and planning for the H1N1 virus these days.  My university, for example, sent out a memo to encourage us to plan for extended absences due to the virus as we plan our classes for the fall semester.   Now we can all participate in world-wide planning for the potential pandemic, thanks to a group of researchers from Erasmus University Medical Center in Rotterdam, The Netherlands.  They have created a new Flash game called The Great Flu that allows the player to try to stop the spread of a virus.  The consequences of the player’s actions can be surprising, as when I isolated victims of the virus in China and Japan which caused “chaos”.  This game is an example of a serious game, that is, a game with a serious purpose such as education or advocacy.  There are so many examples of serious games that the category constitutes a subfield of game studies with organizations and conferences dedicated to it.  Don’t let the name of the category fool you, though.  Serious games can be fun too.  The Great Flu is pretty good and I learned quite a bit about public policy implementation for virus containment.  Who would have thought swine flu could be fun?  Give the game a try here.  The game also contains quite a bit of humor.  At some point, as the deaths from the flu rose in Central and North America, one of the global events that occurred was that “No Virus” t-shirts began to be sold.  That sounds about right.  🙂

{August 13, 2009}   Summer Play

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m chairing a panel at NeMLA in April about using Web 2.0 technologies to play.  Because of this panel, I’ve spent much of my summer playing and thinking about playing online.  Yes, I recognize that I have a great job!

The game that has captured my online attention this summer is Scrabble on FaceBook.  There are a few people (Liz, Scott, Ann) that I’m playing with regularly, multiple games at a time.  There are also a couple of people (Sally, Carrie) with whom I seem to constantly have one game going.  And then there are a few people (Gary, Cathrine, Kate) that I play with occasionally.  I even sometimes play with strangers, although I find those games less engaging, probably because the social aspect of the game, which I’ve also written about before, is lacking.

One of the things I really like about Scrabble on FaceBook is that it will not let you play an invalid word.  So the game is completely about pattern recognition.  When I play the game in person, nothing stops me from playing an invalid word and so I am unlikely to take a chance on a word that I am unsure about.  If my opponent challenges me in the real life game and I have played an invalid word, I lose a turn.  In the online version of Scrabble, I can’t lose a turn for playing an invalid word.  As a result, I’m likely to try letter combinations that I would never have tried in real life.  I’ve learned lots of new words by just trying out letter combinations.  What is “zax” for example?  Or “tranqs”?  And I’ve learned many, many two letter words whose meanings I’m sure I’ll never know.  Anyone know what “za” is?  Or “xu”?  Or “ka”?

Lots of other FaceBook games have come to my attention and not captured it this summer.  I’ve tried Farkle and Rummikub, both of which I love in the real world.  Many of my friends have been playing Farmtown and so I’ve created my own farm but I haven’t visited it for days.  And Mafia Wars.  And Bejeweled.  Well, to be honest, I won’t allow myself to really play Bejeweled because it is exactly the kind of game that I could become addicted to and I don’t really want to be addicted to a game right now.

But the kind of play I’ve been most interested in this summer has not been play that is associated with games.  I’m really interested in play as a way of practicing and expressing parts of one’s identity that is difficult to practice or express in the real world. 

My FaceBook friends seem to do a lot of quizzes.  They want to find out which philosopher most closely represents them and how well they know their Princess Bride quote trivia.  They want the rest of us to know five places they’ve lived and five jobs they’ve had and five cars they’ve owned.  For some reason, I have resisted these quizzes although I’ve been thinking a lot about what people get out of taking them.  And what I’ve come to realize is that these quizzes are a way to reveal one’s identity, either your real one or the one you wish you had.  This came to me the other night as I was engaging in non-gaming online play of my own.  I like to play with memes that come in the form of lists of questions that you answer in a note on your FaceBook profile.  A meme is a cultural idea that is transmitted from one mind to another, in this case, via FaceBook.  There are lots of memes running around FaceBook.  Most of these memes allow users to reveal things about themselves (or not), helping to construct a kind of online identity that supplements (or perhaps alters) one’s identity in the real world.

A few weeks ago, for example, I revealed to my friends the fifteen books that I’ve read that have stuck with me.  The idea is that you list these books without thinking too much about them, presumably so you can’t make yourself seem cooler than you actually are.  My list contained books that I’d talked recently with Ann about (Disgrace and The Road) as well as books that I’d seen on other people’s lists (To Kill a Mockingbird and The Color Purple).  The list also really did contain books that popped into my head because they were memorable and important to me in some way (A Separate Peace, Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Sing, Gone to Soldiers and The Mists of Avalon).  But I rejected a number of books from my list just because I didn’t think I’d want to reveal them (Valley of the Dolls, The Other and The Group).  And I rejected some just because they didn’t send the message that I wanted to send (Heart of Darkness and Carrie).  As I reflected afterward on the books that I put on my list, I started to think about identity management again, that is, how I present myself to the world, the FaceBook world in this case.

What does this have to do with play?  The other night, the two concepts merged for me.  I was playing with another of these memes, called My Life According to … .   The note contains a series of questions that you are supposed to answer using the song titles from one artist or band.  I chose the Indigo Girls so my note was called My Life According to the Indigo Girls.  Here’s what I wrote:

Several people have tagged me with this–I won’t tag anyone. Play if you want to. Using only song names from ONE ARTIST, cleverly answer these questions. Pass it on to 15 people you like and include me (presuming I’m someone you like). You can’t use the band I used. Try not to repeat a song title. Repost as “my life according to (band name)
Are you a male or female:
“The Girl With The Weight Of The World In Her Hands”
Describe yourself:
How do you feel:
“Closer To Fine”
Describe where you currently live:
“Get Out the Map”
If you could go anywhere, where would you go:
“Perfect World”
Your favorite form of transportation:
“Midnight Train to Georgia”
Your best friend?
“She’s Saving Me”
You and your best friends:
What’s the weather like:
Favorite time of day:
“I Don’t Wanna Know”
If your life was a TV show, what would it be called:
“Lay My Head Down”
What is life to you:
Your relationship:
“Moment of Forgiveness”
Your fear:
“Kid Fears”
What is the best advice you have to give:
“Don’t Give that Girl a Gun”
Thought for the Day:
“I’ll Change”
How I would like to die:
My soul’s present condition:
“Cold Beer and Remote Control”
My motto:
“It’s Alright”
 The interesting thing to me about this particular meme isn’t the answers that I gave but the process I went through in deciding which artist to use and then which song titles to use for each question.  As I chose song titles, I tried to think about how that particular choice would be received by my potential audience. For example, I don’t drink beer but I thought the song title “Cold Beer and Remote Control” was a clever response to “My soul’s present condition:”.  So I clearly wasn’t trying just to reveal true things about my identity.  I was also trying to construct (or reinforce?) an image of myself that shows me to be funny and clever.
I’ve been searching for work that discusses how adults use play in identity management.  I have found lots of work that discusses these issues for children but not much about adults.  I’m just starting to read Brian Sutton-Smith’s Ambiguity of Play.  He identifies four categories into which play activities can be grouped.  One of those categories is “play as self” so I’m hopeful that his work can help to advance my thinking on this subject.

{July 17, 2009}   Board Games ‘R Us

A friend of mine recently posted a list of board games that she had as a kid (and wished she had never gotten rid of).  She had quite an interesting list.  So I decided to go check out the site that she linked to and discovered a game that I think I’m going to have to buy.  The game is called THE AMAZING DUNNINGER MIND READING GAME.  Here’s a quote from the web site that describes the game.

Based on extensive research, Dunninger has developed the Mind Reading Game, to prove that anyone can read a thought! Not a game of chance, the Mind Reading Game provides an experiment to demonstrate that a coincidental thought can be gained by two persons without the aid of recognized communication to a degree that precludes the possibility of chance.

The game includes a “receiver board with built-in temples.”  I really want to know what that means.  This game combines my interest in games with my interest in weird beliefs.  What more could I ask for?

{December 9, 2008}   Mob Wars

I have recently been playing Mob Wars on FB. I started because Ann and Liz both invited me to be part of their mobs. I nearly stopped playing after Thanksgiving but Scott begged me not to uninstall the application because he wanted me to stay in the mob. As a result of these friends playing, I have continued. But I have to echo Liz when I say, “It’s no Parking Wars.” So why doesn’t Mob Wars stack up well against Parking Wars? To understand why Parking Wars is a better game, I think we have to understand a little bit about how to play each game.

Mob Wars is a game in which the player plays a mob boss. Each mob boss has a number of characteristics, represented by numbers. The characteristics include health (with a starting maximum value of 100), energy (starting maximum value of 20), stamina (starting maximum value of 3), attack (starting maximum value of 3) and defense (starting maximum value of 3). In addition, each mob boss has a stockpile of weapons and vehicles, an amount of cash and experience points. The goal of the game is to move up the levels (called leveling up) by gaining experience points. Experience points are gained in a number of ways.

The first way to gain experience points is to complete jobs. Every job requires some amount of energy as well as some tools (weapons, vehicles, mobsters, other items such as bottles of liquor) and, upon successful completion, pays cash within a certain range. Another way to gain experience points is to fight other mobs (and beat them). Once an appropriate number of experience points is gained, the player is alloted 3 skill points that she can distribute among her many characteristics (such as maximum health, maximum energy and so on).

These are just the beginning of the MANY decisions that need to be made while playing Mob Wars. As I’ve written before, decision-making is a very important factor in determining whether a game is engaging. In general, the more meaningful the decisions that need to be made in a game, the more engaging the game is. A meaningful decision is one that allows the player to delineate a strategy for winning the game. In other words, for a decision to be meaningful, there must be multiple choices, each of which may lead to a winning strategy, each of which has advantages and disadvantages. Mob Wars requires the player to make a series of meaningful decisions. For example, my stamina in Mob Wars is currently set to 9. Each time a player chooses to fight some other mob (hoping to gain experience points and take some of that mob’s money), the player’s stamina is reduced by 1. In other words, I can engage in 9 fights with other mobs in a row without waiting for my stamina to be replenished. For me, however, this value rarely comes into play because of other choices that I have made. In order to win a fight, I must spend my money on weapons and vehicles. Instead, I have chosen to spend my money on properties within the city which allows me to earn more money at a faster rate (without having to fight). Because I don’t have as many weapons and vehicles as other mobs, I lose a lot of fights which decreases my stamina without gaining me anything. Until I purchase more weapons and vehicles, it doesn’t make sense for me to add more stamina to my mobster. This is just one meaningful decision among many that I must make.

Parking Wars, on the other hand, has relatively few meaningful decisions. There are basically two. First, the player must decide on whose streets she is going to park her cars. She is allowed to park her cars on her friends’ streets as well as those of three anonymous strangers’ streets. Second, once she earns a certain amount of money, she must decide which specialized car she is going to purchase (if any). That’s it! There are no other meaningful decisions.

Therefore, according to Costikyan (one of the game theorists that I make my students read), because Mob Wars has more interesting meaningful decisions than Parking Wars, Mob Wars should be a more engaging game than Parking Wars. But it isn’t. And here’s why I think that’s the case.

Both games are played on FaceBook, a social networking tool that is all about connecting with people. Parking Wars involves more interesting social interaction than Mob Wars and since the context of playing the two games is a social interaction site, Parking Wars is more interesting. In Parking Wars, a player parks on her friends’ streets and has her friends park on her streets. She is able to ticket her friends when they park illegally and send them messages on those tickets. She begins to learn her friends’ patterns–when they check their streets, whether they give tickets at low values or wait until the tickets become more valuable, and so on. In addition, there is the possibility of creating alliance with certain friends, agreeing not to ticket that friend’s illegally parked cars. Noticing and commenting on these alliances is also engaging. In fact, Nick created a group called Parkaholics Anonymous in which he explicitly commented on my alliance with Ann. All of this is part of the engagement of Parking Wars.

On the surface, Mob Wars has similar social possibilities via the “mob” aspect of the game.  That is, the members of a player’s mob are her friends.  The fact that a player is in the same mob as one of her friends does not impact on her playing of the game, however. She cannot explicitly take advantage of the fact that she has friends with certain characteristics in her mob. This is a missed opportunity and, I think, the main reason Mob Wars is not as engaging as Parking Wars.

I believe this goes to show that there is not a single reason for playing a game. Game designers would be well advised to pay attention to the context of a game and why players might be interested in playing as they design the interactions and decisions involved in playing their games.

{September 21, 2008}   Parking Wars

Earlier this month, I was out for drinks with colleagues. Most of us are friends on FaceBook as well as in real life. A new colleague, Marylena, mentioned that one of her favorite things to do on FaceBook is play Parking Wars. Her sheepish description of the game was not particularly intriguing but because I’m always interested in the games people play, I decide that I would check it out. And once I had played for a few days, I invited some other friends to play as well. Now I’m addicted.

The game is an advertisement for an A&E channel show, also called Parking Wars. I have never seen the show and playing the game doesn’t make me want to go watch the show. So although I think the game is successful as a game, I’m not so sure it’s successful as an advertisement.

Here’s how the game is played. The premise is that you are in charge of a street with five spaces on it. Some of the five spaces do not allow parking. Some allow parking for only cars of a certain color. And some might allow parking for cars of any color. The arrangement of these five spaces changes at random. In addition, you have some cars of your own that you need to park. You can’t park them on your own streets. Instead, you have to park them on the streets of your friends (of course, only those friends who have also installed the Parking Wars application) and two strangers. For every minute that your car is parked on a particular street, the car gains monetary value. When you move the car from one spot to another, you earn the value of that car at that moment. You also earn money if you catch someone parked illegally on your street–you ticket them and you earn the amount that the car is worth at the time of ticketing. Of course, if it is your car that is ticketed, you lose the amount that the car is worth at the time of ticketing.

When I first started playing Parking Wars, my only FaceBook friend who was playing was Marylena. So I could park on her street and on the streets of two strangers. I installed the application, parked my two cars and then promptly forgot about the application. A few days later, I received a FaceBook message from Marylena telling me that there were cars parked illegally on my street just waiting for me to ticket them. I’ve been hooked on the game ever since. I went to the game, ticketed Marylena, got the money from those tickets and became a Parking Pro (I had been a Parking Amateur up to that point). I also was able to purchase a third car, which allowed me to start earning more money. That act of altruism on Marylena’s part stuck with me because it hooked me on the game. After playing for a few days with only three streets to park on, I realized that the game would be much more fun if I had more streets to choose from. So I invited my closest FaceBook friends (who are my closest friends in real life–go figure) to play the game. Within hours, I had seven streets to park on and the game was even more fun.

As my friends became acquainted with Parking Wars, I watched them move from Parking Amateurs to Parking Pros. I explained how the game worked. And I engaged in the same sort of altruism with them that Marylena had shown toward me. I parked illegally on their streets, simply so they could earn some money and thus, become hooked on the game.

Today, I was explaining this game to Evelyn. I mentioned the altruism because I had been somewhat uncomfortable with the part of the game that tempts you to park illegally if you can get away with it. I thought the altruism redeemed this troubling aspect of the game somewhat. Evelyn pointed out to me that the altruism sounded like the kind of altruism that heroin dealers show to potential new clients. They give away a taste of the heroin for free, hoping to capture their new clients in addiction so that they become lifelong customers. She’s absolutely right in making this comparison. I was trying to get my friends addicted to the game by giving them a taste of what the game has to offer. Their long-term addiction was worth the short-term hit to my current cash level because in the long run, it’s good to have more people to play with.

So games really are like drugs! They both give us the same little jolt of pleasure in our brains.

{September 13, 2008}   Digital Rights Management

Back in the late 1980’s, I worked as a volunteer on a running race. Because I had a background in computer science, one of my tasks was to set up a database of all the race entrants and then to enter their finishing positions after the race so that we could publish the results in the local paper. A friend of mine had an Apple II computer with a database management program on it. I think the database program was AppleWorks. In any case, the database management program had a primitive copy protection mechanism, a scheme for ensuring that users of the software did not give copies of it to their friends. Each time I started the program, I had to answer a question from the user manual. The question might be something like: On page 37 of the manual, what is the fourth word in the third paragraph? This was in the days before copy machines were widely available so the thinking was that the software would not be very useful if you didn’t also have a copy of the user manual. It was a very primitive way of trying to prevent users from giving the software to all of their friends, of trying to protect what the software developers felt was their right to limit the copying of their software. Of course, this mechanism would not work today since it’s extremely easy to copy user manuals. But even back then, the critique of this protection mechanism was that it was easy to circumvent if you were determined to do so but it was simply an inconvenience for legitimate users. What if you lost your user manual, for example?

Since that time, digital rights management has come of age. DRM is a hot topic with owners of digital content claiming that their rights cover all sorts of things, allowing them to do all sorts of things to our computers without our consent. And yet, it is virtually impossible to use technology to prevent the copying of software and other digital content. So DRM is typically criticized for not actually protecting against illegitimate copying while making the lives of legitimate users very difficult. A number of stories about DRM have been in the news recently.

What is digital rights management? According to Wikipedia, it is a generic term that refers to any scheme that a hardware manufacturer or copyright holder implements to prevent illegimate use of their hardware or copyrighted materials. In 1998, the United States passed the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) which among other things, made the circumvention of any digital right management mechanism a crime. In other words, if a company used the DRM mechanism that I described above (asking users to answer questions from a user manual), then copying the manual and giving it to a friend would violate the DMCA. But the situation for users of digital content is even more dire than that. DRM mechanisms today are wide-ranging, claiming all kinds of rights for the owners of digital copyrights, at the expense of your right to control what happens on your own computer.

I have been thinking about the DMCA since its passage because of its immediate impact on the research of computer scientists. Soon after the passage of the DMCA, the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI) ran a contest that challenged researchers to break their latest digital watermarking scheme. Edward Felten, a computer scientist at Princeton, chose not to sign any of the confidentiality agreements that would qualify him for the monetary prize of the contest. Within three weeks, he and his team had broken the watermarking scheme and wrote a scientific paper that described the techniques they used. When the SDMI and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) found out that the team was planning to present this paper at a conference, they threatened to sue, citing violation of the DMCA, specifically the portion of the act that makes it illegal to circumvent DRM schemes (of which the digital watermarking scheme was one). Felten withdrew the paper but also sued the SDMI and the RIAA and sought a ruling that presenting the original paper should actually have been allowed. Because Felten had not actually been sued and therefore had not been harmed, his case against the SDMI and the RIAA was dismissed on the grounds that he lacked standing to sue. Since then, the Justice Department has said that any threatened legal action against researchers such as Felten under the DMCA is invalid. But this judgment has not yet been tested in a court of law. And in the meantime, content providers have gotten bolder in their uses of DRM technologies.

In early 2007, Sony BMG Music Entertainment agreed to settle with the Federal Trade Commission after it was discovered that music CDs from the company contained software that was secretly installed on any computer on which the CDs were played. This software “limited the devices on which the music could be played, restricted the number of copies that could be made, and contained technology that monitored their listening habits to send them marketing messages.” Because the software gave access to users’ computers to Sony BMG, it also opened up holes on those computers to any intruder who knew about them. In addition, the software, once discovered, was unreasonably difficult to remove. The Federal Trade Commission said that this secret installation of software violated federal law. The settlement was a financial and public relations disaster for Sony BMG and should have put that kind of DRM technology out of business forever.

But the long-awaited release of Will Wright’s new game, Spore, from Electronic Arts earlier this month shows that DRM is alive and kicking. The reviews on Amazon are overwhelmingly negative due to the existence of SecuROM, a particularly nasty implementation of DRM. This software was developed by Sony DADC, does not announce that it is installing itself, limits the user to 3 installations of the game (even if it has been uninstalled), and is very difficult to uninstall, even if the game is uninstalled. It remains to be seen what kinds of security risks are opened up on the computers that have SecuROM on them. The biggest complaint seems to be about the limit of three installations because of how strict this limit is. Apparently, changes in hardware make the software believe that a new installation has occurred. So if a user upgrades her video card, she may use up one of her Spore installations. This software sounds very similar to the software that Sony BMG got slapped down for using so I can only imagine what is going to happen as these thousands of disgruntled gamers make their dissatisfaction known. Of course, the developers of Spore claim they are just trying to stop piracy. The problem with this argument is that the DRM scheme was broken before the game was released so anyone intent on pirating the game will be able to do so. Only legitimate users of the game will be harmed by SecuROM.

Legitimate users of Yahoo Music recently learned the lesson that purchasing DRM-protected content is actually like renting, rather than purchasing, that content. Yahoo Music Store will close its virtual doors at the end of this month. If you are one of the unlucky legitimate customers who bought your music through this store, you will no longer have access to your music because of Yahoo’s DRM scheme. When the store closes, the DRM license key servers will shut down. If you can’t get a DRM license key, you can no longer listen to music that you legitimately purchased. Meanwhile, those who pirated that same music will continue to enjoy what they pirated.

Content providers need to stop creating roadblocks for their legitimate users. These roadblocks do nothing to protect content.

et cetera