Facebook Games: The Mind-Virus That Is Destroying Humanity

It’s a routine most of us are familiar with. You log into Facebook, check your homepage, and someone’s filled it with endless notifications from whichever stupid game they’re playing. Bob wants you to tend his cattle in FrontierVille! Lucy wants you to harvest her crops! (Settle down, gents, I mean in FarmVille.) So-and-so won a battle in Vampire Wars and is feasting upon the blood of his enemies! It’s amazing how much utter garbage you have to scroll through in order to see if anyone’s posted anything of import recently (and this being Facebook, odds are heavily against that). Finally, you reach the bottom of the page and see a status like this:

Someone join my mafia i need 1 more person 2 do this mission kthx

…and your urge to remove people from the gene pool grows ever stronger.

Well, take heart, fellow citizens of the internet. And take a deep breath. Ready?

It’s not their fault.

No, it isn’t. It’s not their fault they’re flooding your news feed with such absolute rubbish at all hours of the night. They’re victims, you know. They’ve been infected with a truly insidious virus: The virus of casual gaming.

Since I’m not a doctor, you may think me poorly-qualified to make such a claim. I feel sufficiently comfortable doing so because I’ve seen Outbreak and The Andromeda Strain (the 1971 version, not the explosion-tastic miniseries) several times. That makes me at least a quarter of a virologist, right?

I’m going to go down this list of the characteristics of a virus while injecting some Facebook-gaming anecdotes of my own.

1. They reproduce at a fantastic rate. True. Facebook games came from nothing, and now everyone and their mother plays FarmVille.

2. They can mutate. Games update regularly, weeding out unused/disliked features and adding in better components that will help them “survive”. The Challenge Missions in Mafia Wars are a prime example. The most recent was South Africa, meant to capitalize on the World Cup – the objective of this mission was to fix the matches by bribing referees and so on. Now that the World Cup is over, the new players drawn to the game will likely stay due to the fun they had with the “mutation”.

3. They are acellular, that is, they contain no cytoplasm or cellular organelles. So far as I know. ‘Cause if they did, that would be disturbing.

4. They carry out no metabolism on their own and must replicate using the host cell’s metabolic machinery. Indeed, Facebook games are helpless to reproduce without the living “host cells”, i.e. human beings. This is where all of that annoying “Please be my neighbor on FarmVille!” notification spam comes from.

An armory.

Each of these weapons is a deadly virus out to kill you.

Oh, and they’re tricky. Tricksy little viruses they are. They even act benign, rewarding the host when they pass the contagion on, or requiring transmission of the virus to continue in the game. This usually comes right when they’ve got their hooks in the player. “You need more mafia members to play this level. Recruit. Recruuuuuit!” And the player dutifully sends out request spam to everyone on their friends list, and some poor schmuck picks it up, and the cycle begins anew. These things snowflake out – and once you start with one game, others will follow.

In my case, I started with Farm Town (FarmVille’s less popular predecessor) and Mafia Wars, after seeing them at my friend’s house and deciding they looked kind of fun. This is an example of transmission outside of direct internet contact; transmission by influence, we’ll call it. So I played Mafia Wars while I waited for my crops to grow, and I played Farm Town while I waited for my energy to refill, and it was good. Then I got bored and quietly withdrew from the system.

A year passed. Then I decided I’d get back into Mafia Wars. “It was fun!” I reasoned. I played and was happy. Then I came upon The Agency: Covert Ops, and decided to play that while I waited for my energy to refill. Farm Town was long forgotten, my old crops withered and rotting from neglect. And as I played, I noticed something. The game was trying to get me hooked.

Through a carefully crafted system of timed events and back-patting, the mind-virus was encouraging me to waste my time. “Oh, I only need a few more experience points until my next level. Then I can play some more.” More play led to more intangible rewards. I was encouraged to draw my friends into the web so I could do more. It encouraged me to pass it on. And of course the achievements. “Look! You picked up a shell! YOU GET A REWARD!” My Tribe is the worst of these offenders – there’s a little timer in the bottom left that counts down to the next event. “Gah! I can’t leave now, it’s almost time for Stardust to fall! Ooh, now I have to wait for a treasure chest! Just one more minute…” And so on. Before you know it, it’s 6 PM, you’re in your pajamas, and all you’ve eaten is Goldfish and microwave Ramen.

The face of evil.

I'm on to you!

The viruses are even spreading out into the real world. You can buy perks and currency in these games – with real money. You can buy tie-in sandwiches at 7-11 that give you game points for Zynga titles. And it’s not just sandwiches – there’s brownies and Slurpees and you have to buy the right product to get the right reward in the right game. This is going beyond the valley of the ridiculous and into the realm of the insane. And we’re letting it happen, one FarmVille kittykat and Mafia Wars AK-47 at a time.

At this point, you might be tempted to ask me why these harmless, albeit omnipresent, games are destroying humanity. I could cite the loss of productivity these addictive games cause – 7 percent of a global sample of Facebook users spend an average of 68 minutes per day on FarmVille (the most popular Facebook game ever)! – but my beef is much deeper than that.

They can easily become conduits for delivering malware, and also cyberterrorism. So remember, every time you water your crops, the terrorists win.

Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s about to rain Stardust in My Tribe.

~ by Alex Villanueva on July 23, 2010.

2 Responses to “Facebook Games: The Mind-Virus That Is Destroying Humanity”

  1. [...] out – and once you start with one game, others will follow.” -Alex Villanueva draws some eerie parallels between real viruses and the “viral” nature of social [...]

  2. Unfortunately is not only your time. You would be amazed to find out how much money can they spend on those games. And you can be sure of that just by taking a look on how fast are new games developing.

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