I have a confession to make. While gender and gaming is my primary area of research, up until a month ago I had never played a Facebook game. I had a series of rationales to explain this exclusion from my gaming repertoire: (1) I hated the idea of begging friends (particularly those who didn’t play) for objects, (2) Facebook games seemed obvious in their mechanics and play style and I figured I didn’t need to play them to understand them and, (3) they seemed silly.
But I finally caved in. About a month ago I started to play the Zynga attempt at an RPG, Castleville. In part, I realized that I couldn’t continue to make excuses and that my snobbery was no better than those academics that essentialize social gaming by referring to them as “cow clickers.” Regardless of whether or not I liked the games I needed to spend some time playing them to fully understand the trend. Several people related to the gaming industry have suggested to me that the Zynga game had gone through their lifecycle, but that seems to be more of the same anti-social gaming rhetoric that has been prevalent in the gaming industry for the last 2-3 years.
So for the past month I have played Castleville. Every day. Often several times per day. It is a game that angers me to tears, and while I would like to say that this is a hallmark of poor game design, that would be unfair: I have played several good games that have angered me to tears. And, yet, I find myself yelling out things like, “How can affiliate marketing be a game mechanic?” and “I am being scammed by Zynga yet again.”
And, yet, I continue to play.
I can’t entirely articulate why I continue to play, but I feel that (in large part) it is both because the Zynga model completely understands while simultaneously completely misunderstands feminine styles of gaming.
What do they get right? The pay-to-cheat model is a fairly perceptive way to engage a demographic that formerly would not spend much more than $20 per game, ever. What is brilliant about a pay-to-cheat model (in the Zynga world) is that no one knows when I am “cheating” (paying money to push forward on things I’m tired of doing on my own) and the game does not seem to judge me for this decision. (After all, why would it? It makes money every time I spend in-game money to move forward!) Additionally, having it attached to Facebook forces me to play even when I am ambivalent about playing. Not playing makes me feel like I am abandoning others who need things from me.
I have written elsewhere about how casual gaming essentially replicates other forms of women’s leisure: they can be played for long or short periods of time and stopped easily. This facilitates a form of play where players are never fully engaged because they are always doing (or about to be doing) other things. Playing with one foot out the door, so to speak. And, again, Zynga gets this. By limiting the number of energy points to real world time it creates a space where players can only play in snippets, yet come back (you get one energy point per five minutes of non-play and you are limited to 25 points at any given time).
But there are also deep misunderstandings of feminine styles of play that make me deeply uncomfortable as I move forward. Unlike games like World of Warcraft, Castleville does not allow the player any extended pleasure in completing a task. It so quickly pushes you to the next quest or level with so little reward that you are constantly feeling a sense of desire and never any satisfaction. Similarly, while WoW creates a sense of pleasure in exploration, the spaces you are permitted to “explore” or open up in Castlevilleare so small that it denies the pleasure of seeing new things or gaining new space
But the biggest complete misunderstanding of its audience, of course, came this past week when a new series of seasonal quests were hosted by Martha Stewart. This seemed to have confounded an audience, many of whom commented on the Castleville wall sentiments such as “Whoever told Zynga it would be a good idea to team up with Martha Stewart for the newest Castleville quests should be summarily beaten.” or “Castleville just crossed the line with this Martha Stewart crap.” Her quests are stereotypically feminine: making Faberge eggs and similar crafts with an immaculate “kingdom” that reflects both her ethos and public sense of style. And, of course, link back to real Martha Stewart products. Even more amusingly, Martha’s depiction in the game paints her as a bobblehead who looks 40 years younger than reality. She appears eerily similar to Melissa Joan Hart, circa Sabrina the Teenage Witch.
And it is here—through Martha Stewart—that we can see the complete misunderstanding of feminine styles of play. Zynga does not seem to realize that feminine styles of play do not necessarily equal feminine style and desire outside of the game world. Women are not the only people who play casual Facebook games, and seeing Martha Stewart’s (inaccurate) depiction whenever one opens up the game is an eerie reminder of who is expected to be the typical Zynga player. If you do not fall into the category of someone who enjoys Martha Stewart, the game becomes alienating. Similarly, with such an inaccurate depiction I have to wonder who Zynga thinks is playing the game? Teen girls who like Martha Stewart but think she is too old? Older women who relate to Martha Stewart but don’t want to see their “hero” as their actual age? Neither of these scenarios seems to have a grasp on the reality of players—let alone women players.
Yet, during the process of writing this I have gone into the game no less than five times. I cannot tell you why. But to suggest that Facebook games have run their course or are too ridiculous to be taken seriously is similar to how other feminine forms of leisure (romance novels and “chick flicks,” for example) have been ridiculed for many years. They need to be taken seriously simply because they tell us something about our cultural perceptions of what feminine play might look like—even when these depictions are embarrassingly inaccurate.