Listen to the criticism of social network site, especially Facebook, and you'll hear complaints about people wasting time playing games. This was something I never noticed when my only social networking experience was on MySpace. Once I joined Facebook it seemed that every other contact was playing some game or another.
It wasn't long before I was sucked into the fray. I noticed a few of my friends were playing Mafia Wars, which appeared to be an HTML-based RPG. I figured that I could probably handle something like that, click on it a time or two a day, do a few tasks, and that would be it. Of course it never works out that way.
The problem is that these games are designed to take advantage our competitive nature. I started out doing exactly as I planned, or maybe less. Then I kept losing fights, getting robbed, and was killed repeatedly. Each time something like that would happen a notification in the Facebook interface would show.
My choices were to give up or dedicate a little more effort. Not to be outdone by a little game, I decided to give it a real try. First I simply increased my efforts to improve my character. I did more tasks to gain experience and reach higher levels. I bought more property so I could have income to buy more weapons. Then I bought weapons and defensive items.
None of it worked. My character was still losing fights and getting robbed and killed.
Back to square one, I wondered what the heck I was doing wrong. There is a link in the application to a user forum. Taking a peek, I found that there were a few guides to help pick weapons and upgrade your character. Those led nowhere. Then I realized the undercurrent of the discussion: everything focused on having a huge "mafia." [read: guild, team, group, etc.]
There was my problem. Not only did I have a small mafia consisting of whichever friends were playing the game, but I had made little to no effort to expand it. When the game posted notices on my profile I quickly deleted them. I changed permissions to disallow such postings because I didn't want to advertise my involvement. This meant that I wasn't spreading the game to those around me, so I wasn't connected to as many players.
That's when it hit me: To be successful at this game you have to spread it like a virus.
That's what all those alerts are intended to do. Create more players that need more players, spreading virally by spamming via the players profile. I was a failure because, even though I was infected, I was washing my hands after each use so it wouldn't spread further.
The game seems somewhat self-aware about this. By default it posts an entry about almost everything you do, with certain achievements being highlighted by larger posts that have accompanying images. In order to "ask for help" to get your other mafia members to contribute on a task you have to post an alert to your profile. You can invite your contacts to play the game, and this is considered more important than reviewing your existing mafia to the point that you have to access your mafia via the invite screen. If you run out of invitations - I suppose their somehow arbitrarily limited - then you have to post an alert on your profile to all your contacts asking them to join. Occasionally the game asks you to send game items to your friends, and of course the entire contact list is the default option.
There are more games like this. In fact, my wife was playing another game by the same company. This one, FarmVille, uses cute images and sappy statements to garner attention. It spreads the same way. It also has limitations that impair your ability to play unless you manage to convince others to play as well. The kicker here: When my wife let the app spam her profile a few times and not enough people bit she actually asked me to start playing as a favor. I complied and a similar cycle ensued, except I had enough "neighbors" to be somewhat successful at this.
I took a different approach. I found that the forum had an "Add Me" thread for Facebook. If you post a link to your profile you'll get dozens of friend requests. This all but ruins Facebook for other uses but what the hell am I doing there anyway? I did spend some time setting permissions so that I could add all of these total-stranger-friends to a group that wouldn't be able to dig into my personal life. It's the other part of the site that's ruined, the one where I can see the broadcast messages of my real friends. C'est la vie.
What do I get from all of this? I suppose the reward for me is a few mindless, distracting clicks a day. Things that I can do to give my brain a rest from the tribulations of working in a cubicle farm. I'm not winning anything, though. More realistically, I've lost by playing.