Monday, September 21, 2020

Control through triviality - III

Many authoritarian governments have found that providing online entertainment, especially if spiced up with porn keeps people distracted from politics. The Chinese initially cracked down on many porn sites but then changed course. Evgeny Morozov quotes a Chinese internet expert as saying that it was a strategic move by the government who probably reasoned that if internet users are kept busy watching porn, they will be less interested in politics. In Vietnam, censorship targets political users while leaving pornographic sites unblocked. The most popular blogger in Russia runs contests to find out the woman with the most beautiful breasts. 

In Belarus, some ISPs provide illegal music and movies free to their customers. The government can easily crack down on them but choose to look the other way. There was an experiment in which some computer users in democratic countries donated some bandwidth to people in countries where there is internet censorship using a special software so that the latter can read about the horrors happening in their countries. But it was found that people were more interested in looking at nude photographs of celebrities. Morozov writes in The Net Delusion, ' . . .we may well end up with an army of people who are free to connect, but all they want to connect to is potential lovers, pornography and celebrity gossip.'

A games developer, Ian Bogost showed how easy it is to seduce people into playing pointless games. Zynga, the company that created Farmville, claimed that its games were all about bringing friends closer together but  they carried a whiff of exploitation. FarmVille, Zynga's flagship franchise, encouraged people to publicize their every action on Facebook newsfeeds and pester their friends to join them. It kept players coming back by setting onerous time limits — return in 16 hours to harvest your rhubarb or your fields would be riddled with withered stalks. And it compelled them to pay money if they wanted to avoid mindless tasks or lengthy delays. Ian Bogost created Cow Clicker as a critique of Facebook games and was intended to embody the worst aspects of the modern gaming industry. 

Taking his cue from FarmVille, which encourages players to personalize their homestead with special crops and equipment, he drew a series of cows for his players to buy with virtual "mooney" or real money. The rules were simple to the point of absurdity. A leaderboard tracked the game's most prodigious clickers. In true FarmVille fashion, whenever a player clicked a cow, an announcement — "I'm clicking a cow" — appeared on their Facebook newsfeed. As a play experience, it was nothing more than a collection of cheap ruses, blatantly designed to get players to keep coming back, exploit their friends, and part with their money. "I didn't set out to make it fun," Bogost says. "Players were supposed to recognize that clicking a cow is a ridiculous thing to want to do."

Bogost watched with surprise as a game that was supposed to be a satire became popular with many playing it seriously. Bogost kept his players hooked by introducing new cows for them to purchase using virtual currency that he called mooney or real money. The players were like rats in a Skinner box, hitting a button to get a jolt of reinforcement. Bogost coined the term Cowclickification, "the application of cow-clicking mechanics to non-cow-clicking applications." He said, '"Businesses can employ new cow-clicking mechanics such as clicking a cow to distract customers from the vapid pointlessness of their products and services." He created My First Cow Clicker, a "repetitive cow-clicking drill cleverly disguised as an entertaining videogame" that promised to teach kids "how to click a cow effectively" for the low, low price of $1.99. (He sold dozens of them.)

Finally Bogost decided to end the game and the image of a cow was replaced with an image of an empty patch of grass. Players can still click on the grass, still generate points for doing so, but there are no new cows to buy, no mooing to celebrate their action. But months after the end, Adam Scriven, an enthusiastic player from British Columbia, hasn't accepted that invitation. He is still clicking the space where his cow used to be. After the ending of the game, Bogost added a feature — a diamond cowbell, which could be earned by reaching 1 million clicks. It was intended as a joke; it would probably take 10 years of steady clicking to garner that many points. But Scriven says he might go for it. "It is very interesting, clicking nothing," Scriven says. "But then, we were clicking nothing the whole time. It just looked like we were clicking cows."

According to Zynga, Cow Clicker probably demonstrates the opposite of what it set out to prove and that social games, no matter how cynically designed, can still provide meaningful experiences. They still allow players to connect with one another and express themselves. Bogost replied in a blog essay called Shit Crayons in which he compared Cow Clicker players to the imprisoned Nigerian poet Wole Soyinka, who composed poems from his cell using whatever writing material he could find. Bogost writes that social games are akin to the Nigerian prison, trapping players in a barren environment. The fact that people are able to exercise creativity despite the cruel limitations of the game — to craft crayons out of shit — is a sign of the indomitable human spirit but no reflection whatsoever on the merits of Cow Clicker. "Even if creativity comes from constraint, there's constraint and there's incarceration," he writes. "A despot in a sorcerer's hat does not deserve praise for inciting desperate resilience."

A psychologist said, "The scary thing about Cow Clicker is that it's just an incredibly clear Skinner box. What does that say about the human psyche and how easy it is to seduce us?" The World Health Organization is to include “gaming disorder”, the inability to stop gaming, into the International Classification of Diseases. As Tagore said, ‘The inertness of mind, which is the basis of all slavery, cannot be got rid of by a docile submission to being hoodwinked nor by going through the motions of a wound-up mechanical doll.’ 

No comments:

Post a Comment