Posted by Prometheus
Recently I’ve found myself wanting video games back in my life. It occurred to me that I didn’t have to get a complicated video game, I could just play one of the many video games available free online. I hadn’t tried out the games on social networking sites yet, so I dove in and started playing Crime City on Google+ (it’s like mafia wars on facebook). What I discovered horrified me.
Crime City is not really a game in the traditional sense. There is no way to lose; it’s all about constant upward progress with no real obstacles, meaning, or end. You are given a certain amount of energy to use, and once you use it up committing crimes and such you just have to wait for it to regenerate. You can’t go to jail or die. Time is the only real commodity, which can be exchanged for money by simply clicking on jobs. You can buy buildings and make your own little crime city, and these buildings will slowly accumulate cash, but they usually don’t pay themselves off for about a year (especially if you upgrade them). The game is a strikingly good example of the nature of capitalism: the constant drive to reinvest, the endless accumulation, and the loss of meaning in life. Looking over the cities of my mafia members, I could see quite clearly the struggle between having a nice looking little town or a cash producing industrial complex. Players are allowed to get two of most every building, a good financial choice but poor aesthetically. Some players clearly compromised, with a line of meaningless doppelganger buildings on the border of their city and a nicer intentional image in the center. Some just abandoned all hope of a nice town and paved everything over with concrete, shoving all of the buildings to one side.
I struggled with this dichotomy for some time in the game, between making money and having a pretty home, and each time I had this struggle I realized that there was absolutely no point to the game. Was I supposed to make money? Have the best looking city? Have the highest stats? Kill the most people? Every accomplishment became a means to more accomplishments and thus lost value. Eventually I sold all of my buildings and put down grass and dirt where the concrete used to be, and I remade my crime city into Crime Park. The ironic thing about my park is that now that I’m not constantly looking for buildings to reinvest my money I have more money than I know what to do with, and once again I realized how pointless the game is.
Looking around, almost every single game on social networking sites follows this model (even the Real time strategy games and The Sims Social). It’s a good model because it creates an opportunity for the game creators to sell you things in the game for real money. I didn’t think people would fall into the trap, but probably about 20 out of 450 of my mafia members have used real money in the game, and I have seen a person who spent at least $300 on his city. To reiterate, someone spent enough money to feed a starving child for a year on fake buildings in a meaningless game.
The point of the game, in the end, is status. Just as with capitalism. It’s not about what makes you happy, it’s about what makes other people jealous of you; it’s about your jealousy of others. After helping a less powerful mafia member kill a boss he told me “Wow, I’ll be so happy when I can do as much damage as you.” Of course, the game scales up with your power, such that you always feel less than adequate, needing something more. You’ll never be happy in such a perverse system.
Video games don’t have to be this way, and they shouldn’t be this way (and the same goes for real life). This contemporary iteration of meaningless social games is a reflection of our social ills: we are looking for games not to enhance our lives, but to take up time, be addictive, and provide symbols of status. We are looking for games that are trying to sell us something. One mafia member renamed his city “Capitalism is Crime.” I would also say “Crime City is Capitalism.”