Stephanie Vie is an Associate Professor of Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. Her research focuses on online social networking and computer games, particularly how these technologies affect literate practices and the composition classroom. She is a Reviews Co-Editor for Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy. Her work has appeared in First Monday;Computers and Composition; e-Learning and Digital Media; and other journals.
I’ve long identified as a gamer. First I learned how to program in BASIC and create simple computer games, thrilled that I could influence the action in such a kinesthetic, immediate way. Later I enjoyed playing games on various systems—Frogger and Adventure on my Atari 2600; Bubble Bobble and The Legend of Zelda on that old-school gray Nintendo Entertainment System; Parasite Eve and Silent Hill on my PlayStation; Nintendogs and Animal Crossing on my sweet pink Nintendo DS that accompanied me on many an airplane ride to an academic conference. One thing has remained consistent, despite the changes in hardware, peripherals, and gaming systems over the years: I still gravitate towards games that I can play on my own in sessions as short or as long as I like. I prefer first-person gameplay to massively multiplayer, and I find that I enjoy games with relatively simple rules and controls–games that I can pick up, learn quickly, play for a while, and then put away again for some time if I wish.
In other words, in my many years playing computer and videogames, I’ve always been a casual gamer. It’s just that now, people like me are far more visible.
With that visibility, however, has come a host of other issues. There still seems to be a rift between casual and so-called “hardcore” gamers, despite the fact that greater numbers of women, older players, and families are playing games than ever before. Casual gaming, too, is growing ever more popular: Over the past ten years, due to steadily increasing smartphone and tablet use, casual gameplay, particularly in social networks, has exploded. Jesper Juul has called this a casual revolution, noting that “with casual games, it is the game that is designed to fit into the lives of players. These flexible games make it possible for everyone to be a videogame player.” Outdated stereotypes about gamers—that they’re all just guys in the basement drinking Mountain Dew—should no longer apply, but as Emma Vossen has pointed out here at First Person Scholar, while casual games have been both feminized and demonized, such feminization is a positive force in the overwhelmingly male-dominated field of games studies.
With this casual revolution has come a host of easy-to-pick-up (but not always easy to play) games such as Angry Birds, Bubble Witch Saga, World of Goo, Plants vs. Zombies—and of course Candy Crush Saga, one of the largest interactive entertainment franchises of all time. This casual game for smartphones and tablet devices is also playable through Facebook; it is a free-to-play game that offers in-game purchases to players such as extra lives or special candies. This game alone earned more money than all of Nintendo’s games during the first quarter of 2014. The number of installs, daily active users, and daily game plays for Candy Crush Saga are impressive: 93 million daily active users; over a billion daily game plays; and 5 billion installs on mobile devices. King.com, the maker of Candy Crush Saga, of course has other games, most ending inexplicably in “saga,” such as Farm Heroes Saga, Pet Rescue Saga, and Papa Pear Saga. Intriguingly, King even attempted to file trademarks for the words words candy, crush, and saga, a move that caused many to roll their eyes in annoyance and the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) to issue a statement denouncing King’s choice. Candy Crush, however, is its clear-cut winner—for example, King’s next most-popular game, Pet Rescue Saga, has only 15 million daily active users who play 129 million games daily. Still, that’s a lot of virtual candy being crushed and virtual pets being rescued.
At that same time that players like me are enjoying casual mobile games like Candy Crush Saga, we also must negotiate elements that have been brought to the forefront by the intersection of networked play environments and casual game technologies. While casual games are fun to play and often seemingly banal—provoking questions of why anyone would study Candy Crush academically—they in fact can reveal a whole host of issues worthy of our attention, such as privacy and surveillance; the readability and accessibility of terms of service; and intellectual property issues.
What’s Up with Candy Crush?
In this column, I want to argue that—along with noting the increasing numbers of casual game players and the attendant growth of diversity among players overall—we should be paying attention in particular to seemingly insubstantial, “sugary” casual social games like Candy Crush Saga . While on the surface, such games may appear simple, inconsequential, and unworthy of any kind of scholarly interest, I want to call our attention to some of the important elements that are hidden behind the shiny sugar coating of casual gameplay. Elements such as screen segmentation, surveillance, and dark patterns in privacy policies and terms of service in socially networked and mobile videogames should be of greater concern.
First, screen segmentation examines game play across four screens: computer screens; entertainment screens; personal screens; and floating screens. In 2012, Newzoo found that 143 million players, or 91% of those surveyed, played games on their computers. The entertainment screen—playing games on the television—was nearly as popular, with 105 million players in 2012. It’s the personal and floating screens that are most intriguing because of the substantial increases in players on mobile devices and smartphones coupled with the added ability to purchase in-game items and the social networks within which many of these devices are embedded.
That is, players who engage with games like Candy Crush Saga on their phones, iPads, or in Facebook don’t just play the game; their game play activities are visible to corporate entities such as King.com as well as the player’s own social networks. And corporations’ ability to segment you into groups based on your in-game behaviors is growing more sophisticated each year. Games are money-makers, as we can easily see in the example of Candy Crush Saga, and the more information that can be gathered about players (and their preferences, their activities, and their personal data), the better the game can be tailored to their desires—and this data can be used to build more appealing, more engaging, and more lucrative future games as well. Your age, your gender, your consumption activities, the hours you play, the people you play with: All of these elements and more are seamlessly gathered behind the scenes and used to develop new levels, new items, and new games that can then be sold back to you at a premium.
Networked relationships (the relationships between me, the game player, and my friends, family, and acquaintances) are joined by the constant and seamless gathering of player data in games like Candy Crush Saga. Together, socially networked environments and user telemetry create surveillance environments where your game play data is sold back to you (either through the game you’re currently playing or new “freemium” games that rely on player data for their successful design). As Jo Pierson and Rob Heyman have argued about the exchange of data for microtransaction opportunities (like in-game purchases), this exchange “doesn’t have to be problematic…as long as each party in the deal clearly understands the transactional terms” (p. 32). But because of the seamless nature of data mining in social and mobile games, we are often unaware of those terms.
Despite these interesting attempts to bring attention to terms of service, privacy policies, and end-user licensing agreements, several suits brought against game development companies illustrate the seriousness of failing to protect users’ privacy interests in social networking and mobile games. A class action suit brought against Zynga, one of the largest developers of online social games, and Facebook showcases users’ concerns about the intersection of privacy policies, terms of service, and social networking games. The suit claims that users’ identities and activities in Facebook games such as Farmville were disclosed to third parties without their consent. Earlier in 2012, Playdom, Inc. was fined three million dollars by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission for violations of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule (COPPA) after Playdom collected and disclosed personal information from hundreds of thousands of children under age 13 without their parents’ consent.
What these examples illustrate is the tension between our privacy interests and the ways we are encouraged to share data through social and mobile game spaces. Users today describe privacy as a concern in social spaces but are pushed to constantly share more information by those systems. We live in a world of corporate-controlled social media where our stories and connections with each other are embedded in a series of commodification processes. These processes extract revenue by reducing our user activities to an exchange value. Socially networked games use iterative designs based on players’ own data—surveillance is collected and used for profit.
Dark Patterns in Casual Games Policy
While human-computer interaction literature has focused on accessibility, playability, and enjoyability of games, little work has examined the terms and conditions and privacy policies that govern online games. What my research illustrates is a frequent “dark pattern” approach to the composition and arrangement of these documents, what Scott Nicholson calls “organization-centered design” that aims largely to increase the organization’s short-term bottom line. In a forthcoming chapter in the collection Video Game Policy, I illustrate through analyses of multiple casual games policy documents that they—when accessible at all—skew toward overly lengthy materials that are written in inaccessible language and fail to consider basic elements of audience awareness (such as reaching out to the reader and offering clear guidance on privacy and terms of service).
Given social networking site users’ concerns about privacy, the dark patterns of privacy policies and terms of service should be of concern to the game development community. User experience experts can play a role in crafting terms and conditions that are readable, accessible, and understandable. Tumblr, for example, recently hosted changes to its terms of service and privacy policies on Github, allowing any user to make suggestions and changes. They changed their documents to include call outs in plain language and the use of humor. The result? People paid attention to Tumblr’s terms of service changes. People also asked why terms of service and privacy policies are usually so difficult to work with, too.
So, a better balance between organization-centered design and user-centered design in social and mobile games can allow for greater user agency when it comes to privacy controls. Given our increasing gameplay in social networks and on mobile devices, it is crucial that we continue paying attention to games like Candy Crush Saga. As we do, we should consider the implications of unreadable, invisible “dark patterns” connected to policy documents. We should continue considering, too, the implications of our game play in socially networked and mobile environments; a greater understanding of how our data is being gathered, used, disseminated, and sold may allow us to approach these game spaces and technologies more critically.
As I write this article, I have just recently spent the past two weeks interviewing various games scholars for an upcoming two-part episode of the podcast Plugs, Play, Pedagogy. It’s been exciting to speak with people who play games, study games, write about games, and create games, and our conversations revolved around so many important concepts and ideas—including privacy, surveillance, and other crucial elements that undergird social networks. Yet I want to be clear in this column that I don’t condemn Candy Crush Saga or any other casual game as simply a money grab, as others have accused it of being. Sure, King.com has embedded in-app purchases within its games, as have other mobile game developers, but it’s entirely possible (and in fact, perhaps more challenging in a good way) to play Candy Crush without ever paying for it at all. And King.com is in the business of making money, just as Blizzard is for World of Warcraft or even indie game developers Team Meat for Super Meat Boy. We live in a capitalist society in which items are bought and sold, developed for sale and created to appeal to their intended audience. Games are no exception.
But what is interesting to me is the division that sometimes occurs between casual games and other game genres, with the division appearing much like earlier discussions of high culture versus low culture in literature, art, and film. That is, casual games are frequently dismissed as low culture—unimportant, for the masses, and not “real” games. In contrast, other game genres like AAA games, indie games, and perhaps most tellingly from their titles, “serious” games may be held up against casual games as more befitting of either gameplay or serious study (or both). Casual games are games: games worthy of play, games worthy of academic attention, and games that can be beautiful and compelling, uninspiring, or anything in between—just like any other non-casual game. In this piece, I hope to have made a compelling case for the importance of casual social games and personally, as someone who loves to play games, this week I look forward to downloading Candy Crush Soda Saga and getting ready to play.