Monday, March 14, 2011

Cheap Clicks: Zynga Sexualizes Children

Click for full size

If you're wondering what the picture above shows, let me take a moment to explain it to you.

Zynga has a piece of crap "social game" called FrontierVille, which is just more of the same FarmVille compulsion-loop tripe, only with a pioneer theme. At a presentation during the SXSW Expo, Zynga's lead designer Brian Reynolds displayed this image showing something they learned from FrontierVille. See that picture of the girl with the sheep? Well, she may either be pushing it or hugging it, but a lot of people seem to think she's doing ... something else with it. (I know, it doesn't make any sense since a girl can't ... never mind.)

Anyway, Reynolds observed that this unexpected innuendo lead to "our highest post rate and our highest clickthrough rate." They attributed this to the unintended sexual innuendo. As the above slide observes, "the younger ones [meaning children who play the game] never notice any innuendo; the adults 'share' it constantly."

So they started deliberately adding things like "Scott just got wood" and "Margaret needs a few good screws." Haha! See! It's funny when we sexualize children for the amusement of adults! And waddaya know, the inhabits of our Jersey Shore culture kept reposting, responding and clicking through the posts with innuendo at a much higher rate than they did for the posts without.

Have we become such a debased culture that everything must be sexualized? When sexuality and innuendo is everywhere, then its mystique, and ultimately its appeal, becomes lost. We're raising up a hyper-sexualized generation by creating a public square wherein every piece of visual and audio stimulation is saturated in sexuality. That's not amusing or even erotic. It's just boring.

Popular culture is at an interesting point. There's a struggle going on right now between those who wish to push us further down the road of excessive sex and violence, and those who want to reclaim a more respectable tone for mass entertainment. Look at pop music, where the grotesque, derivative, perverse Lady Gaga and the sweet, talented, girl-next-door Taylor Swift have almost identical record sales. One exalts the freakish and outlandishly sexual, and the other exalts the commonplace and relatively chaste. It's the same in gaming, with the tug-of-war between the family-friendly Wii games and the uber-violence of some modern action games. These dichotomies are not hidden: in fact, they're part of the appeal, with each camp having their own advocates.

But when mature elements are deliberately added to something as apparently child-friendly as FrontierVille, the lines become blurred. Parents may overlook something like FrontierVille because it seems to be innocuous, but all the while designers are slipping in mature content under the guise of cartoon sheep and little girls.

I was disappointed to see Brian Reynolds attached to this kind of garbage. Reynolds is a talented guy who worked with Sid Meier and was the lead designer on Civilization II and Alpha Centari. Unfortunately, his own company, Big Huge Games, floundered despite doing two excellent games: Rise of Nations and Catan. I've met and interviewed Reynolds and he's a genuinely nice guy with a gift for making good strategy games. In this economy, I can't blame a man for going where the money is, and right now the money is with Zynga. I only hope some day he gets out with his dignity intact.

h/t Joystiq


Anonymous said...

I'm also very disappointed, I hold Brian in the highest regard and would not imagine he'd be connected to this.

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