Like everyone else, I* woke up with a hangover on January 1st. Shortly thereafter, though, a migraine struck from the shadows and crushed my hangover's windpipe, leaving me writhing in the clichés of agony. It would have been a great time for self-reflection, were I not so devoted to the experience of pure suffering, but in the depths of it all, some part of me that was still capable of reason decided to stop playing Marvel: Avengers Alliance.
This is you (well, me).
It's a Facebook game that launched last March¬—and as far as Facebook games goes, it's pretty good. It won X-Play's Social Game of the Year, and it's splashy and sometimes well written and fun enough to keep playing for at least a few days or weeks. But! After joyously making Hulk smash and Spider-Man sling webs and dashing Magneto's plans for a while, it became a different kind of experience entirely: It turned into a job.
Once I learned the ropes and played through the first few missions, recruited my favorite heroes, and figured out the basic economy of the game, fun gave way to need. I needed to keep running through missions to gain experience, I needed to keep heroes engaged to earn in-game currency, I needed to find ways to score the various kinds of points used to buy upgrades, and I needed to keep checking back every few minutes or hours to ensure that I didn't miss out on any opportunity to play or score points. The first time I grudgingly fired it up when I wanted to do something else (because I needed to get Nightcrawler back in action after leveling him up so he could earn experience so I could level him up again), I should have seen what was really going on.
The job comes with a carefully crafted compensation package. Employees get a steady stream of dopamine squirts at a pace commensurate with their engagement—those (like me) who put in long hours get more squirts as they level up, unlock new stuff, and finish new stories more quickly. It's easy to earn bonus squirts, too, though only by busting out a credit card and purchasing in-game currency. At that point the job metaphor turns into a hall of mirrors, so it's probably best to thank it for trying and move on.
It's easy to see M:AA—and most other successful social or mobile games—as little more than hacks designed to exploit coding errors in our nervous systems, like optical illusions and high-fructose corn syrup. It's just as easy to indulge in reflexively counter-intuitive bravado and assert that these games teach skills like resource management and are thus harmless at worst. It's much harder to admit that we really don’t know what we're doing or what's being done to us, and that maybe we ought to both play these games attentively, quit while we're ahead, and calm the fuck down.
* "I" means "Rob." Paul has other problems.
The Stranger Testing Department is Rob Lightner and Paul Hughes.