OPINION: This is the story of how I became a slumlord.
For the past week, I've been playing The Simpsons: Tapped Out on my iPad. It's currently the most downloaded app in the New Zealand iPhone/iPad App store, and it's a simple game. Homer accidentally blew up the nuclear power plant, taking with it the whole of Springfield. Your mission is to rebuild it. To do that, you build houses and give characters tasks to do, which produces money. If Lisa Simpson reads a book for 45 seconds, you get three gold units; set her 24 hours of homework and produce 200 gold units. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that you get more gold if you tap Lisa every 45 seconds and make her read. You only have to do that for just over an hour to get more gold than you would by setting her on a 24-hour task.
To get to the maximum level 20, you build iconic parts of Springfield, such as the Kwik-e- Mart. These cost a lot of gold: there's incentive to make gold fast.
So I became a slumlord. I built 120 brown houses, which return five gold units every five minutes, and sat tapping them repeatedly for two days. Every waking moment I was tapping at a screen. It's boring, but it makes a lot of gold. There's a faster way: you can make items or events happen in seconds if you spend donuts to complete them. But donuts cost real money - building Springfield elementary school would cost you $2.50, for example. Even so, it's tempting to spend a little rather than wait 24 hours, especially when you can't progress until that time is up.
Game developers such as EA, which makes The Simpsons: Tapped Out, and Zynga, which makes Farmville, want you to return frequently to their games. They don't mind if you get frustrated at waiting and spend a little money to speed things up. Or to get your friends involved to accelerate things. Or both. They know that you want to feel that little rush of pleasure from progressing.
Wanting that pleasure of pursuing a reward is entirely normal and healthy. But when it becomes compulsive or obsessive, it can become an addiction. Some games skirt a fine line between fun rewards and addictive behaviour.
And it's not just games. Websites want to keep readers and visitors happy, and that often means providing a little something to read on the way to work, some lunchtime browsing and a longer piece to read on the way home or before heading to bed. The more often you return, and the longer you spend on a site, the more advertisers and money it can attract. The ideal is to create real engagement and community, rather than just grab eyeballs. It can seem, with extremes such as Facebook, where apps like Farmville constantly send out notifications and prompts to encourage you back to the site, that eyeballs are all they're really after.
How would you feel if your work was structured to provide incentives in the way Farmville does? A trend called gamification explores just that. In some ways, it's a great idea: imagine no more tedium at work and clear guidelines about when and how you can "level up" with a salary increase. But could you get addicted to work so much that you never wanted to leave? Just one more hour for the next reward . . .
It worries me that so many of our current technologies are guided by trying to make them as 'addictive' as possible. But we can also use repetitive and reward-seeking behaviour to shape us in a good way - health and wellness apps could use these techniques to make us fitter and longer-lived, for example.
We're still learning exactly how widespread usage of the internet is shaping our culture. I'm sure there were doomsday predictions about that, but all we know for sure is that many people now don't bother to remember things that they can easily look up on Google.
Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go and reward myself for writing this column: I have a slum to manage.
Zara Baxter edits New Zealand PC World and has been reviewing gadgets for more than 15 years. Visit PCWorld.co.nz
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