Web games: Online crack?

Where's the line between making a great product and manipulation?

Rafe Needleman Former Editor at Large
Rafe Needleman reviews mobile apps and products for fun, and picks startups apart when he gets bored. He has evaluated thousands of new companies, most of which have since gone out of business.
Rafe Needleman
2 min read

I thoroughly enjoyed my time at the Under the Radar event last week, checking out the latest new media ideas and companies. But I did leave unhappy with several of the CEOs who presented there. The problem: They're building sites that pander to our worst instincts and fears.

The CEO of one of the gaming companies talked about his goal of bringing the "lapsed hardcore gamer" back into games, with the sharklike acumen of a crack dealer trying to prey on a recovering addict who's having a bad day. Then there was the gaming company CEO talking about building an experience, "like a slot machine." In other words: You're just a rat in a cage, my friend, pressing the food bar and making the mad scientist rich.

The virtual worlds companies leverage another universal human drive: the desire to belong to exclusive groups. There are virtual worlds now that that mirror the social exclusion that, one assumes, many people think they are going online to avoid. There are virtual clubs with virtual velvet ropes. Inside are virtual parties with all the cool kids, but you can't get in unless you level up by spending time or money in the worlds.

I thought we went online to get away from addictions and social insecurities. I guess we are hard-wired to respond to the old cues. The reinforce our self-image, as messed up as it is.

Hey, if these companies are using pop psychology to make a buck, I can use it to critique them, can I not?

I'm not saying there's anything fundamentally wrong with making money, or even with making people feel good for accomplishing a virtual goal. My problem is with company execs who calculate how to profit from insecurity and weakness. It's a great business, to be sure. But I think there are better ways to earn a living.