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Image: Farmville
farmvilleneighbors.com
Are you being exploited by the faux feudal system on Facebook?
Helen Popkin
By
msnbc.com
updated 11/6/2009 9:12:32 AM ET 2009-11-06T14:12:32

Seriously? You’d do that? You’d totally provide your personal information to yet another third-party application in trade for “free” coins to use in that virtual sharecrop you’ve got going over on Facebook? Do you really want a pig that bad?

Well, even if you claim you wouldn’t do that, there are plenty out there who would. Yes, they’d expose their info to exploitation, just to move that much faster toward “Level One of Daffodil Mastery” within the faux feudal system that is “FarmVille.” If not that, then for a bounty to pay friends willing to fight an enemy in “Mafia Wars,” to upgrade a pretend panda in “Pet Society” ... or pay for whatever it is y’all Yos do in “YoVille.”

Social network gaming apps are making big news for the big bucks they haul in by the bushel. FarmVille, for example, boasts more than 60 million members, not to mention a plethora of fan Web sites.

But those hundreds of millions of dollars don’t come from hundreds of millions of Facebookers playing for free — or even those who pay real-world money for in-game currency. The real cash cows are the advertisers who pay game developers for serving up customers on a silver platter. (That would be you.)

How much cash? Well, Zynga, maker of the “Farmville,” and “Mafia Wars,” among other social network apps, boasts an annual revenue of $200 million. Playfish, maker of games such as “Pet Society” and “Restaurant City,” has an annual revenue of $75 million. And Playdom, with its “Mafia Wars” predecessor “Mobsters,” as well as the popular “Bumper Stickers,” is looking at $60 million this year.

Ka-ching!!

Why are advertisers willing to pony up to developers? The darker nature of in-game marketing came to the fore recently in “Scamville: The Social Gaming Ecosystem Of Hell,” Mike Arrington’s story on technology news site TechCrunch.

As the story describes, there are the on-the-level offers that get you game points, such as signing up for a Netflix subscription you may or may not cancel. Then there are the seemingly more plentiful offers, such as those I.Q. tests, which require your personal information to get the points and the results … and some extra charges you find out about later.

Turns out, this happens a lot, and according to a Peanut Labs survey, players are aware of the problem and are not pleased. But get scammed via your Mafia Wars obsession, and you won’t find a lot of sympathy out there — not that the Internet is place to seek it.

“Clicking yr naive way thru the entire IQ Test game, and then getting stuck with a $15 mobile subscription, does indeed give you some useful test results,” quipped one commenter on tech blog Valleywag.

“Maybe everyone would be making more money if they were doing productive things instead of spending hours playing FarmVille and answering quizzes,” posted another.

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OK, so maybe you’re not some so-called loser allegedly wasting your life (or work hours) planting virtual crops and/or criminals … instead of doing it in real life. But if you’re on Facebook (and who isn’t?), a quick click on your “Live Feed” reveals the many notifications from your friends who are.

Scarcely an hour goes by when you don’t learn that “Ruby found a sad Ugly Duckling on their farm. Oh no!”; “Precious Lilywhite needs help with Research the Spider Queen's Lair in Vampire Wars!”; “Milky Joe is sharpening his culinary skills in Cafe World” or that “Old Gregg caught a magnificent Green Discus with Classic Toffee Apple in Pet Society!”

(OK. I borrowed those names from somewhere else. But the notices totally came from Facebook.)

Well, who can blame them? These adorable games are fairly addictive, once you get started, making them delightfully self-sustaining for the developers once the games are published (many without so much as spell check, it seems.) Players are rewarded for sucking in their friends, and everything else about these games complies nicely with what scientists describe as the grand essentials of all great grifts.

These include, but are not limited to: visceral triggers (Cute cartoon farm animals!); induction of behavioral commitment (Must get Daffodil Mastery ribbon!); and lack of emotional control (Must obtain more cute things to lord over other fantasy farmers!).

Even if it is a good grift, you’d think that being a social network would reduce the likelihood of playing silly virtual games, that alleged adults would rather their peers weren’t aware of the time spent over an imaginary crop of pumpkins and whatnot. In theory, a successful game app would be the one that would make your social network friends believe you were better than you actually are, seeing important movies and reading important books when you’re really, you know, watching WE’s “Ghost Whisperer” marathon.

“Helen spent the afternoon enjoying François Truffaut's “Une Visite.”

“Helen is catching up on her pre-WWI Russian literature.”

Given that most people care to engage in that kind of hoity-toity fakery though, you can see why the exploitation happens in the places people actually do engage. But even if game developers clean up their acts, as several claim to be doing following TechCrunch’s “Scamville” piece, the old issues remain.

Whether Ruby, Milky Joe, and the gang are choosing to move up through good old-fashioned game play, breaking out the credit card to pay for in-game coinage, or taking part in surveys and special offers, one thing is for sure: They’ve already opened up their Facebook profile information to third parties with privacy policies more opaque than Facebook’s.

And as some security experts contend — players may also open the door to the profiles of their Facebook friends, even if those friends don’t play.

Whatever. If we were so ding dang concerned about our personal information, we’d never ever Google … let alone join Facebook. If we’ve learned anything from the minor disruption of routine imposed upon us by the latest Facebook remodel of its site, it’s that we’re much more disturbed when social networks tell us who to “poke” and who to “friend,” than who’s getting a look at our goods. (Ladies, am I right?)

Helen A.S. Popkin just found a lost little case of cupcakes over on Facebook and she's serving them up to everyone who "friends" her or follows her on Twitter. (Disclaimer: "Cupcakes" are imaginary, supplies are limited.)

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