Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Why Spymaster isn't a colossal waste of time

A couple days ago, I started seeing people I follow on Twitter getting assassinated. My first inclination was to find out what I needed to do to start assassinating people myself. And so I signed up for Spymaster.

Let me start by saying that I've never joined into any of the social games, like Mafia Wars, on Facebook. But honestly, I have given up on Facebook for the most part, and Spymaster is run through Twitter where I spend an inordinate amount of time (thus the two weeks since I've blogged anything...). Immediately I saw complaints in my twitterstream on the Spymaster spam (yep, its annoying) and naysayers touting it as a waste of time. Still, there were a few people I wanted to assassinate and so I signed up anyway.

Spymaster is not a learning game. But it is a game run in conjunction with a social media outlet, and a lot of my Twitter friends (who I think are really smart people) were definitely engaged. So for the last two days, I've played Spymaster. Here are my observations and conclusions:

- Yes, incentivized spam is annoying: Spymaster rewards players for posting a variety of updates on Twitter. The more you play, the more annoying this is for your followers who don't care if you just wounded @spydeesense or if you just bought a new safe house in Rio. But the temptation is there to post these things, since the game "pays" you for each update posted. This is probably the worst design feature, and although the updates can be turned off, the incentives make you think about it before finally deciding that a few "rubles" or "pounds" aren't worth the followers you're going to irritate.

- Its fun to assassinate your friends (and people you don't know, too): People are competitive. Social games feed the need for competition in a communal way, and a social media tool like Twitter is an interesting format for combining social technology with gaming. Its been done with Facebook, it'll be done with other social media tools too. Wherever people gather socially, people will be inclined to play games.

- But can it be used for learning?: The question I always come back to is how can the engagement that is garnered through games be translated into learning experiences? Most games actually do teach something, its just not explicit. A lot of games for learning somewhere along the way lose the thing that makes people want to play them: they lose the fun.

Spymaster, on the surface, is a simple game of accumulation and leveling up: assassinate people and perform tasks to make money and gain experience, allowing you to level up and more easily assassinate people and perform more complicated tasks. There incentive to get your Twitter friends to join the game to make your assassinations stronger. There's an economy of purchasing weapons, buying safe houses, and "saving" money in a Swiss bank account.

But the real "game" is the strategy in determining HOW you're going to level up. Do you focus on assassinations, or performing tasks? How much risk do you take on? How important is it to get your friends to become spymasters in your network? Is it better to try to assassinate your friends, or strangers? How do you pace yourself so you don't lose all your energy? Ok, granted, the content of Spymaster isn't particularly useful for anything I do in my day to day life (although based on my performance in the game, I would make an excellent Russian spy). But what if the content were a bit more "serious"? Could this same format be used to teach job performance content? Could it be used as an assessment technique? I think there are any number of potential uses of social games for learning...and sadly, very few have yet been seen or taken seriously.

I've lately been focused on ARGs as the next wave of games for learning. But social media games may be another viable model for learning, and a market full of immersive, engaging learning possibilities. Now back to my safe house to plot the next assassination...


  1. Thanks Koreen for doing this anthropological research for us. As one who was annoyed by the detritus in your Twitter stream, I can now say it was worth the tedium since you've given awareness of what this spymaster nuttiness is all about. Thanks.

    One thing to add:

    From a learning/development standpoint, we must remember what is lost when we engage in something. For example, you could have plowed through half a book on the psychology of learning in the time you used.

    We can't see our opportunity costs, but they are there. Perhaps it takes a real learning-spymaster to see them. SMILE.

  2. In response to Will T's comment, exercising different modalities to increase understanding is a good thing. Learning mostly or only by reading uses particular tracks or grooves in our brains that we all probably pretty much have down pat. Online games, meant seriously or not, are a great opportunity to study sociology and economics (among other things). Koreen, your play provided some good insights. Thanks for an interesting write-up, and I really didn't mind all those tweets much.

  3. Here's the reason why I agree and don't agree with you. In theory, this kind of game is AWESOME! teams and guilds form to group collaborate against other teams,.. turns in to a crazy battle and everyone's competing for the level ups...

    but... in practice... you will NEVER be higher power than the person that is spamming spamming spamming to get higher up.

    but anyhoo. I joined it... plan to get myself up to level 10, so i can kick back and play defense. And maybe assassinate some random people if I need to. ...but, I dislike these pyramid netgames and always have. I feel that overall they do more damage than good.

  4. Koreen, I'm with you on this.

    I think that Cherisa's point about honoring different learning modalities readily trumps the "opportunity cost" argument. You could have read someone else's research with the time you spent, but that wouldn't have given you what this did.

    I have actually been exploring this realm vigorously myself because there's something subtle at play here.

    First, many of the games that use this model (social media platform host - incentives to engage others in your sphere - level up by taking actions and interacting with others) create a reasonable play-length limit. By that I mean that they intentionally allow only a certain amount of useful playing time before you must move on and do something else.

    And whether the players who opt for "spamishness" will inevitably prevail is simply a matter of game design.

    Here are the learning vectors I can see:

    * Resource usage - most of these games offer a variety of actions and each of those provides or consumes resources. Searching for optimum behavior is a winning direction. For younger learners, the value of understanding the economics of the game is a great benefit.

    * Balance of aggression vs. cooperation. Many of these games reward cooperation at a level that neutralizes unbridled aggression as a winning strategy. There is a fine line to tread between "bopping everyone on the head" and the desire to retain sufficient goodwill to thrive. This applies to the acceptance of spam invitations as well as in-game aggression.

    * Discovery and understanding through exploration. I often forget that learners (and workers) of a certain age are not readily accustomed to simply "trying things" as a way to work with computing systems. In most of these games, there is little documentation and few clues about what you should do or what will happen to you if you do it. Through trial and error, players discover the activities that will pay off. (There's access to a model for exploring opportunity cost.)

    * Rewards to persistence and consistency over time. When games limit the amount of useful activity that can occur in one sitting, the player is given incentive to return on a regular basis and players who participate in moderation can compete with those who would "jack in" for hours at a time.

    It is this last aspect that fascinates me currently. In a world of games which invite one to play endlessly and compulsively (and in which games are regularly lauded for their "addictiveness" factor), it is refreshing to see game designs that reinforce the value of the long-term thinking and behavior. (Can you tell that I'm a baseball fan?)

    So thanks for writing about this. Now I'm less apprehensive about discussing my "secret shame."

    Will you be my friend on "Li'l Green Patch?" :-)