CONFESSIONS OF AN ADDICT: I Spent $1,000 In A Year Playing A Stupid Facebook Game

Mark Pincus Wide

Photo: Joi

Can you imagine spending $1,000 in a single year on a Facebook game like YoVille, from Zynga?

While paying players only make up 2.2 per cent Zynga’s total players, there are actually hundreds of thousands of people out there who do.

Zynga calls them “whales” and has teams of people who treat some of them like Las Vegas high-rollers.

We found someone who describes himself as this type of Zynga gamer – a “whale” – and interviewed him about the experience.

Was it fun? Was it an addiction? Does he regret burning all that money on “virtual” goods?

Find out below.

A note on fact-checking: We can’t 100% verify that this person spent as much on Zynga games as he said he did. We were, however, given several screenshots (like the one below) that include a ton of exclusive items that could only be bought with real cash in the game.

yoville screen 1

BUSINESS INSIDER: What introduced you to Zynga’s games?

My brother started playing Zynga’s game YoVille a couple of months before me.  By that time, he was hooked.  He asked me to “join in on the fun,” to which I responded, “you’ve got to be kidding? I’m a grown man.” A few weeks later, he asked again. I ignored him. Then a few weeks later, he asked again. This went on for a few months, I think. Finally, I broke down to agreed to take a look, only to shut him up. I’m guessing, but I think much of their user base expands virally, via word of mouth. No non-game playing “adult” in their right mind would wonder, “Hey, I wonder if this game is any fun.”

BI: At what point did you decide that paying was a viable option in the game?

When I realised that, one, I could, and two, that certain “properties” were desirable and cool. Of course, by that time, I was hooked. Rarely, in real life, can I afford things that few others can afford (i.e. a Lamborghini, a Rolex, diamonds, trips around there world), but in the Zynga world, it was possible. All you need to enter the world of the “elite and privileged” is a credit card. If you have a credit card, you are special. I’ve had many “kids” begging me to buy them items that can only be purchased with YoCash, a form of YoVille currency that one can only acquire through the exchange of real money for virtual YoVille money. The market price for such exchanges was generally a factor of 10 to one. In real life, it would be like me selling you a gallon of gasoline for $50 that I bought for $5.

With that said, there are hundreds of thousands of Zynga enthusiasts who despise this system. Virtually all of the complainants are kids, who have no access to YoCash. They are the people who insist the internet is supposed to be free and it is their right to play for free. Of course, kids are oblivious to the fact that Zynga must make money in order to provide these free (and I use the word loosely) games.

Castleville 40

BI: When did you realise Zynga had you “hooked”?

At first, I wasn’t. I initially thought of it as mildly entertaining. The more you play, the more it grows on you. Virtual money is everything in YoVille. Without it, there is no game, as you cannot buy anything. If you were broke, about all you could do is chat with the other players. That’s no fun and nobody shows up just to chat (although, that is an integral feature of the game – to build comradery)

Their system is specifically designed to have you return to earn it. We worked at a bakery to earn our money. The problem was that you could only work once every eight hours. To gain the maximum of money for the day, you’d have to show up (i.e. log into the game) three times a day. 

When I found myself doing this, I knew I had been hooked. Sometimes, I’d stay up to midnight (when I wanted to go to sleep at 10 o’clock), just to work that last shift of the day.

In order to multiply and maximise my earnings, I established “illegal” (against the Terms of Service) multiple player accounts (12 in all, I think). I would then transfer money from account to the other. It was a risk I was willing to take. I got several of my accounts banned (via Facebook, not Zynga) from this practice. 

BI: How much did you end up paying out?

By the time I left, I was $1,000 less wealthy. This is pretty embarrassing to admit. I paid for pixels, imaginary, virtual items.  All addicts rationalize their purchases and seemingly irrational spending, so I’ll do the same. At the time, I thought of it as “entertainment money,” no different than if I went on a vacation, went to the movies, attended a live theatrical performance and the like. Of course, I was embarrassed to tell anyone of my cash outlay. Not even my brother or girlfriend knows. This is only hearsay, but I’ve heard of other players dropping $5,000, $10,000 or even $20,000 on the game. Hardcore. There were much richer players (speaking of “virtual” wealth) than myself, although I consider myself very wealthy in the Zynga world.

zynga player pq

BI: How much were you spending relative to your income at the time? 1%? 5%?

An insignificant amount. I spent no more than I would normally spend on general entertainment. I was far from spending the “rent money,” so to speak. It is anyone’s guess as to whether this might be happening to other players. I would prefer not to say what percentage. That would be like broadcasting my annual income, wouldn’t it.

BI: What kind of satisfaction came with paying for Zynga’s goods?

Exclusivity. Eliteness. Vulgar displays of wealth. Call it what you will, but those words encapsulate the feeling. When new products in the YoVille store came out, I would choose the most desirable ones and purchase 10 units of the same item. This was done for “investment” reasons. After a period of time, virtually all the products once offered for sale become discontinued. The economic forces of supply and demand follow. Hold onto a desired item for long enough and the market price increases. Players drop out of the game all of the time and their purchases along with it. This increases the supply. Time and a lack of supply increases the demand.

BI: What did you get out of it personally?

Although the world isn’t very realistic visually, it feels like being in another world. You work. You buy things. You make friends. You chat. You invest. You make a killing on your investments (sometimes).  You make enemies. You feel what it is like to be wealthy and privileged. You learn negotiation skills. You learn the forces that drive market prices. You learn how to be inventive to out-game the game. You learn risks and what it is like to be burned. You learn how to spot con-men (yes, there are evil people playing out there to rob you of your wealth). You live in a world that allows your virtual self to live outside the normal boundaries you would place for yourself in real life. In many respects, it mirrors real life.

yoville spender 1

BI: Was it something that you kept secret from people in the real world?

I wouldn’t say I kept it a secret. If people asked, I told. However, I did not go out of my way to advertise I was playing the game to family, friends and co-workers. It a matter of just being a little embarrassed to admit it.  The outsiders’ perception is that it is a game for kids.

BI: What about to other players?

About the only secrets I kept from other players was my, one, wealth, two, what I paid for the virtual goods I was selling to other players, and three, how much inventory I had on hand.  Disclosing those items would have been the source of a competitive disadvantage, when it came to negotiating the selling price of items.  Other than that, there were no secrets I can recall.

BI: Were you friends with any other players that were also paying a lot of money?

I suspect yes, but it seems to be one of those sensitive subjects where you don’t normally don’t talk about how much you’ve spent (nobody in the Zynga world knows how much I’ve spent). I have no way of knowing for sure. Look at Zynga’s S-1 and you’ll see the answer is obviously yes, people are spending money on their games (lots of it).

If you were to draw a picture, it probably looks like a pyramid. Most players (kids) play for free.  As you head up the pyramid, you’ll find players of all kinds paying dollars of all kinds. There are a few at the top of the pyramid shelling out big bucks.

It’s like the movie Fight Club.  “The first rule of Fight Club is that you don’t’ talk about Fight Club.” 

zynga pq2

BI: What was Zynga doing to try to get you to come back to the game every day? Did you come back?

They offered the opportunity to make more currency, set at specific time intervals (see bakery comment).

BI: When did you finally decide to split? What was the impetus — some event, or were you just sick of it?

Reflecting how my real life was being adversely affected by playing so much. At one point, I was up to more than 12 hours per day. I’d stay up to three in the morning playing. It was a simple recognition of being involved in an unhealthy (by most peoples’ standards) addiction. I knew I had to quit. This was three years ago.

BI: What did it feel like after you stopped playing?

Once the decision was made, it was not hard at all. There is no physiological dependency as with the ones one might experience with drugs, cigarettes or alcohol. It is purely psychology. This is one man’s perspective. I cannot on others.

BI: What were your final thoughts on the experience: negative? Positive? Did it really feel “negative” or “addictive” like a lot of people say?

I would be lying if I told you it was not a positive experience, all things considered. It does have a very steep addictive downside that potential and existing players should be aware of. recognise the signs of when your virtual life is having an adverse affect on your real one. As long as you are able to keep your life reasonably in balance and you find enjoyment from playing, I’d say “use it with caution.”

BI: Where do you think Zynga should go from here?

From a business standpoint, I think Zynga should continue to do what they do best – build online games that will attract the masses. I think they’ve done a brilliant job in building a brand that few can duplicate.  Facebook is, no doubt, part of that equation. However, the bigger credit rightfully belongs to Zynga themselves. The strategy of how to retain visitors is brilliantly conceived and executed — perhaps their greatest “secret ingredient.”

BI: Are you tempted by any of Zynga’s games to go back or any of Zynga’s competitors? 

I would say the online gaming world is a phase that is now behind me. I don’t see playing them again. To me, there are much more important things in life to be accomplished. I logged on a few months ago, just a little curious to take a peak how things had changed over the years. The feeling of exhilaration and enthusiasm I once had is completely gone. From my addiction-resolved perspective, the game had lost all of the appeal it once held.

Are you a big fan of Zynga’s games, or do you know one? We want to hear your story! Shoot us a message at [email protected]

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