Many social-media games turning into scams

I can’t get into Facebook. I do have an account, though I use it more to communicate with some of my friends. And I can’t see spending a lot of time on it to play the games.

I have some friends who are seriously into the Facebook games and applications. Farmville, Bejeweled, YoVille, and Mafia Wars are real popular among the people I know. I can’t be bothered with that stuff myself. I go on Facebook maybe long enough to check my messages, say hello to a few friends, and log off to check my Twitter account.

At first glance the Facebook games seem to be harmless fun. I understand you play many of them in levels; you clear the first level and move up to the bigger and better stuff — much like the old-school Mario Brothers game or Dungeons & Dragons. So far, so good.

But TechCrunch has been working on a series of articles on the social-media games, and writer Michael Arrington smells a lot more scam than score.

With a lot of these games, there are two ways to hit another level: Earn it by playing well enough to clear the level you’re on, or pull a George Steinbrenner and buy a new level. With real money. Your real money.

Already you can see this coming, if you’re half perceptive. The game gets you hooked. It’s like any other “progressive” type of game, and I can vouch for that. I’ve spent many hours trying to crack the combination on FreeCiv, an open-source version of Sid Meier’s Civilization. Next I know the sun’s coming up, my legs are frozen in one position, my left hand is all cramped up from pushing the mouse around, and my butt lost all feeling hours ago. So I can understand that.

But crank in the buy-ins and the special offers, especially if you’re frustrated at the %$&#! game and your brain is fuzzed over from a marathon session, then things get real interesting.

On Oct. 31, Arrington wrote this:

… these games try to get people to pay cash for in game currency so they can level up faster and have a better overall experience. Which is fine. But for users who won’t pay cash, a wide variety of “offers” are available where they can get in-game currency in exchange for lead gen-type offers. Most of these offers are bad for consumers because it confusingly gets them to pay far more for in-game currency than if they just paid cash (there are notable exceptions, but the scammy stuff tends to crowd out the legitimate offers). And it’s also bad for legitimate advertisers. The reason why I call this an ecosystem is that it’s a self-reinforcing downward cycle. Users are tricked into these lead gen scams …

Here’s one scam, according to Arrington:

… users are offered in game currency in exchange for filling out an IQ survey. Four simple questions are asked. The answers are irrelevant. When the user gets to the last question they are told their results will be text messaged to them. They are asked to enter in their mobile phone number, and are texted a pin code to enter on the quiz. Once they’ve done that, they’ve just subscribed to a $9.99/month subscription. Tatto Media is the company at the very end of the line on most mobile scams, and they flow it up through Offerpal, SuperRewards and others to the game developers … nothing in the offer says that the user will be billed $10/month forever for a useless service.

Had enough yet? Here’s another:

Video Professor … users are offered in game currency if they sign up to receive a free learning CD from Video Professor. The user is told they pay nothing except a $10 shipping charge. But the fine print, on a different page from checkout, tells them they are really getting a whole set of CDs and will be billed $189.95 unless they return them. Most users never return them because they don’t know about the extra charge. Woot. Again, sites like Offerpal and SuperRewards flow these offers through to game developers …

Slashdot, one of my favorite sites for geeky news, says this about the TechCrunch articles:

… the system is rife with scams, and many game developers turn a blind-eye to them, much to the detriment of the players and the legitimate advertisers — not to mention the games that rightly disallow these offers and fall behind in profits. The article asserts that Facebook and MySpace themselves are complicit in this, failing to crack down on the abuses they see because they make so much money from advertising for the most popular games …

If you play these online games — or if you’re thinking about it — I highly recommend these three TechCrunch articles, all by Arrington:

Part One – Social Games: How The Big Three Make Millions

Part Two – Scamville: The Social Gaming Ecosystem Of Hell

Part Three – Two Companies That Said No To Social Media Scams

I’m getting awfully tired of doing these pieces on Internet scams. I’d rather do how-tos and reviews any old day. You think these scammers can give me enough of a break to pursue this? C’mon guys … at least do it for my convenience?

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