Zynga is a San Francisco firm that has prospered (says NYTimes) by selling digital items, like tractors, to players of its online games like FarmVille. Less substantial than soap bubbles, its products are more in tune with the times than other ephemeral wares like movies. What Zynga teaches us is that interaction is the message of modern digital media.
My soap bubble reference is not a knock on Zynga’s initial public offering, though I hope it is obvious that the company’s revenues, which “roughly quadrupled” last year, cannot continue at pace forever, lest all the cash in the universe be drawn to San Francisco and create a fiscal black hole.
Soap bubbles simply allude to the childlike playfulness of Zynga’s games, which turn some adages on their head — for instance, when the going gets tough, the tough amuse themselves. That’s what digital games are: brief, nervous distractions from the normal grind that allow players to create some illusion of accomplishment or get a tiny dose of satisfaction.
In a sense Zynga hearkens back to the movie makers of the 1930s, who thrived by offering flickers of romance and heroism at 24 frames per second. As history records it: “Hollywood played a valuable psychological and ideological role, providing reassurance and hope to a demoralized nation.”
Fortunately, given our need for spirit-boosting, technology has shrunk what used to be the big screen. We now carry them in our pockets or purses, or if we need a distraction at our desks, white collar types can just open another window on their computers.
But it is not technology but sociology that is Zynga’s genius — its games engage the player. They are not mere spectators waiting for Rhett Butler to dump Scarlet O’Hara. They can roll up their sleeves and replant Tara. Moreover, they can share their success with Facebook friends — just like when, as kids, they blew a large or colorful bubble, and said, “Look!”
Thank you, Zynga, for enabling us to create and share these illusions. May your IPO be oversubscribed.