One interestingly irate blogger, among many, was "Greg" at The Talent Show. On July 29, 2003, he wrote, "If there's anything to be learned from the last few years, it's that rampant speculation can often obscure an economic (or in this case, terrorist) reality. Any number of factors could quickly lead to a terrorist threat being falsely exaggerated to the point of turning into the Enron of this pseudo-market."

***

The unanswered question: Are buzz games fun?

In principle, there's no reason they can't be. Buzz games don't belong to the "serious games" category, in that they have no avowed educational goal. Rather, they are what Carnegie Mellon professor Luis von Ahn calls "games with a purpose" - games that "run a computation in people's brains rather than in silicon processors." These markets embody the general Web 2.0 emphasis on community intelligence, or "crowdsourcing."

From a design standpoint, all these buzz games are the exact same game. True, some let you buy options or sell short while others don't, but it's all buying and selling. People complain that most MMOGs are whack-a-mole level grinds, but at least some of them make token efforts to satisfy different player types (socializers, explorers, etc.). In contrast, if you don't enjoy buying and selling, the activity itself, then not one of these buzz games will interest you. Casual entertainment isn't what they're for.

Buzz gameplay also differs from other online games in that you're supposed to be relentlessly rational. One big part of the attraction of MMOGs, at least for some players, is the ability to act without consequences - to fling yourself against a higher-level monster, for instance, just to see how fast you die. In a buzz game, such frivolity would damage your ranking and pollute the data.

Furthermore, guilds are right out. To elicit the wisdom of crowds, the publisher wants a good statistical sample; each individual must exercise independent, decentralized judgment. Linked crowds become vulnerable to "information cascades" that lead to mob folly. The more individual voices in the choir, presumably, the better its chance to hit the right note.

You have to wonder - if you get deeply invested in a buzz game, wouldn't it be more sensible to get deeply invested in, you know, investments? The energy you expend on buying and selling fake stocks should translate well to real stocks or (more appropriately, if you're coming from the prediction market) futures derivatives, as trafficked on HedgeStreet. Conversely, if you go bankrupt in several buzz games, that's a hint to stick to Treasury bonds and a 401(k). Maybe these are educational games after all.

Allen Varney designed the PARANOIA paper-and-dice roleplaying game (2004 edition) and has contributed to computer games from Sony Online, Origin, Interplay and Looking Glass.

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