As of last week, Zynga’s free-to-play Facebook social game Mafia Wars claimed 26 million active players, adding more than a million from the week previous. You might snort at Zynga’s dubious count of “active players.” If your Facebook friend mails you a Mafia Wars doodad and you accept it, boom! Zynga calls you a “player.” But no matter how you boil it down, you’re still looking at multitudes – you might even say “mobs” – of genuine participants, many of them playing online games for the very first time.

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One among those new millions is my dear friend Deborah, sales manager at a Fortune 500 (actually, a Fortune 10) megacorp. Though she played Lode Runner and Tetris back in the day, she never thought herself a gamer. But oh, the astonished delight in her eyes, the missionary zeal as she showed me Mafia Wars. “Look at all the things you can do!” she said, clicking around a simple web-style layout of text, buttons and progress bars. It was charming, like watching an infant discover its own toes.

Deborah recruited me. Mafia Wars has become, so to speak, Our Thing. Through her, I became a small part of this huge and increasingly profitable enterprise. As Facebook has grown, Zynga has symbiotically kept pace, building revenue to $100 million this year and spending half of it on Facebook ads. TechCrunch, among many others, speculates Zynga is heading for an IPO. The company’s success has brought glowing attention to social gaming from outlets like BusinessWeek and The New York Times.

Only later did I discover Our Thing is a lousy ambassador for the form. Like many new mobsters, I was lured in by the glamour – then saw the sleaze.

***

Mafia Wars is a stripped-down crack-cocaine distillation of a high-end 3-D MMOG, with levels, skill points, properties, loot drops, fights, wars and collecting. It gives you the same Skinnerian rewards, the same steady dopamine drip, but with no resource competition and little decision making. It’s strictly click-to-advance. I reached Level 100 in five weeks – a mediocre pace, but it satisfies me. Like any MMOG team, the designers obviously want players to progress, but they address glitches and bottlenecks with unusual brute force. Advancement in the new Moscow section was slow, so one day the game suddenly dropped 30 million rubles on everybody, a bailout worthy of Ben Bernanke.

Unlike real mafiosi, Zynga’s millions of new players know nothing of their family’s long traditions. Though its turn mechanics owe something to old play-by-mail games like It’s a Crime, Mafia Wars and other Facebook apps work more like the 1980s BBS door games Pimp Wars, Drugwars/Dope Wars and others. Like them, Mafia Wars is an open-ended, tick-based logistical race. It’s asynchronous, meaning you needn’t coordinate schedules with friends or opponents. You look in on the game once or a few times a day during dull meetings or conference calls, like checking your email – a few clicks and you’re done.

It’s not brainless, exactly. The design rewards good timing and permits varying strategies (fight, complete jobs, wage war). But compared to the animal street-gang struggles in GTA or Hitman, Mafia Wars is exceptionally forgiving. There’s no danger your position will crumble if you leave it for a while, though it takes regular attention to maximize your progress. Which reminds me: I just accumulated 41 Energy and recently got two Speedboats, so now I can Steal an Arms Shipment (a Consigliere-level mission in New York) for 69 experience and $3,390,000. Be right back.

***

Back. Gah, I just got attacked six times by some total stranger called Bella B – and, practically defenseless with my mere four dozen mafiosi, I got snuffed. Six XP, gone!

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Because I don’t have many friends besides Deborah playing Mafia Wars, I’m missing out on much of its design, like fighting other players – and being a hired gun for the Hitlist – and declaring war. The game excels at making poorly connected players feel wretched. If you don’t have a large mafia, you’re mere chum in the water for the sharks with 500 friends. Useful weapons and lucrative properties even include a requirement to recruit two additional mafia members. No wonder so many Facebookers open their mafia to total strangers.

That’s far from the only way Mafia Wars has spread its influence throughout Facebook. These social games want your friends to see everything. My first sense of Zynga’s nature rose when it tried to enslave me as its personal spambot. It attempted to hijack my address book, and every time I leveled, helped someone or found some thingy, it wanted to announce it in my feed. Facebook has announced a plan to prohibit such spamming, but we’ll see how aggressively they pursue it.

Worse, though, is Zynga’s blatant plagiarism. My heart sank when I learned its games don’t just borrow subjects or mimic tone the way, say, Vampire Wars knocks off the goth-punk vibe of White Wolf RPGs. No, these are precise, literal clones. Mafia Wars started as a direct copy of David Maestri’s Mob Wars, and FarmVille is a point-for-point duplicate of Slashkey’s Farm Town. At the Austin Game Developers Conference in September 2009, Brian Reynolds – yes, the same Brian Reynolds who this year forsook real-time strategy godhood at Big Huge Games to become Chief Designer at Zynga – boasted how they brought FarmVille from conception to launch in five weeks. Yeah, five weeks to commission new art and press the Copy button. In late September, Zynga pushed the button again with Cafe World, a close copy of Playfish’s Restaurant City, and now they’re targeting CrowdStar’s Happy Aquarium with FishVille.

Zynga’s aggressive copying must make small developers shudder, like a restaurant owner watching well-dressed thugs walk in. You start a new app, it becomes successful and a month later Zynga moves in, rips it off and recruits your entire customer base. Mafia wars, indeed.

But this is perfectly legal, if not ethical. It took me longer to learn the worst.

***

I needed revenues now. So I funded the company myself, but I did every horrible thing in the book to, just to get revenues right away. I mean, we gave our users poker chips if they downloaded this Zwinky toolbar, which was like – I don’t know – I downloaded it once and couldn’t get rid of it. [Laughs.] We did anything possible just to get revenues so that we could grow and be a real business.

That’s Zynga’s founder and CEO, serial entrepreneur Mark Pincus, speaking in spring 2009 at a [email protected] mixer. In early November, TechCrunch posted the video, commenting that “scamming users was part of Zynga’s business model from the start.” The scams involve Zynga’s micropayment model, seen in Mafia Wars and all its other games. Though Mafia Wars is free, it makes you hunger for in-game Reward points that get you super-good loot, energy, skill points, name changes and above all, extra hired guns.

The video clip of Pincus climaxed TechCrunch’s torrid series of posts, “ScamVille: The Social Gaming Ecosystem of Hell,” that outed the many in-game cross-promotions that promise Reward points to users who take this quiz, install this toolbar or sign up for this “free” CD series. Under public scrutiny, Zynga temporarily removed these blatant scams, which Pincus says accounted for a third of the company’s revenue. (Fake Steve Jobs has a good ScamVille summary.)

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What drove Pincus to dance with frauds? Fred Wilson commented on the TechCrunch post, “I’ve known Mark Pincus for 15 years and have invested in every one of his companies. Some have been very successful and some have been failures. He is a great person and a great entrepreneur. … [He] is adamantly pro-entrepreneur and anti-VC [venture capital investor]. He’s had his companies taken away from him by VCs.”

Zynga has a VC – behemoth Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers, which owns big chunks of dozens of companies, including a fifth of Google. Mark Pincus could only hope to protect Zynga from this grasping octopus by getting profitable before taking its money. Even then, he installed further safeguards, including creating a class of stock that maintained his control of the company as a buffer against VC pressure.

As in any mob story, with control comes influence. Zynga has succeeded partly through Pincus’ chumminess with Facebook’s founders. Though Pincus originally benefited from Facebook’s huge growth, his games may now be driving it. It’s getting hard to tell tail from dog. When the ScamVille story broke and Facebook needed to show it was Doing Something, the company temporarily shuttered one of Zynga’s offending games, FishVille – but it was only the smallest and newest. What? Kill the bigger games serving the same scams? Ice Mafia Wars or (horror!) FarmVille? Fuhgeddaboudit.

***

I meant to document more Mafia Wars abuses, but the truth is I’ve been too busy playing it. For all its faults – the unbalanced character classes (be a Maniac, trust me), the irrelevance of New York property, the appalling grind – and the dubious ethics behind it, Mafia Wars is a satisfying experience. Or, rather, I’m unsatisfied when I’m not playing, which isn’t the same. “Addictive” is used as a synonym for “good,” but these games aren’t good, only compelling. You don’t exactly have fun playing; you just feel bad when you stop. So I’m hooked. Once you’re in the Family, it’s hard to leave.

Ultimately, Mafia Wars is just a time management game, and after long exposure it teaches the same lesson as every other time management game: namely, you should stop wasting time playing such a pointless – ooh, wait, I just helped Deborah complete a job. I got seven XP and 1,053 Cuban pesos, and she sent an Energy pack. Clickety clickety click-click, ding! Level 112, woohoo!

Writer and game designer Allen Varney can give up Mafia Wars any time he wants, but he still wants every Escapist reader on Facebook to be his fake friend and join his mafia.

Misinformants: How Games Get the Mob Wrong

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