A Psychologist’s Year in Cafe World – Part One: Just Being Sociable

Psychology impacts on just about every aspect of being human, and playing a computer game is no exception. After rejecting countless invitations from strangers (a.k.a. Facebook friends) to accept imaginary gifts or send culinary items, I relented and decided to see what all the fuss was about. It was the beginning on a year playing Café World (CW).  My primary motivation was just to have fun. Some of my real world friends accepted my invitations and it became another way of keeping in touch. However,  I also quickly learned that CW is a very socially oriented game. As a social psychologist this really appealed to me.

CW is a café-themed computer game where players build and furnish their fantasy cafés and complete tasks, which involves “cooking” dishes, serving drinks and interacting with other cafe owners in their neighbourhood. This includes requesting items, returning favours and joining forces to complete team tasks. In my “neighbourhood” I noticed that the one player points ahead of the rest, was also the most reliable in responding to requests.  In CW, even though it’s a competition, you succeed by co-operation. However, some people are slow to grasp this. There are also various challenges where players form teams to tackle time-bound catering goals.  Where there is a limited time to cook an insurmountable numbers of dishes, it isn’t possible to go it alone. It is these challenges that bring out the worst in people. There are some hilarious posts on Facebook profiles of bitter disputes that breakout over non-cooperation. Warnings and ultimatums are issued stating “If you don’t respond to my requests, I will no longer respond to yours”. People are accused of being “amateurs” and “not taking things seriously”. This minority, who take things far too seriously, complain, hassle and become quite aggressive with statements such as “How can we expect to succeed if you are not pulling your weight?”. They can become abusive. People gently point out that “it’s a game and none of us are getting paid for this”. For some, this does not seem to matter. They become so engrossed that they become the bullying celebrity chefs we so often see on television. This begs the question, if people behave like this playing a game, do they behave the same in the real world? What are they like as colleagues, team players and team leaders? Do we all play computer games by the same rules as we live our lives by? Did CW turn make these players a little too “enthusiastic” or just shine a spotlight on their behaviour?

Early on, I took the lead from the top player in our neighbourhood and I simply responded to all requests. I’m sure that some people hoped to prosper by taking without reciprocating, however I didn’t let their behaviour alter my strategy. I like the idea of succeeding by cooperation, so I just played my part and didn’t worry about the motivations of anyone else.

CW also appealed to my sense of fun and irony. Other non-players would scoff and tell me that I had too much time on my hands. I was told that I need to get a real life or run a real café. The implication was that my time should be put to better use. Part of me liked the fact that I was playing a “dumb game” and should know better. The gross assumption was that playing a computer game can tell us nothing about ourselves and other people. As I wrote at that start of this, psychology impacts on just about every aspect of being human, and playing a computer game is no exception. CW did not make me a more socially-oriented person, I was that before I started playing. I like the lesson that we can succeed in life by co-operation. Whether pixellated virtual reality of Café World or the “real world”, co-operation for me is not just a means to an end, it is an end point, a terminal value, in and of itself.

In the following parts I will consider how playing Café World can help us to reflect on goal-setting strategies, time-management, cognitive flexibility and transferable skills.

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