Social Network Games: Fake Mobsters, Real Racket

You might enjoy raking in money as a fake mobster in Mafia Wars, or collecting cotton subsidies in FarmVille, but TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington argues that the real racket in virtual games is for the companies that run them, and for the social networking sites that host them.

Is it? Maybe. All of these games can be played without spending any real money, and without signing up for shady offers to receive more in-game currency. But the extra loot can make the game much more fun.

The offers are similar to ones we’ve featured here before—from innocent things you might sign up for anyway like a Netflix subscription, to scammy quizzes and misleading subscriptions.

Zynga, one of the leaders in social networking games, not-so-coincidentally announced a few days after the controversial original post that they will no longer serve ad or reward offers that ask for users’ mobile phone numbers.

Scamville: The Social Gaming Ecosystem Of Hell [TechCrunch]
Are You Getting Scammed by Facebook Games? [Time]


Edit Your Comment

  1. kcvaliant says:

    That is good, most of those sites never gave up the points anyway.. And hopefully no one ever gave real numbers or information to those sites..

    • SanDiegoDude says:

      @kcvaliant: Nope, instead they put in fake “random” numbers which means some poor sap out there suddenly got signed up for 10 dollar a month “subscription” – I applaud Zynga for removing the shadier of the offers, but I still think they need a better QA process for their “Advertising Partners” as I’m sure I could find spam lists / malware within 10 minutes of trying their advertisers.

  2. yentaleh says:

    Very true. I play FARM CITY (Don’t want to get into trouble with copyright laws.) and YOW VILLE. If I need money I either work my bum off in game or I buy money using my legitimate credit card. I buy enough to last me for the duration of the game and if I don’t have the money to buy something I don’t. I will admit that I THOUGHT about going the “free” route but then I remembered the golden rule. If its too good to be true then it usually is. I love these games but I’ll be damned if I fall for their tricks and schemes. (Oh wait maybe I already have, I’m forced to check my FACEBOOK account a dozen times a day…….lol)

    • nycaviation says:

      @yentaleh: Umm, you can talk about things like FARMVILLE and YOVILLE without violating any laws.

    • pop top says:

      @yentaleh: This post is all types of crazy. You say you’ll “be damned if [you] fall for their tricks and schemes”, but then you admit to buying their fake money so you can buy crap in the game? I don’t understand how you can be so paranoid w/r/t playing the free version, but aren’t paranoid enough to not give your credit card number to that kind of company.

      There’s so much more of that post that I want to dissect…

      • Eric Jay says:

        @squinko: Paying for in-game currency might not be what you consider to be the best use of your funds, but assuming yentaleh knows what he/she is buying, it’s not really a trick/scheme/scam.

        The issue being exposed in the OP is that offers that use trickery, hidden agreements, and shady billing practices to get money from users who thought they were getting in-game currency for free, a practice which yentaleh avoided becoming a victim of.

        I’m all for fighting trickery and fraud, but do we need to disparage someone who made a personal decision that the entertainment value of in-game currency is worth a specific amount of money to them, and purchased it via the direct route?

        • pop top says:

          @Eric Jay: I just don’t believe that you can be paranoid about doing something involved with X company when it’s free, but then trust that company enough to give them your credit card information.

        • jamar0303 says:

          @Eric Jay: It’s more that if they’re using trickery on their free users they may not be above doing the same to the paid ones. As in, bad things with my CC number that I wouldn’t want them to do.

      • yentaleh says:


        Thank you for calling me crazy. I’m also cunning too.

    • Lazarou says:

      @yentaleh: I’m close to earning 500,000 and buying a boatload of things for my farm…why is this my goal in life?

      • yentaleh says:


        LoL I have 125K on Farmville and I have yet to put any money down on that game. As for Yoville, well I own the apartment and a mansion, I’m thinking of buying the tree house or the police station next.

    • CaesarBach says:

      My wife plays these games all the time, and I believe you can use paypal or even Amazon to purchase the in-game extras.

  3. XTC46 says:

    I think its stupid that people are complaining about these games. The games are free, they make money via affiliate programs, and when they make money, they reward the players by giving them in game money or equipment. It is a fully legitimate business model. The major problem is that people don’t read user agreements before doing things, and then get pissed when what they think is a one time charge is actually a reoccurring charge becasue they decided not to read a few paragraphs before clicking “I accept”.

    There are a lot of shady affiliate marking programs out there, but this wasn’t one of them.

    • idip says:

      @xtc46 – thinksmarter on twitter: I actually looked at a few of the quiz offers. The ‘user agreement’ is typically a small 5 line paragraph at the bottom of the survey that says the user could be charged anywhere form like $10.95 – $19.95 per month for services. But it fails to mention what these services are, how quickly you can cancel or decline any services, etc.

      These were the ‘mobile phone number required’ ‘affiliate programs… yes, it is shady to broadly word your ‘user agreement’ without fully disclosing the items the person can get charged for, or would get charged for by simply taking a ‘quiz’.

      Also you mention people get upset when they think a one time charge becomes a recurring charge… the programs that Zynga is no longer offering required the mobile phone number but does not openly state there is a charge unless you try to interpret the fine print.

  4. albokay says:

    ill never give a dime to the mafia game I play. Ive been tempted but when you have games like this I always remember, if you dump money in order to be better someone will always dump more money to beat you. I wont get caught up in that expensive cycle.

    • Tawnie is Monster Mashing says:

      @albokay: Exactly. I will never put real money into this. I just started playing farmville when I caved in and started a facebook account yesterday. I did all this after wanting to check it out because of the Tech crunch articles.

  5. Crovie says:

    I hope everyone’s learned by now not to give anyone any information that could be used to bill you with. Those people make their money duping people into providing their credit card numbers for “trial offers” that are impossible to get out of and eventually start billing.

    I’m not going to lie, I did complete a few “offers” to get a few more points for one of those games so I could get something useful with that + the limited free points you get, but I stuck to the ‘sucker offers’ where you can fill out fake info and you get the equivalent of five cents as a game reward.

    • FrugalFreak says:


      I did do the Netflix, but was planning on joining anyways. Going through FV just added a bonus. I tried one of the “FREE” surveys, they were a nightmare to complete but never signed up for zip with them. FREE my butt. just endless loop because i wouldn’t agree to any offers and kept hitting skip.

  6. antoineawwad says:

    ths s stpd..wh th hck fll fr ths scms? f

  7. nakkypoo says:

    I’ve written a few Facebook apps myself. I don’t see how it profits Facebook any. Facebook isn’t getting kickbacks from the ads or payments. They are apparently disallowing certain ad networks in an effort to prevent the scams.

    Michael Arrington’s track record is pretty abysmal, so it seems social networks via virtual games are his victim of the week.

  8. stang says:

    Paying money for a FREE Game = FAIL!

  9. skubisnack624 says:

    If you give your credit card, you should expect to be charged.

    Even the “free” parts of the games aren’t free. You give access to your FaceBook profile, including all of your likes, fan-doms, groups, friends list, and comments; and for your less savvy friends, you may give away theirs as well. All are quite valuable marketing information.

    And, for the love of God, turn off the notifications! I’m so tired of all that crap coming up in my news feed. I don’t care if you bought a virtual pig.

  10. Toffeecake says:

    I used to play Farmville, and was pretty far along in it. But I quit because I couldn’t stand the apparent disregard of Zynga for their players. It’s supposed to be a “beta” game, but none of our feedback seemed to be heard. When there was a huge concern, and it was discussed/complained about constantly all over the official boards, many players got the impression that the developers just didn’t care what we had to say about it because they simply never responded or fixed the problem.

    There are so many great games on Facebook where the developers actually care about what their fans think, that I’m not going to waste my time or money on someone that doesn’t.

    • jaya9581 says:

      @Toffeecake: Maybe you should start playing again? They’ve added a lot of features that *gasp* the community has requested.

      Sometimes, things take time. I started playing it on the day they released the beta, and I’m amazed at how much has changed in such a relatively short time.

  11. Dyscord says:

    I don’t know of anyone who actually used those offers. I imagine if it was something you were going to do, like Netflix, then it would be a good deal. Sites that give you points if you sign up for something always seemed scammy to me.

    With a little perseverance, you can rake in the dough in some of those games anyway.

    Though after a while they’re basically the same game with different characters/jobs.

  12. katstermonster says:

    I hate these stupid, stupid games. They make me hate Facebook with a passion. I go to see how a friend is doing and their whole page is filled with Mafia Wars. Sure, I can block it from my News Feed and Live Feed, but not from the individual pages. Annoying as HELL.

  13. midnight_raven says:

    I’ve gotten hooked on Farmville – it reminds me of a (cuter) version of Civilization, which I used to love growing up. Now I use harvesting my crops as study breaks. I’d never give actual money to any sort of Facebook game, however – besides worrying it would be a scam, I think it would ruin the fun of the game!

  14. joeblevins says:

    I am surprised people put money towards the mafia wars and farmville. What the heck can you get in Farmville besides fuel? Anyway, free games = free. Unless you pay. This is the first I have heard of someone actually paying.

  15. Fineous K. Douchenstein says:

    This is the direction that gaming is progressing. Offer players a free-to-play product, and you’ll rope in a number of people who want the cute vanity pet, badass sword, or extra character slots that you can only get by spending real money.

    Powergamers especially will drop tremendous amounts of money for an advantage, just so they can claim to be better than everyone else.

  16. GrandizerGo says:

    I laugh at everyone complaining about spending money for a “free” game..

    It is the money of the person spending it, not yours, it doesn’t affect you one bit, so jump off.
    Why not complain about someone that buys a Porsche rather than a Kia? they are both cars… If someone wants to spend EXTRA money of their own, who are you to complain what they do with their money??? If anything, once a bunch of people spend enough money, the developers make more missions / quests / jobs or what have you that free users benefit from.

    Players that do spend money often get the added bonuses that can not be obtained any other way.
    Obviously they consider it worth their money to do so.

  17. BabyFirefly says:

    Why would anyone pay money for these bad games? I play some of them, and I have to admit they’re not worth sending your money to. You make the exact same amount of money for free if you just wait longer than if you paid for it.

  18. Jubes says:

    As much as I love playing Farmville, I don’t understand how people get sucked in to paying their money for fake money! I’ve played many other online games, some paid some not, but I’ve never understood that concept. Even when I played WoW I never got into gold buying. Just doesn’t make sense to me.

    Farmville is a game I play when I want a quick break from studying or if I’ve got a few minutes to kill. If I want more coins, I’ll go help my neighbours :P

  19. lacubsfan says:

    I play Farmville… Will NEVER spend real money.