Social Gaming and the Art of Backpedaling

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backpedal.jpgADOTAS – There’s only one way to get rid of the bitter aftertaste of arrogance — a cold pint of humility.

In a video found by TechCrunch, Zynga CEO and Founder Mark Pincus relates a story about his fledgling company’s scavenger hunt for revenue at a Startup@Berkeley event, admitting that he downloaded one of the toolbars his company traded for free virtual currency and couldn’t erase it. He laughs, the kids laugh — it’s a holly jolly anecdote.

But wait a sec — are you telling me that the FarmVille guy knowingly promoted crap that would muck up my PC? Well, he claims in an interview on NBC Bay Area’s Press:Here, it wasn’t malware, but he does feel awfully bad for anyone who had a bad user experience.

“We want FarmVille to be wholesome fun for the whole family,” he says. “It breaks my heart to hear that people feel they were scammed in any way.”

Gee, thanks — I feel so much better about those neverending pop-ups.

Many social gaming and virtual currency companies got caught with their pants down by the sudden uproar over unethical practices in the sector that was launched by former Offerpal CEO Anu Shakla’s expletive-laden rant at the Virtual Goods Summit in late October.

But it seems that they actually pulled their own pants down, did a tap-dance number and dared someone to ask what was hanging around their ankles. While many of these companies swear they had advertiser standards, it’s become obvious that they were lax guidelines at best.

Now that the jig is up, the backpedaling has commenced — full-speed reverse. After dumping Shukla, new Offerpal CEO George Garrick introduced a strict new set of advertising policies and other initiatives aimed at reducing the increasingly negative perception of the company.

TrialPay is the latest to “tsk tsk” gaming and virtual goods wheelers and dealers that proffered misleading offers, issuing a free whitepaper titled, “Doing Right by the Consumer: Going Beyond Compliance.” It argues that when done well, offers benefit all parties involved — consumers, advertisers and game operators. TrialPay lists best practices that will assist others in the space that offers are consumer-friendly and bring this industry back to its mutually beneficial roots.

As easy as it is to mock the backpedaling by social gaming and virtual goods companies, it’s also the right thing to do. These companies got greedy, then arrogant, and now humility is bringing them back into ethical territory.

The Wild West analogy may be overused in describing Internet advertising, but as civilization quickly pours over the sector, companies don’t need Johnny Law sticking his nose into the business. All segments of the industry have been slapped awake by the importance of transparency.

Many players in the online ad space have gray areas in their pasts — but in this case the past can be left behind, as long as lessons are learned.

In the most jaw-dropping (and oddly hilarious) segment of the Pincus interview, the Zynga CEO argues that his toolbar example was taken out of context — he was teaching young entrepreneurs the importance of bringing in revenue early so they have the funding necessary to control the direction of the company and make ethical decisions.

“Did you weirdly just say [you] have to do the wrong thing to do the right thing?” host Scott McGrew replies, with a grin of disbelief (which I shared).

“It could sound like that,” Pincus says.

No, it sounded exactly like that. I wonder if he’ll say something similar in a year or so about accepting funding from shady Russian investors.

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