Getting from PrivacyVille to the real world of online privacy


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Zynga, creator of Farmville and Words With Friends, seems to have done the impossible:  it made privacy policies fun.  With its new game PrivacyVille, Zynga turned the chore of reading privacy policies into a game.

The incentive for playing?  200 zPoints, Zynga’s currency, which users get from playing any of Zynga’s games.  Because there’s an 80-zPoint cap per game per day, 200 is a pretty good deal.  And that’s why this system works:  it makes learning about privacy valuable.  It gives people a reason to pay attention.

PrivacyVille teaches players about important online privacy concepts, like targeted advertising.

How Zynga Tracks Its Users

Authorizing their apps on social networks like Facebook lets both Zynga and their advertisers track you.  For example, when you’re playing the free version of Words With Friends, you’ll see an ad pop up after every move you make.  The advertisers paying to show you those ads also pay for information about you.  What do they know about you through tracking?  A lot, including the following:

    • What pages you visited, and in what order
    • What you clicked and how many times
    • How long you spent on each page
    • The page you were viewing before you came to play, and the page you left the game to visit
    • Which browser you’re using
    • The zip code in which you’re accessing the internet
    • What you buy
    • Your Facebook profile information, including your friends

Based on what they learn about you through tracking, they’ll tweak the ads you see to try to make them more appealing to you (in other words, make you more likely to buy).  They track you using cookies, web bugs, and tracking pixels.  You can stop tracking of your online activity and targeted advertisements with free software like TACO, or get even more privacy with PrivacySuite.

PrivacyVille:  Our Review

We played PrivacyVille to give you the rundown:

  • Length
      • Very short.  You can get through it in about 5 minutes if you’re an average reader.
  • Structure
      • There are two parts:  in the first, you click through the town of PrivacyVille and read about various concepts, like how Zynga uses your email address and where it stores your data.  In the second part, you have to answer a five-question quiz based on the content you read.  Answering them correctly unlocks your 200 zPoint reward.
  • Difficulty
      • Super easy.  PrivacyVille explains complex privacy concepts like behavioral advertising and data storage in a simple way, and the questions they ask during the quiz are incredibly easy.
  • Overall value as an educational tool
      • We love the interactivity, creativity, and goal behind PrivacyVille and commend Zynga for it.  It’s quite a step forward for privacy.  It’s still flawed, though.  The quiz is too easy:  three of the four answer choices are so obviously incorrect that anyone could choose the correct answer without having paid attention in the learning segment.  For example, here’s an actual Q&A set from PrivacyVille:
Zynga privacyville example question

Is it…the English countryside?

    • It doesn’t take any understanding of privacy to answer this question.  In practice, anyone could click through the reading in a flash, choose the correct answer based purely on how obviously wrong the others are, and collect his or her points in minutes.  We hope that people actually pay attention, but realistically, many won’t.

Why Privacy Protection Is Better Than Privacy Policies

Let’s face it:  most of us don’t read privacy policies.  They’re long and boring, and even if we did feel like putting in the time to read them, they don’t make sense to anyone without a law degree.  But we’re shooting ourselves in the foot when we hastily click “I agree” without having a clue what we’re agreeing to.

It’s in our best interests to understand them, though:  it’s the only way we’ll know the privacy risks we take when we sign up for a site or use a service.  Companies have struggled with this issue for as long as privacy policies have existed:  how do they get people to care?

One compromise we’ve been seeing more often is the 2-column approach:  put the confusing legalese on the left side; put a common-sense translation on the right.  Still, you’re forcing people to read dense stuff, and internet users, with our unique form of internet-induced attention deficit disorder, won’t pay attention.

An example of a 2-column Terms of Use page: legalese is on the left; normal English is on the right. From

Zynga’s solution of making it a game is an inspired step in the right direction.  Sure, it’s not the most fun game in the world, but it’s far more interactive and engaging than any other privacy policy we’ve seen, and we hope to see more like it.

At the end of the quiz, you can collect your reward: 200 zPoints.


Played PrivacyVille?  Do you think it’s an effective way of helping people understand Zynga’s privacy policy?  Let us know by leaving your comment below.

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