As a rule, you'd best avoid peering behind the scenes of your favorite online pastime; you probably won't like what you find. Drill into the backstory of "Mafia Wars" creator Zynga, for example, and you'll find a sweatshop where ruthless managers closely monitor the performance of even cafeteria workers, and where employees are pitted against one another and bullied into emotional breakdowns.

That's the story recounted by the New York Times, at least. "Several former employees describe emotionally charged encounters, including loud outbursts from Mr. Pincus, threats from senior leaders and moments when colleagues broke down into tears," writes the paper, adding:

For the top performers, the rewards are handsome. Zynga dispenses lavish gifts like vacations and $100,000 in vested stock.... While from the outside Zynga may have the fun and whimsy of the Willy Wonka chocolate factory, the organization thrives on numbers, relentlessly aggregating performance data, from the upper ranks to the cafeteria staff... The heavy focus on metrics... fostered an uncompromising culture, one where employees are constantly measured and game designers are pushed to meet aggressive deadlines. While some staff members thrive in this environment, others find it crushing... Mr. Pincus began drafting "M.I.A.," or missing-in-action, lists to keep track of senior employees who were not doing a good job or who needed to be placed on more ambitious projects.

The online games company is equally ruthless with outsiders. Zynga happily reaps big profits off addicted users who are unemployed, disabled or, in many cases, children. It opened a hush hush wire transfer operation for players who spent more than $500 at a time on in-game credits and has refused to refund virtual goods purchased by minors with pilfered credit card information.

Zynga is also apparently scaring away potential acquisitions, several of whom, said the Times, have nixed deals with the company based on its reputation - or after meetings like this one:

In the spring of 2009, Zynga was courting MyMiniLife... During one meeting, the topic turned to compensation. A Zynga senior vice president, clad in jeans and leather cowboy boots, whipped out his wallet and a stack of hundred-dollar bills. He chucked the money at a MyMiniLife founder and asked him if that was enough, said one person present at the meeting.

"It was insulting," this person said.

There are worse things than having money thrown at you, but a Wild West, kill or be killed culture doesn't look so attractive at a time when programmers have their choice of eager employers. Then again, it can be hard, even in boom times, to find more humane tech companies. Whether it's Zynga, the I Can Haz Cheezburger LOLcat empire, the Huffington Post, or any number of other "fun" companies, it can be depressing to examine the real world manifestation of an online brand. Maybe it's just best to tend to your virtual crops or whatever and not ask too many questions.

[Pic: Zynga's San Francisco headquarters in June. AP.]