Monday, November 30, 2009

Make that 60 million and one...

Well, it finally happened. I accepted an invitation to start farming on Facebook. FarmVille is Facebook's number one application, with 60 million users and counting. Farmville allows the user to plant and harvest crops for virtual cash that you can then use to... well... buy more crops, of course. Commentator Ivor Tossell pretty accurately described the gameplay as "diversions for the mildly concussed" (read his blog about Farmville here). I'd be insulted if it wasn't so true. I spent the holiday weekend with my pre-teen nieces who are both fans of Farmville, so I felt less guilty about partaking in what is absolutely a silly waste of time. But, I have to admit I enjoyed designing my own plot of land and choosing my crops, and was disappointed when crops went bad because I didn't harvest them in time. Naturally, I began to wonder whether I was responding to some deep-rooted connection to land, human history, and biology, or if I had just fallen pray to a superbly sneaky web application.

The big irony over the past week was that I was spending time with family members who actually farm, albeit on a very small scale. At my sister's house there is a chicken coup, three chickens, two cats, a white picket fence, a wheelbarrow, fruit trees, seasonal crops, a shed; all items that I either have or want on my virtual farm. My sister lives in a suburb on less than an acre. Needless to say, while I weeded plenty of my friend's virtual farms over the weekend, I didn't pull a single weed on my sister's property. I did go out to the actual chicken coup to collect eggs, but the chickens were loud and a little scary, and in the end I sent my niece in to do the task (they are her chickens, after all...).

My sister wasn't very sympathetic to my need to log on and check my crops. But, neither did I have any desire to go out in the freezing Northwest rain and get my hands dirty. Which makes me wonder how much the farming aspect really matters to the games success. A recent Washington Times article quotes the vice president of Zynga (creator of the game) saying, "there's something fundamentally human about planting and growing, especially food." Even if there is some truth in that statement, however, I'm inclined to agree with the article's other commentator, who argues that the game is popular because it's easy - it requires no skill, and you're constantly rewarded for even the smallest success.

There may be another explanation, too, and Stephanie Smith, who writes an entire blog devoted to Learning from Farmville, argues that critics shouldn't be so quick to disregard the potential benefits of this online community. According to Smith, FarmVille and other similar applications can help people learn about community. She describes it as "values-based edu-tainment", saying it is feeding people's need for more knowledge and practice in "communal culture". Maybe Smith is right; there is something wholesome about fertilizing your friends crops for points, and who knows, maybe 60 million neighbors down on the farm will spread good-will beyond the confines of their virtual world.

Well, I'm equal parts hopeful and skeptical on that one. All I know for sure about FarmVille is that I am going to have to let my land go fallow for the next couple of weeks. But I'll be back in time to plant some mistletoe for Christmas.


camp said...

My nieces have a healthy farmville obsession going and they have chickens in the backyard too. They keep me updated with the latest developments with a steady stream of facebook updates. These updates are apparently one of the main ways to recruit new players in to the farmville "community" - no doubt it's a wonderful place to spend time with concussed friends and family but I have yet to join in. Perhaps in 2010. A New Year's resolution "join farmville" to go along with "Use treadmill more often."
Perhaps I was dropped too much as a child but I do find myself believing that a good portion of farmville's success comes from the focus on farming. America's pro-farming ethic seems to me to be so deeply entrenched that it would still penetrate through the many layers of technology, boredom, Twilight-obsession and youthful shoots of cynicism that pre-teen nieces are often known for. Marketing alone continues to supply a steady stream of imagery and catch phrases that aim to capture and cultivate agricultural goodwill. To top it off the "green" movement, local farming and the like are offer a sincere and cooler version of the same... All of which is to say that a well designed game with a focus on farming had a good chance at success - it doesn't hurt that it was built on the fastest growing site on the net.

LT said...

I guess I am more cynical, but I have a really hard time buying the proposition that Farmville's popularity has anything to do with some fundamental human draw to working with the land and farming. I have thus far successfully resisted the temptation of playing it myself, but I've seen the numerous Farmville updates from friends who do play it. I think more than anything else, it's mindless, easy to play, has cutesy graphics, and gives the player a false sense of productivity. I think if you're on facebook to begin with (actually have facebook open, not just have an account), you either have some time to waste, or you wish you had time to waste and you're procrastinating. As you said, Farmville players continuously receive rewards after small tasks, resulting in a false sense of achievement - just what many procrastinators are probably looking for! I think any similar game not involving farming would be just as successful.