Archive for November, 2009

November 9, 2009

>The Sun Always Shines in Farmville: A critical analysis of FB’s most popular game

>I realize I’ve been a bit negligent in updating my blog lately. Over the past few days, my time off has been absorbed by two practically useless but hopelessly addictive activities: and Farmville.
The first allows me to catch up with favorite shows that I had previously believed were only available “south of the border” in the good ol’ USA. Where else can you experience the petty depravity of Desperate Housewives and the brilliant awkwardness of The Office, all conveniently on your laptop screen? When I arrived in the great frozen north, I was saddened and disillusioned to find a message on both ABC and NBC’s websites informing me that these cultural gems were “not yet available” for viewing in Canada. Looking back, I should have known there was a way around this, but I embraced the opportunity to wean myself of TV without questioning it too much. I have sort of a love-hate relationship with the boob tube since it entered my life about five years ago (we never watched it when I was growing up). It always ends up leaving my brain feeling like jello, but at the same time, I feel like it’s very important to learn about the delicacy of extramarital affairs and just how insane life in the corporate world can be. So when TvDuck, which allows you to watch pretty much any TV show you want up here in the great frozen north, arrived on the scene, I waved goodbye to my grand schemes to learn German and read a dozen books now that the busy summer is over. Soon, any sense of cognitive strength I thought I’d gained since exiting the formalized educational system has completely dissolved. Woe is me.
That’s not what I’m here to discuss, however. While I’m waiting for my shows to buffer, I’ve been toying around with the Facebook sensation Farmville. As with most trend-driven activities that give participants a sense of social accomplishment among their peers, I’m sadly behind on this one. I try to be sort of a curmudgeon about technology and time-wasting activities (I may waste entire evenings watching TV online, but I am appropriately resentful while I’m doing it), and on the rare occasion I do attend that must-see film or buy a hot new album, I do it weeks if not months behind the pop culture schedule. Farmville only was released in June, but in just a few weeks it had become the most popular game ever to hit Facebook. and as of the end of October had 63 million users. As one news article put it, that means in the US, Farmville users outnumber real farmers 60 to 1.
Farmville annoyed me even before I knew these disheartening statistics, so I think it came as a bit of a surprise a few days ago when I appeared on my friends’ Facebook news feeds as the latest convert. Sure, my disdain still creeps under the surface, but so far, Farmville just fascinates me. For the Facebook-less (faceless?), I’ll just say that Farmville is an “application” that you add to your profile that allows you to play a game with friends that simulates the business of farming. You start off with a couple of “fields” and a limited selection of seeds. Your friends on Facebook that also play the game are your “neighbors”, and they help out by giving gifts of livestock, fruit trees and infrastructure. You can “visit” your neighbors’ farms and help out by dumping bags of fertilizer on their partially grown crops. There always seems to be things to do on the farm – one aspect in which this game actually mimics reality quite well. The crops take anywhere between four hours to a few days to ripen, and must be harvested before they wither. You harvest by clicking on the “harvesting tool” and then clicking on the finished crop. Follow a similar procedure to plow and replant the field. When you harvest, you earn “coins”, which you can then use to expand your farm and buy more stuff for it.
The first time I logged on to Farmville, I was greeted by hokey ragtime music that was probably intended to make me feel more agrarian. I chose an avatar, which defaulted to something looking like a wide-eyed blonde five-year-old in purple overalls. Everything in the game appears in this cartoonish, colorful style, a bit curious for a site mostly used by teens and adults. After I planted some strawberries and eggplants, I visited a neighbor’s farm. I did this by clicking on her avatar, which looked cooler with a purple Mohawk. When her farm loaded on my screen, though, I noticed that the farmer was nowhere to be found. Odd. On a virtual farm with no visible escape routes (not even a road or driveway), where does an avatar hide?
Despite the absence of the farmer, the farm looked quite spiffy. In fact, it made my strawberries and eggplants look like a weed patch. Fruit trees of every kind (banana growing with cherry), a bicycle, daffodils, a well, and something called a “horse topiary”. Herds of cattle and sheep stood around staring blankly into space and blinking occasionally (with an effect that was overall a little creepy, actually). My friend had clearly been at this a while. I briefly wondered if my little farm would ever attain this level of opulence.
The next morning, I checked my email to find a note from my sister, who I’d also added as a Farmville neighbor. Like the rest of the tech-enabled world, she’s already been playing this for a while. “Quick, go harvest your strawberries!” the email read. There was a sight note of panic to it. I clicked over to my virtual farm, where there were now withered stalks where my young strawberry plants had been the day before. I looked back at the email – it was sent before I’d even gotten out of bed. Apparently, the berries ripen in four hours, and the game expects you to sit in front of your computer watching this take place lest you miss the event. After all, avatars don’t take part in unnecessary outside activities like sleeping or going to work, so why should you?
Later, I called my sister up, and she explained to me the central rule of the game: “The sun always shines in Farmville.” I thought she was relaying a nugget of wisdom through some sort of cryptic metaphor, but then I realized it was actually quite straightforward. In a virtual world, there’s no reason for cloudy days or even night time. And without the physical restrictions of the berry ripening process, there’s no reason strawberries shouldn’t be ready in four hours. Or four seconds, for that matter.
I wonder if some Monsanto engineer didn’t create this game as an extension of some sort of genetically engineered, chemically controlled agricultural fantasy. After all, it’s the perfect, predictable environment for growing crops – the type of environment agricultural scientists are working hard to perfect. With hydroponics, you can deliver exactly what plants need to the root system without the inconvenient medium of soil. Animals bred to a robot-like level of complacency and stupidity perform the duties of looking cute and growing meat without the worry of pasture and fences. Of course, rather than standing and blinking on a flat green surface, those real-life animals are kept in decidedly un-pastoral pens and cages in enormous barns. But that would be the dark side of Farmville that we don’t see.
But maybe I’m looking too far into this. After all, the game clearly wasn’t structured to stand up to critical analysis; in fact, its profit motives are rather thinly concealed. This evening, as I explored the game a bit farther, I clicked on the “market”, where you buy the seeds, animals and infrastructure you want. Under the “homes” tab, I found manors, villas and a variety of other domiciles for my avatar to occupy. I clicked on the “homestead,” the most basic option, but was informed I didn’t have enough coins to buy the place. But I didn’t have to worry! I was redirected to a page where, using my Visa or Paypal account, I could simply buy more coins. Suddenly, I was the federal reserve of my own farm nation, churning out my own money as I needed it. If I didn’t want to fork over my hard-earned dollars, I could also participate in a carefully selected variety of online scams that only required my personal information to load me up on enough farm coin to purchase the homestead of my avatar’s dreams. This particular feature has generated some ire on the interwebs – apparently quite a few people have fallen for the scams and aren’t happy about it.
So Farmville’s not the perfect model for real-time agriculture, and I don’t think anything but a physical piece of land ever will be. I’m curious what this newest gaming trend – which is unique in its lack of guns, fast cars, or any of the usual computer game fare – indicates about our evolving culture. Is the appeal here, as one Zynga (the software company that developed Farmville) VP told BusinessWire, in “people’s instinct to nurture”? Are we collectively so desperate to go back to our agricultural roots that we must turn to virtual reality to fill that need? Or is Farmville just another iteration of the standard monopoly-style game, where the player must make smart economic decisions to win? If so, I wonder how good this is for the situation of real farmers – if farming’s just a matter of harvesting your strawberries on time and picking the best place for your horse topiary, why can’t these hayseeds pull it together and make some money at it?
Farmville will probably go the way of Donkey Kong, Neopets and Lemonade Stand, but it is an interesting stop on the internet train and a fun diversion for my down time between cooking giant batches of tomato sauce and shoveling goat manure. In case some Farmville game creator happens to be reading this, though, I’ll offer a few suggestions to make it more realistic. Make a mortgage payment due daily, and if the player doesn’t fork it over, take a square of ripening eggplants and magically place a condo on it (you were forced to subdivide and sell). Send a crop blight through every so often just to liven things up a bit, or announce at random intervals that the twenty squares of soybeans you planted are now worth a third of what they were yesterday. Allow the cute, blinking animals to reproduce so that there can be even cuter baby animals running around. And when an avatar goes to visit a “neighbor’s” farm, make that other player’s avatar be there to offer a cup of coffee and a slice of pie. It’s things like that, after all, that make this whole farming game worthwhile.