by Adira Rotstein
(First of all, is there anything more pretentious than a sociological analysis of the Farmville phenomenon with a Evelyn Waugh related pun for a title. No didn't think so).
I've been longing to write about the Farmville phenomenon for ages because I think it speaks to several societal issues that characterize our period in history.
"But it's just a trivial game!" people say and it's true it is. However, if it is a game that upwards of 30 million people participate in at any given moment then there must be a reason why. Why does Farmville appeal to the demographic it does and what has made this particular game so popular in this particular moment in history? Those are the questions I'm looking to answer.
First of all the popularity of Facebook is responsible for introducing Farmville to the online audience. Facebook and Farmville work hand in hand in reinforcing each other's popularity. Users are accessing Facebook in order to play Farmville and using Facebook to access Farmville friends' posts that get you free objects in the game.
Naturally, the age of Farmville gamers is skewed to the under-40, pre-baby boomers, because these are the people that feel more comfortable on the internet and the ones who spend more time either working or playing online.
It is a very popular game with female gamers, due to the fact that it doesn't need a game console to play and is a social, non-violent game. In many ways, it is kind of like playing house writ large, with cute computer designed animals and buildings instead of actual tactile toys and without the imaginative play aspect of children playing house, where the story line is suggested by the players.
One draw of the game is that a player can dip in or out of Farmville at first without having to commit several hours to the game, like an RPG. In a classic console role playing game the investiture of the most time occurs at the beginning of game play, when the player spends a long time familiarizing herself with the game's environment and how to control the game avatar's movements.
In Farmville the movements are easy to control. The main skill that is required is not manual dexterity or puzzle solving ability, but the ability to plan ahead.
Forward planning becomes more and more essential to the game as you continue to play and plant crops and craft objects that will need to be harvested between 4 hours to 4 days in the future. The initial ease of the game is deceptive though, because as you enlarge your farm or acquire multiple farms to accomidate all your many animals and different crops the amount of time required to tend the farm multiplies as well. It sucks you in, by making the initial investment of time very small for a level-up pay off and gradually increasing the amount of time you need to increase your level. By the time you are at level 100 the number of things you have to do and the amount of time it will take you to do them to go up a level are greatly increased, so that the game, for some players becomes almost like a second job.
The great advantage of this game over its PC-based ancestors like Sim City is that because it is online the missions and rewards are constantly changing. Certain missions have deadlines and must be accomplished within a certain span of time to get a reward. Other missions, such as building an orchard can take as long as you want.
Instead of the traditional game experience, where two plays fight it out to see who comes out the winner, with one player losing everything and the other player gaining everything, success in Farmville is dependent on reciprocal/affiliative behaviours. As a player you must give "free gifts" to other players in order to get gifts in return, which can be used to build attractive objects that yield coins or other rewards. The more Farmville "friends" you have, the more objects and levels you can unlock, thus enriching your game-playing experience and increasing your status in the game. It is in this way that the game spreads. Initially, when the game was first starting out, Facebook friends would accept a Farmville invitation, unaware what they were really getting into. Now the game allows you to have Farmville friends that are not your Facebook friends, thus getting around the reluctance of people to make Farmville friends that they don't neccessarily want to share personal information with.
One of the major aspects of the appeal of Farmville that I don't think has been adequately addressed is the ability to own virtual land and make virtual money easily in the game. In this way the game is one of fantasy-fulfillment for my generation. Very few people my age (32) these days can afford to own their own piece of land. Land and housing prices have skyrocketed in the past thirty years especially in the crowded urban centres where most young people live. In most developed countries more people live in urban centres than in rural places. Very few children I teach in the city have ever even been to a farm, let alone worked on one, however most people enjoy watching things grow, and long to own their own house or parcel of land someday, even though this dream is growing increasingly unrealistic. Unfortunately, most of us must content ourselves with rented apartments, with no acess to gardens or tiny condos that we supposedly "own," but with condo fees almost as high as rent fees,and the necessity of sharing the condo and all its communal spaces with hundreds of other people.
Farmville in this sense may act as a wish fulfillment tool for a generation mostly shut out from owning land and divorced from contact with the land that our ancestors took for granted.
Another wish fulfillment aspect of Farmville's appeal has to do with making money. In Farmville there are no taxes, no student loans that need paying back and no credit card companies hounding you for more money. If you need money you plant crops and harvest them for cash, as simple as that. If you do the work you see the benefits in a predicatable fashion. In real life, especially for people of my generation, the amount of work one does often seems completely unrelated to the money one makes or the benefits one receives. Working at university or volunteering at an internship job you are told is the ticket to getting a good job with decent pay once you are done. However this is not the case. How many of us have been stiffed? Left holding the bill for an expensive university education with no job in sight. The problem is with increased automation there are fewer jobs for people and the jobs that are there are all already staffed by baby boomers who aren't eager to retire, and are still capable and healthy to much older ages than their ancestors were. It is not the boomer's fault, I would not like to retire with thirty years of potential good work still in me and elderly parents and jobless 20-somethings depending on me, but the demographic pinch is a serious matter that needs to be thought and talked about by those in power.
In the meantime, being a Farmville millionaire at least provides some solace.