Just Why the F*ck is Farmville So Popular?
Preface: I have, myself, never actually played Farmville. I have however known a fair amount of people who are self-described addicts to such. Between viewing all the notifications on Facebook of their varied agricultural efforts, in addition to viewing said actions in person, I feel well-suited to articulate an answer to this post’s overarching question. In addition, I feel that an “outside” perspective on Farmville is needed.
There’s been a maelstrom of activity in the news lately surrounding well…the world’s fascination with Farmville, amongst Zynga Games’ other titles, such as Mafia Wars, Cafe World, and FishVille. One could take the time to delve into all of them, but truth be told, all of those games involve re-skinning the original core mechanics, with minor deviations (One of my main “beefs” with these titles). As a hardcore gamer, part of me feels obligated to simply look down (yes, that’s right down) on these casual gamers with a righteous degree of disdain, and leave the issue at that.
Yet, being the semi-open-minded individual that I am, I think it’s important to ask just why these games are a success, why people play them day in and day out, and overall, if this still merits criticism. After all, I think we all perfectly “get” that fact that not everybody wants to play Bioshock or Deus Ex, sadly. Nor that it would fit their gaming abilities, limitations of hand-eye coordination, or amount of time they can allocate to gaming.
Let’s begin with some facts (something I usually abhor when it comes to doing reseach…unsubstantiated opinions are usually the “weapon of choice”). Twenty-seven million people play FarmVille every single day, seventy-five monthly, with 60% of them being women. Furthermore, most play between the hours of 8-9 AM, spending roughly 33 minutes daily with the activity. It means that we’re mostly looking at women and girls getting in a quick round before they head off to school, or perhaps before starting the day at work. Essentially, it means that we’ve got a casual gaming epidemic, far outside the standard gamer demographics of a 32-year-old male that plays eighteen hours a week.
But casual gamers, are gamers nonetheless, drawn to certain mechanics and principles located in games that were around before Farmville, though not so much inundated with the advertisements of Facebook or its (for better or worse) ever-networking abilities. Farmville, for all its cutsie agricultural-microcosm goodness, has managed to tap into the psychology of the gamer, creating something just accessible enough to sign up, and ensnaring enough to keep one from leaving. Allow me to break down some of the reasons that Farmville can attribute its massive numbers to.
1. It’s Free To Play–Farmville, unlike most retail games, lacks an outright purchasing cost. And, unlike most large-scale MMOs, lacks both the start-up costs and monthly fees. We can try to tell people that there is no proverbial “free lunch,” that they are paying by viewing Facebook’s archaic attempts at targeted advertising (here’s a hint, just because I’m single, doesn’t mean I’m in a rush to meet young scantily-clad women with poor decision-making skills through some site of equally dubious integrity…nor do I figure they are in any hurry to meet up with me). But people don’t care about the ads. American culture already has infused every aspect of the human experience with the shilling of one product or another, so we don’t mind. IT’S FREE.
2. Success Dictated by Dedication, Not Skill–In case you didn’t figure it out, Farmville is not the next twitch-happy FPS. Hardly anybody is going to come into this “simulation-lite” with a distinct advantage based on coordination-fueled skills or a well-honed tactical mind. Unless you happen to be completely vacant of any basic understanding of logic, everyone’s more or less on an even plane. Furthermore, there is no devastating measure of failure that is induced by split-second decisions in Farmville, no “One minute I was alive, and then…” event. There is no dying, nor any re-treading from one’s last save point…or even the beginning of a game.
When you’ve leveled a playing field, and removed both coordination/reflex-based fears as well as those of the “I’ve got to do all of that over again?” variety, you’ve eliminated the ideology of “being the loser,” which can motivate some gamers to play enough to avoid such a title, or keep the less-driven gamers away in the first place. There are no longer winners, just varying degrees of success.
And it is how this success is determined that makes Farmville such a powerful game. Some games are skill-based, obviously, as mentioned above. Yet Farmville does not demand a general’s knowledge of the battlefield, nor an itchy trigger-finger. Other games rely on the gamer’s ability to sink large amounts of usually-consecutive time into the title to obtain incremental progress for advancement, such as a JRPG’s use of grinding. However, most casual gamers are leery of/lack the time to engage such programs, or are easily “burnt out” by such a process.
3. “Crying…Waiting…Hoping”–(that’s a Buddy Holly song, for those that haven’t seen La Bamba far too many times as I have) The next mechanic that Farmville utilizes is forcing the player to only be able to play in sporadic bursts, aside from reorganizing the farm. Specifically, the goal of the game is to, being a farming sim, grow things. But…just as it does in real life, part of the farming process is waiting for the plants to grow. This does three things. First, it creates anticipation and impatience in the player, who is no doubt eager to reap the benefits of nature’s bounty, but is forced to wait a variable amount of time to achieve such. Anybody that’s seen the South Park episode that demonstrates Cartman’s business savvy in his “you can’t come here” strategy of running Carmanland clearly understands the tactic Farmville is utilizing.
Secondly, these “waiting” limitations keep those with more time on their hands from putting their farm on a level unattainable by those with slightly less time, and keep the same lot of individuals from “marathon-ing” through the game’s content, which might possibly find them in a position where they have “seen it all” and consequently, leave. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the waiting also prevents those less gamer-savvy from accidentally binging on the title in some episode of boredom and “burning out.” Finally, the waiting ensures that you will continue to log on to Farmville on a regular basis, reinforced by the fact that those who are neglectful of their duties will return to their little plot of land to discover rotted crops.
4. The Fast Track–What’s that? You don’t have the time to play Farmville several times a day in ten-twelve minute intervals? Or, do you have a friend that, despite your fairly average maintenance of your farm, is still “one-upping” you? Farmville essentially is another modern day take on “Keeping Up With the Jones’,” but offers a downright easy way to incite that jealousy in others…or remove the smirk from those imposing it on you. It’s called…real money.
“That’s downright irrational,” you say. Well, when one considers the relative cost of maintaining other “free time” activities or hobbies, especially pay-per-month MMOs (which for equal or higher costs, do nothing to ensure your supremacy over your coworkers/friends) the occasional couple dollars doesn’t sound so bad. Money can be the way to edge out a friend, provide instant gratification by giving you that item you’ve been longing for, or keep one, who against all odds is becoming bored with the title, from leaving.
5. “One of us…one of us…”–Of course, supposing that the game itself, and its powerful psychological tools of persuasion cannot entice you to stay, there is a fail-safe: your friends. Ultimately, one’s friends will rely on your appearance in Farmville for multiple reasons. Perhaps you’re quite good at the game, and others look to you for advice, or the placement of your ever-gazing eye toward their farm when they cannot. Perhaps you’re the “new kid on the block” and someone else really enjoys providing you with advice, as it puts them in a position of power and knowledge. Everybody loves being an expert. Maybe someone else simply uses your presence on the game at odd hours of the night (or perhaps all hours of the day!) to affirm that either there’s someone just as addicted as they are…or that, at the very least, they’re not as much of a junkie as you. In any of these scenarios, your friends have a vested interest in ensuring that you remain a member of the Farmville community.
What does all of this add up to? Ultimately, that’s the question. Here we have some successful mechanics that have people genuinely addicted to a game, yet there’s still something that us hardcore gamers find unnerving about it. Perhaps that’s because it’s something more than a game, an odd social experiment, if you will. We know that, unlike the games we play, our Farmville loving friends will never “beat” the title and move onto something else…unless it’s a clone of said title. There’s no difficulty level, no bosses, no plot twists, and nothing much that merits a “spoilers alert.” Perhaps it’s the fact that those that love it dare to call it a game that we find so disturbing. In the end, I suppose all we can do is ask them to keep their land-tilling achievements to themselves, and recognize firmly that “What happens in Farmville” rigidly deserves to stay there.