57.6 million Facebook users play FarmVille. Granted, not all of them are people. Two are my cats, Noisy and Pilot Squeaky. In FarmVille, it helps to have lots of neighbors, be they human beings or feline avatars.
FarmVille's a simulation game, like SimCity and Civilization. You play a farmer. You plow the earth, sow your seeds, then come back a few hours later to harvest. As you gain more experience, you can grow more kinds of plants while expanding your farm and collecting cows, pigs, cats, and other farm animals.
What makes FarmVille new is that it's a social simulation game. The game encourages players to invite their Facebook friends to become "neighbors." Players gain wealth and experience by visiting neighbors' farms to fertilize crops, feed chickens, and share needed materials like bricks and nails.
It's genius guerrilla marketing: publisher Zynga has turned its customers into a salesforce by making the recruitment of new players part of the gameplay itself. And if you can't lure enough neighbors, you can always get ahead in the game by paying real cash. Basic gameplay is free - the company makes its money selling in-game items like exotic animals and upgraded buildings.
But the flip side of FarmVille's somewhat sleazy business model is the utopian gift economy of the game mechanics. It's a fantasy version of the open source movement. Richard Barbrook calls open source "The High Tech Gift Economy." The concept of the gift economy comes out of anthropological studies of "primitive" cultures, but it's much more civilized than capitalism. Farmville speaks to an inchoate desire for a world in which collaboration and sharing replace competition and hoarding.
A few weeks ago, the leaves began to turn in Atlanta. In FarmVille, when a tree changes color, you know it's ready to be harvested. Every time I went outside, I found myself wanting to click on the trees. That's what games can do: create a new frame for perceiving the world - what Fredric Jameson calls a "cognitive map." That momentary urge to click the real trees was a quintessential postmodern moment: I'd turned the natural world into just another simulacrum. But it also made me see those trees in a fresh way. It defamiliarized them.
Like the locavore movement, which uses tools like Twitter and GPS to bypass truck farming and reconnect farmers with consumers, FarmVille reflects a new techno-pastoralism. Playing a computer game is no substitute for time out in nature among the trees. But once I'm back inside, games like FarmVille can help map the forest.