FarmVille: The Garden in the Machine

Curator's Note

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. 


I played Farmville about 3 hours a day for several months last year, though that time was not exclusive to the game. I would click back and forth between windows on my computer to see how my crops were doing while I rendered film in Final Cut, took breaks between paragraphs, or waited for a search to complete. Filling time in between was why I was able to engage with the game at all. When I attempted to spend dedicated time at my farm, I got bored waiting for leaves to turn and "shopping" for new items.

Something I always wanted Zynga to do with Farmville was allow for cooperative farms. Not just the abilty to visit neighbors and fertilize their plants, but a feature by which Facebook users could create a group farm, and thus plant and harvest together. This would have prolonged my interest. What made me close my farm after a few months was the lonliness I felt playing the game. Sharing my accomplishments via Facebook status updates was hardly engaging and, as many fb friends told me, actually quite annoying to my community.

Maybe the game has this feature now, or you can pay for it. I never spent a dime on the game. I suspect cooperative farming is probably antithetical to the Zynga business model. But I think the "techno-pastorialism" offered by Farmville feels disconnected, hyper-individualized and alientating. I'd rather, like in Little Big Planet, build something other players can use and modify. I prefer social play, especially from a social network game.

Yes, FarmVille has introduced cooperative farming, although not the jointly owned farms you suggest. Instead, players create ad hoc alliances to put together specific projects, which is fun but less radical than the kibbutz model.  

I would disagree that Farmville is inherently alienating and individualizing. For me, it's been a way to keep in touch with friends and family, sharing a moment's play with them asynchronously as I visit their farms and send them gifts.

I agree that Farmville hardly exploits the full expressive possibilities of social media, as games like Little Big Planet do. It's more about what Mark Granovetter called "The Strength of Weak Ties" - a little daily check-in with one corner of my social network. 

I do have to admit I'm a little burned out on Farmville myself at this point. Zynga's follow-up, Frontierville, tries to add more goal-oriented tasks and even some action (you have to fight off foxes, snakes & bears), but that's not enough to keep it interesting month after month. I guess I'm less enthusiastic about Farmville per se than about the genre Farmville is pioneering. My ultimate hope is that creative game designers will learn from the best parts of Farmville to produce the next generation of social games. 

 I'm confused here by your reference to Open Source in terms of the business model that Zynga. I don't really see how those are related. Having people act as recruiters isn't the same as making source code open.

What have I missed?

My point is that the economic model within the gameplay itself is a gift economy. As you play the game, the primary form of exchange is gifting, rather than buying & selling or barter. You get most of your supplies - bricks, nails, animals, etc. - via gifts, and much of the gameplay time is spent giving and receiving gifts. That's the mechanic Zynga uses to tie players together in a collaborative, noncompetitive network. 

Zynga's actual business model is very different, of course - just as the economic ideas presented in, say, Hollywood movies (in which the little guy usually wins) are very different from the economics of Hollywood itself (which is owned by a handful of multinational corporations).

Although if you think about it, Zynga's shareware business model - play for free, pay for more features - actually does share some things with how open source software companies do business. Like Zynga, those companies often grant customers free access to their software, making their money instead off product support and other added features.

Of course, the FarmVille software itself is held under close guard, the opposite of open source's "information is free" ideal. A lot of their $5.5 billion valuation comes from the trade secrets they've developed.

Ted: thanks for bringing up FarmVille! a) I've been researching farm games for the past few months, and I'm glad I'm not the only one who's been toiling away on my virtual farm in the name of science. And b) I love the tree labyrinth. Out with the min/maxing, in with the art, I say.

That said, this seems to me a rather generous reading of both Zynga (which has come under fire for its "fast following" of other companies' ideas... check out Farm Town on Facebook) and FarmVille itself, which grossly oversimplifies agricultural ecology, labor, and community life. While I agree that farm games tap into a latent pastoralism in the American cultural psyche, pastoralism itself has never been all that good at acknowledging the difficulties and externalities of commodity production.

A few miscellaneous points:

- Zynga just released its newest game, CityVille, and is urging its farmers to make the move to the big city in droves:

This billboard showed up on my farm a couple of days ago.

- FarmVille appears to be something of an anomaly in terms of farm games and fuzzy, wuzzy, loving neighborliness. Popular farm games in Asia (Happy Farm in China and Taiwan, Sunshine Ranch in Japan) have no problem allowing neighbors to sneak onto your farm and take your hard-earned vegetables.

 Great points, Alenda! I’ll definitely have to think more about how pastoralism functions in contemporary American culture, and how one might avoid the pitfalls of naive pastoralism (the critique writers like Anthony Bourdain fairly make of Alice Waters). 

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