Cross-posted to On One Hand.
I used to reflexively put all my friends' application items on "hide" when they showed up on my Facebook news feed. That included annoying, meaningless notifications like "Christina could use some help fertilizing her crops!" or "Dan found a baby calf on his FarmVille, will you give it a home?"
When I saw a friend obsessively tending to her FarmVille Farm, I asked what it was about, and she was happy to explain. Farmville looks kind of like SimCity - a game I loved as a kid - except that instead of zoning for homes you plant crops, and come back to harvest them when they are grown, which brings in money you can put into buying equipment or more crops. In the communication era there is an added social element that traditional computer games from my youth didn't have, and that is in peer networks; in Farmville you can send gifts to other users or add them as "neighbors" in the game so they come fertilize your crops, which scores you both points. You can decorate your farm to make it look nice for when visitors see it on their own computers, and there are even certain items on Farmville that you can only get with the help of others, which help you advance or bring in cash.
The game looked amusing enough, so I said why not and signed myself up - it's free, and I figured you can put in as much or as little time as you want to. But there's a problem with that kind of test-the-waters approach - FarmVille is addictive. It's designed to give you early rewards, along with increasing responsibility. They start you off with a surge of excitement as you harvest fast-growing crops (strawberries mature in four hours) and advance through the early levels quickly. But as soon you plant something, you give yourself the requirement of coming back soon or face the risk of having unharvested crops linger too long and "wither" to brown twigs, turning moneymakers to money sinks.
A quick google search will indicate how many people are hooked on this game - there are dozens of blogs devoted to Farmville tips and strategy, and communities both for and against the rapidly-growing phoenomenon. At the time of me writing this on January 11, 2010, there are about 75 million people using Farmville across the world (and growing exponentially as each user brings in two or three friends). To put that in perspective, if each of those users spent an hour a day on the game (which would not be far-fetched and many people put much more time into it), the application would be accumulating as many hours of attention as the entire economy of a small country or a medium-sized American state. Picture every working-aged person in Ohio waking up at dawn to harvest the digital pumpkins, working intensely till dusk to plant daffodils, which will be ready in 2 days.
I remember when I was sixteen and people treated the Internet as a geeky thing that socially-awkward people were drawn to. "You actually have a website up there?" someone would ask with a wrinkled nose, talking about my Friendster account or, later on, my profile on an early version of Myspace. "How creepy. You talk to people? Are they, like, stalkers or something?" Now, virtually everyone under the age of 40 along with a hefty dose of those over 40 have Facebook accounts. Maybe Farmville is the next Facebook, if the 70 million users (and growing!) are any indication: this stuff can catch on fast.
Now I'm checking my Facebook friends' news feeds for brown or golden chicken eggs somebody found in a chicken coop that, if clicked, will give my farm new chickens or occasionally other treats like a fig tree or water trough.
A friend told me I was being ridiculous. "That isn't even real," she told me, and asked me how a pursuit that can only serve to be cyclical (harvest crops to earn money to plant crops) is worthwhile.
Well, I said, isn't that cycle a lot like the way the real world works? FarmVille like capitalism, intrinsically connected to the idea of perpetual growth. Think about it: all you really need to survive as a human being is 2,000 calories a day, a roof over your head and maybe, you could argue, medicine. Things like television, computers, brand name clothing and updated styles in furniture are all vanity and excess. Things we grow so used to that we consider them "necessities" and couldn't imagine living without them. Plop a guy from 40,000 BCE into our society and he'll be thinking how about I set up a leather tent in your back yard, work an hour a day to pay for canned beans and rice and have 23 hours of free time to do whatever the hell I want? That's the life! Most people aren't the caveman, though; most of them work hard for extra pay and buy nice things all for the sake of keeping up with the Joneses, which is all I'm doing on my farm - harvesting crops, buying expansions and keeping up. I don't want my friends reaching level 15 before I do!
I have only been on FarmVille for three days. I am generally motivated by novelty, but novelty by definition doesn't last. I'm sure that as time goes by the excitement will wane and harvesting virtual crops will settle into the same smooth daily predictability of checking my inbox or brushing my teeth. I'll let the artichokes sit ripe for a few hours till I have time to get them, maybe losing one or two to withering every now and then but generally keeping things regular and comfortable.
In the meantime, my first crop of yellow bell peppers is ninety-five percent grown and I am absolutely thrilled. A few of my friends fertilized them for me, so we'll have bulging, sparkling yellow produce in no time. I could leave them alone to look pretty on my farm, but instead I'll harvest them the second they finish, to plant new seeds - time is money! We value hard work here on FarmVille!
In the beginning, and I suppose even now, I'm a little embarrassed to be caught up in this. I'll click "ignore" when the game prompts me to post eggs on my wall for friends to collect from me - instead I email them directly to someone who sent eggs to me first. I don't want people to see lots of FarmVille notifications on my public wall and realize that I'm obsessed with a computer game.
But outsiders oughtn't be so quick to judge, really. If you haven't gotten on FarmVille yet, open an acre and see if you can play for a half an hour without getting as hooked as you were as a kid when you brought home your first baby pet.
Seriously, I dare you.