Why Do People Play Farmville?

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Farmville is a popular online game, usually played through Facebook, but now available on platforms including the iPhone. I've played several similar games (like We Rule) and found it a baffling experience. The game was simultaneously boring and addictive. "Gameplay" consisted of laborious, mechanical management tasks, and demanded that the player constantly return to the game at specific times to harvest crops in order to get virtual currency, so you could...plant more crops and set your clock again. I kept waiting for something to "happen" to make it fun, but it never did. Why was this such a popular game? Also, as the game progressed, a bizarre social network effect came into play, where achieving many goals required the presence of friends playing the game. So I found myself in the position of asking around to see who else was playing this boring game, so I could get ahead. In a game that I was not enjoying, but was addicted to. Why?!

To make things even worse, to advance in the game you can pay real-world money to get in-game benefits that save time and effort, allowing you to acquire virtual items like animals and buildings and stuff. It's an amazing system: these game designers have devised a way to addict the player, then monetize that addiction by encouraging the player to bring in friends and (hopefully) pay real money to get ahead. Reportedly, Zynga (the company behind Farmville) raked in over $300 million in 2009 using this formula. Is this the best we can do with social gaming? How can this be, literally, the most popular videogame in America? Is it just that we're all addicted and can't give up, now that we've invested so much? (I would call this The Social Gamer's Dilemma.)

To explain the situation, SUNY Buffalo instructor (and student) A. J. Patrick Liszkiewicz gave a talk about the Farmville phenomenon in January, called Cultivated Play: Farmville. Here's a snippet:

Farmville is not a good game. While [author Roger] Caillois tells us that games offer a break from responsibility and routine, Farmville is defined by responsibility and routine. Users advance through the game by harvesting crops at scheduled intervals; if you plant a field of pumpkins at noon, for example, you must return to harvest at eight o'clock that evening or risk losing the crop. Each pumpkin costs thirty coins and occupies one square of your farm, so if you own a fourteen by fourteen farm a field of pumpkins costs nearly six thousand coins to plant. Planting requires the user to click on each square three times: once to harvest the previous crop, once to re-plow the square of land, and once to plant the new seeds. This means that a fourteen by fourteen plot of land—which is relatively small for Farmville—takes almost six hundred mouse-clicks to farm, and obligates you to return in a few hours to do it again. This doesn't sound like much fun, Mr. Caillois. Why would anyone do this?

One might speculate that people play Farmville precisely because they invest physical effort and in-game profit into each harvest. This seems plausible enough: people work over time to develop something, and take pride in the fruits of their labor. Farmville allows users to spend their in-game profits on decorations, animals, buildings, and even bigger plots of land. So users are rewarded for their work. Of course, people can sidestep the harvesting process entirely by spending real money to purchase in-game items. This is the major source of revenue for Zynga, the company that produces Farmville. Zynga is currently on pace to make over three hundred million dollars in revenue this year, largely off of in-game micro-transactions.[10] Clearly, even people who play Farmville want to avoid playing Farmville.

Read the rest for a great look at "social gaming" and what it really means for those who play.

Do You Play Farmville?

I'd love to hear why you do (or don't) play Farmville. Drop a comment and let me know what you think.

(Via Daring Fireball. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Sabrina Dent, used under Creative Commons license.)

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