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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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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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