Not Playing FarmVille

It looks like a children’s diversion, this isometric, brightly coloured world of aubergines, tomatoes and hoes (exclusively in the agricultural-tool sense, sadly), with friendly lost pigs wandering up to the side of my land, and a user interface that harks back to that glorious 1980s dawn when ‘icons!’ were the amazing new way to control the most cutting-edge ZX Spectrum and C64 games. And yet FarmVille has an amazing 80 million players. Why do so many people play this clunky trash? It’s not because they are stupid. The secret is, rather, FarmVille’s extremely cunning integration with the website that, in polite daily conversation, I like to refer to by a word that rhymes with ‘Duckbook’. And it might cause us to wonder whether ‘social gaming’ can be, in the broader political sense, rather anti-social.
At least, that is the provocative thesis of a recent essay by AJ Patrick Liszkiewicz entitled Cultivated Play: FarmVille. Liszkiewicz can’t believe that people keep playing FarmVille because it’s fun (as anyone can quickly confirm who hasn’t already tried it: it’s not fun), or because of the meaningless ‘rewards’ on offer; rather, they carry on playing because the game cleverly “entangles users in a web of social obligations. When users log into Facebook, they are reminded that their neighbours have sent them gifts, posted bonuses on their walls, and helped with each others’ farms. In turn, they are obligated to return the courtesies”. It’s like a hideously complex extended family Christmas, every day. And this translates into huge revenues for the developers, because it becomes very tempting to pay real money in order to bypass much of the game’s most tedious labour.
Since so many people don’t want to disappoint their Auntie Esme, the game thus extracts real-money profits from people’s innate decency. This works, but it is pitiless and arguably cynical. Pixel-Lab’s David Hayward has called it a ‘fuck the users’ approach to game development. Meanwhile, Liszkiewicz concludes that FarmVille is one of a class of “sociopathic applications”, described as “applications that use people’s sociability to control those people, and to satisfy their owners’ needs”.
A similar, if less ethically demanding, critique is efficiently made by Ian Bogost’s wonderful parody/experiment, Cow Clicker. You click a cow, and then you have to wait six hours to click it again. Friends can click on your clicks. Clicks earn more clicks. You can get even more clicks by buying some in-game currency, called ‘mooney’, which also allows you to upgrade your cow to a steel or plaid cow, or even a ‘sheep cow’.
The gameplay content of Cow Clicker is somewhere on a curve asymptotically approaching zero; what it does not replicate from its satirical target is all the paraphernalia of rural idyll that FarmVille so ruthlessly employs to cosset its users in a fantasy of productive organic farming and tight-knit local community. When I first logged in, an advert shouted “Bees are here!”, which is perhaps just as well, since they are decreasing everywhere else. FarmVille is, in one way, a masterfully constructed digital utopia: a world fecund, prelapsarian and predictable, where nothing bad ever happens and effort is always rewarded. As one FarmVille defender wrote in response to Bogost: “[People] play so they can build a farm to their exact specifications – a barn over here, a chicken coop over there, a hay bale picture of Mario over there. They play these social games to escape their dreary work-a-day lives and spend some time constructing simple worlds from scratch, and to share those worlds with like-minded friends”.
The question remains whether this particular form of escapism and world building is essentially an infantile revenue-making trap in which users become involuntarily trussed, like flies in a spider’s web. That, after all, is what developers of these kinds of games happily describe as their win-state. In Tom Chatfield’s recent book about videogames – Fun, Inc – for example, the author uncritically reports a Duckbook game developer’s confession that his job is all about “figuring out what desirable behaviour is on the part of your players” and inducing it, as though users were simple, Pavlovian subjects to be manipulated. For Chatfield, moreover, it is apparently good news that such games are “the fastest growing area of global expertise in how to entertain, retain and connect 21st-century consumers”, even if there might remain a few videogamers, as well as other people, who don’t necessary want to be ‘retained’ or ‘connected’ in their capacity as mere ‘consumers’.
Enough of this. I close Duckbook and pick up my PSP: now I am on a rainswept beach at night, and a crazed sergeant is yelling at me: “If you just stand there like an idiot in front of the enemy, you may as well kill yourself now!” I may be playing on my own, but at least I’m enriching a man with authentic vision. ‘Social gamers’ of the world, unite: you have nothing to lose but your chains.