I came, I clicked and I gave up. At the risk of offending the legions of happy cow clickers, if FarmVille is the best social gaming has to offer, then the future is one too many clicks away. I wasn’t thoroughly disappointed by FarmVille, but all I could think playing it was this had to be some kind of joke. That was it? That was the game sixty million active users on facebook were updating their walls and spamming mine with their scores and achievements? It couldn’t be. Something was off, I had to get to the truth and unearth it from its virtual ground.
Released in june 2009 by the Bay Area social gaming company Zynga, FarmVille is a real-time farm simulation inspired ( if not cloned ) by Farm Town, another farm simulation, released earlier in 2009 by another social gaming company. With almost 80 million players, and 25 million of those checking their farms on a daily basis, FarmVille is not only the biggest social game around, it’s bigger than France, and is sure to make for a whole lot of angry folks at the upcoming Salon de l’Agriculture. Sacrilege!
The player starts this virtual sacrilege on an isometric map with a small farm, some coins in his/her pockets, some crops ready to harvest and a couple of fields to be saw with a selection of seeds ranging from soybeans to eggplants, strawberries and wheat. You get money for the crops harvested, you level up and get rewards for just about every other ten clicks you make, but more importantly the gameplay is constantly interrupted by pop ups prompting you to share every single piece of news, events, accomplishments and any gifts the game can think of. You can invite your friends to be your farming neighbors, you can buy virtual cash for real cash, use your virtual cash to sign to Netflix (for real), and even get your fields sponsored by McDonald. Are you lovin’ this?
Apparently, many of Facebook users do, as 50% of them play social games on the platform and only log in in order to play those games, which with 500 million users, is a pretty decent number of social gamers. But Facebook has not yet had its SimCity or Street Fighter 2 moment where a canonic video game sets the tone for the rest of the game developers, or has it? Let’s look into the innovative elements of FarmVille:
1. Social Obligation
For a so-called social game, FarmVille’s reliance on incessant, repetitive and mindless clicking as its main game mechanic is almost anti-social, but as AJ Patrick Liszkiewicz said in his essay, FarmVille:
“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.”
Coercion as a game mechanic, who ever thought of that?
2. Reward System
This one is a no brainer: the more you click, the more rewards you get, kinda like …
… well, you get the picture
Baudrillard had predicated it, the virtual world is no longer a mere representation or simulation of the real, but a reality in its own right. When the CEO of Kiva, one of the largest non profit organization helping the development of third world countries, says his biggest competition for people’s attention and donations is Zynga; when people not only spend more time and money, but actually care more about virtual farms than real ones, then it’s time to grab a red leather chair and take a seat next to Morpheus:
“Welcome to the desert of the real.”
Does FarmVille belong in the Video Game Canon?