The most common description that I’ve heard for Farmville is that it’s a pyramid scheme. Nels Anderson, a designer at Hothead games, commented on Twitter that it was the most cynical game design that he had ever seen (“Ending Up Back in the Arcade”, Above 49, 6 October 2009). It is also one of the most played games on Facebook with more accounts than World of Warcraft or even Twitter (“Zynga Facebook App Data”, AppData.com). At GDC this year, Farmville was one of the most debated topics, both hailed as the future of video games and as the end of the industry as we know it. What is the appeal of such a successful but criticized game for players and developers?
It would be more accurate to call Farmville a pyramid game, instead of a scheme, because there is no real deception occurring between user and developer. You don’t have to give them money, click on the ads, or hassle your friends if you want to play. Instead, those options exist if you want to speed up the game’s leveling process. To most gamers, the design will remind them of a very simple RPG. To plant crops, you pay money and then gain experience. After a set amount of time goes by, you can harvest the crops for more money than you paid to plant them.
If you wait too long, the crops will begin to rot one grid at a time, so you have to make sure to always check up on the game. Gaining experience lets you level up and plant different crops that are more profitable. There are two kinds of money: the abundant gold coins that you get for harvesting crops and the more tricky to accrue Farmville Money, which you only get randomly or by paying for it with a credit card. Gold coins pay for crops and basic farming, Farmville money buys rare decorations or luxury equipment like tractor fuel. That’s the basic design of the game.
Where Farmville differs from other games of this type is the way that goods and values shift by incorporating the game into Facebook’s social network. In order to upgrade the size of your farm, which allows you to plant more crops, you can either “neighbor” a certain number of people or pay real money. Neighboring someone in Farmville is a bit like friending them on Facebook in that you’re probably not going to expose yourself to a total stranger, so this usually means recruiting people from your social circle to play.
Neighbors are also handy to have because you can go visit their farm to gain experience by weeding or fertilizing their crops. This tends to help the person doing the fertilizing more than it helps the one receiving the service, so such motivation is automatic. The ultimate effect is that Farmville creates a strong incentive for players to recruit their friends, and perhaps more importantly, to actively visit each other’s farms and look around. Players cannot negatively impact each other in anyway. They can only help.
With everyone constantly visiting one another’s virtual farms, an incentive to decorate your own farm is also created. Crops and basic goods are usually bought with gold coins but decorating your farm can be very expensive in terms of both spending in game coins and real money. As various holidays or sporting events come up, players will decorate their farms to show off to the people visiting their farms. During every loading screen, Farmville will show the developer’s picks for the most glamorous farm that week.
This creates a purely social aspect of the game that is not enforced by the design. During my own experience with the game, several players criticized my farm’s appearance without me even asking. Things like how I only grew one type of crop or not putting up Christmas decorations seemed to always come up during Farmville discussions. Like many massively multiplayer online games (MMOs), the real experience of the game is not leveling up in isolation, but instead, it is about working in groups. The competitive element is almost entirely imposed by the perception of your own friends and virtual neighbors.
Farmville is able to make itself an intrinsic part of social networking because it supplements one of the biggest weaknesses in Facebook’s system. Your connection to others always ends up decaying. If you aren’t seeing someone on a daily basis and working with them, you slowly have less to talk about and thus not much to discuss unless you have a deeper bond.
A study on Facebook conducted at Indiana University argues that social networks are often used by people experiencing a major life change such as college students. Thus, Facebook allows college students to stay in touch with their high school friends and maintain social capital. It’s also a handy way to solidify temporary “acquaintanceships” by establishing a connection between new friends beyond just seeing them in class.
What’s interesting about the study is that the website is only good for maintaining weak social ties, it doesn’t facilitate deeper relationships. The study points out that: “It can lower barriers to participation and therefore may encourage the formation of weak ties but not necessarily create the close kinds of relationships that are associated with bonding social capital . . . it may help individuals to maintain pre-existing close relationships, just as it can be used as a low-maintenance way to keep tabs on distant acquaintances” (Nicole B. Ellison, Charles Steinfeld, and Cliff Lampe, “The Benefits of Facebook ‘Friends’: Social Capital and College Students’ Use of Online Social Network Sites”, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 12.4, July 2007).
Think about it this way: how often do you have an actual, legitimate reason to talk to that one person that you used to be friends with years ago? Maybe when it’s their birthday? The rare occasion that they announce something important on their newsfeed? Or maybe some old photos get posted that spark a conversation? By contrast, Farmville gives you something to talk about everyday no matter where your friends live.
This isn’t just about college kids, though. Most of the players that I discussed the game with picked it up based on the invitation of co-workers in order to promote social capital with them. Jorge Albor wrote a great post discussing his mother’s fascination with the game. He writes, “Office-Game relationships emphasize relative gains, with each participant was eager to match, if not surpass, the accrued wealth of their friends. In game achievements and announcements create virtual pride and jealousy.
In fact, the entire system looks very similar to existing office culture. In an environment that combines teamwork with the chance of individual promotion, office workers become adept at measuring the relative success and failures of their co-workers” (“Farmpocalypse Now”, Experience Points, 7 Sept 2009) .
My own playthrough was not so much competitive as it was just something to chat about. Of the sixteen people that I could find to neighbor with and who played consistently, only two were men. The rest were female classmates, long distance friends, and women that I’d met while going out on weekends. The nice thing about Farmville is that it gives you something to do that isn’t a tedious or creepy, “What are you doing?”, internet chat session. You can just go fertilize their crops, send them gifts, or ask them for tips on the game. The game will let them know that you did it and suggest that they go visit your farm.
The gift system makes it possible that you’re always giving out resources, and it makes for an ice breaker as you negotiate what items to exchange. What was refreshing about all these conversations is that they occurred out in the real world. Chatting in game isn’t really effective, so instead, it came up in bars, over the phone, and in other social settings.