Farmville: Fetch Me My Manure Boots

The surging popularity of the virtual farming game 'FarmVille' seems to imply dissatisfaction with almost every aspect of modern life -- except maybe virtual reality.

“Had enough of city life?”

It was a provocative, subtly loaded question staring out at me from my computer screen: a siren song, really. At its core, it was asking nothing less than have you had enough of stress, of fruitless labor, of cubicles, of unfriendliness, of clogged roadways, of capricious and alienating technology? Have you had enough, really, of modern existence?

Absolutely! I thought, almost exclaiming out loud. So, what are you offering instead?

“Here at Farmville, we're growing crops, tending o our animals, and building out our farms. It’s a simple life, but there ain’t nothing like seeing your farm grow. If you need a break, you can always visit your neighbors to see their farms. Matter of fact, we bet you already have some friends in FarmVille… you never know who might drop by to visit your farm, or maybe even send you a cow. C’mon down to FarmVille, and start your own farm today.”

Wow, cue the bucolic whistling, and fetch me my manure boots! A simpler life awaits, complete with ‘ain’ts’. Sign me up!

What’s that you say? I don’t really need manure boots, because this whole thing is on Facebook? Oh.

That’s right -- the rustic utopia described above is actually a virtual underground generally accessed from within veal-pen cubicles in front of vision-degrading laptops, using vapid-eyed avatars, fake crops, and pretend “neighbors”, which are actually representations of other postmodern gamers sitting at their own lonely laptops. Although everything here is simulated, you can spend real money to purchase fake goods in this alternative world. In fact, you can use real money to buy fake money.

(Whistling abruptly stops).

The strange, yet fiercely popular phenomenon of which I speak is called Farmville, and is “a real-time farm simulation game developed by Zynga, available as an application on the social networking site Facebook.” This game is apparently now the most popular Facebook application, with a reported 63.7 million active users.

The game centers around a virtual system of commerce where, according to Wikipedia, “items can be purchased: seeds, trees, animals, buildings, decorations, vehicles and more land using 'coins', the generic money of Farmville which is earned by selling crops, or ‘cash’ which the player earns at a rate of one dollar per experience level.” Essentially, the game attempts to simulate of the life of a farmer, minus the actual work.

It was created by the same video game company responsible for Mafia Wars another fantasy of a ‘simpler life’ (assuming that extortion and murder are simpler than jobs like, say, management consulting or human resources; in some ways, probably, they are). As a deeply conflicted, yet sadly addicted Facebook user who visits the site to keep in touch with family and friends, I was already thoroughly annoyed by constant notifications of my friends’ “mob activity” when I started seeing evidence of this new pastime.

“A sad, lost cow has wandered onto {insert name of some Facebook friend I haven’t seen since grade school}’s farm,” the game application announces, accompanied by an illustration of the Eeyore-faced livestock; or “so-and-so found a lonely black sheep” (not sure why these farm animals are presented as so sad and lonely, having escaped the confines of the virtual farm which is ostensibly raising them for virtual slaughter). Apparently, for other players of the game, these lost animals can be claimed or traded and have some value. For me, a person who is trying to stay anchored to the real world, it appears to be further evidence that such a world no longer exists.

Although FarmVille cash is generally earned based on experience and/or commercial transactions, a user can also avail themselves of shortcuts, such as buying the coins or cash from Zynga. FarmVille players can also buy buildings, farm vehicles, or decorations (such as a nation’s flag).

A sense of “community” in the game is also encouraged through Facebook, and involves the adding of FarmVille “neighbors”, a practice which allows players to interact with one another and also allows players to expand their farming territory. Neighbors can also send various gifts to one another through Facebook.

The whole thing puzzles me; I can't help but notice that this escape to simpler times is being facilitated by an almost absurd level of sophistication. The idea of spending real money to get fake money to buy pretend animals and seeds, then sell them to make pretend money and earn the respect of your fake neighbors…well, I suppose it leads me to one question: Hey, don’t you already have a job?

Rather than waking up at sunrise and putting in an honest, physically exhausting day’s work, FarmVille farmers are filling the gaps of stultifying boredom in their often sedentary, devoid-of-natural-sunlight work days, then hurriedly minimizing their screens or otherwise concealing their activity when the boss walks by.

They are virtually hearkening back to a simpler life in order to relieve the stressful reality of their real lives. What was once the totality of a person’s livelihood (and, among a dying breed of real farmers, still is), has become a kitschy, somewhat cynical escape from the age of Facebook which, ironically, is the portal into that escape.

As diversions go, it strikes me as a sad one: spending one’s free time pretending to do backbreaking work. I’m not sure what this portends for modern culture in general, but I think it would be fascinating if the disparity between our frighteningly modern realities and our throwback gaming fantasies continued to grow, until finally we found ourselves floating in our spaceships, playing some Facebook game called "Homo Neanderthalensis" on computers implanted into our torsos.

Surely, the FarmVille phenomenon suggests a deep nostalgia for agrarian times, and it also points to a lack of satisfaction with our real-life livelihoods. It might be interesting to gather some data about the professional demographics of FarmVille players; how many of them have interesting, fulfilling careers? One thing I’m willing to bet is that very few real farmers are playing this.

But all is not rustic and homespun in the world of FarmVille; in fact, the game has been attacked by various tech bloggers and journalists for financial exploitation of its players. On the blog TechCrunch, blogger and founder Michael Arrington accused Zynga of “monetizing” FarmVille, adding, "These games try to get people to pay cash for in game currency so they can level up faster and have a better overall experience.” For those unable to unwilling to make payments with a credit card, there are opportunities to sign up for "offers" from advertisers to get more of the currency, or to pay through "pay by mobile" companies. Arrington said that these offers usually result in the players paying more for their currency than they would have paid up-front.

The use of these potentially misleading “offers” has lead to a class action lawsuit against both Zynga and Facebook by Sacramento-based law firm Kershaw, Cutter & Ratinoff (KCR) against Facebook developer Zynga, seeking more than $5 million in damages. The law firm has apparently acquired video footage in which the Zynga CEO admits to “"every horrible thing in the book... just to get revenues right away,” suggesting that the company was aware of the lack of validity of some of the offers.

Another controversy generated by the game deals with much less concrete matters, and is a little bit more – how do I put it? – stupid. The lack of the Indian flag among the purchasable farm “decorations” in FarmVille caused some residents of India to take offense, calling the oversight “an insult” to the country. Well, who could blame them? If I’m going to be suckered into spending my real money on a make-believe farm decoration, I definitely want to fly my country’s flag proudly over that transaction! Why should my country be excluded from purchasing really unnecessary, ridiculous pretend flags?

OK, maybe I'm going to need those manure boots, after all.

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