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The 'FarmVille' Ruse: How Zynga's Creation Ruins Gaming and Steals Your Time

FarmVille is a very smart game. It was developed by Zynga, the company founded by serial entrepreneur Mark Pincus, which is on track to pull in $500-million dollars in revenue this year. As of July, FarmVille was hosting the digital homesteads of 61 million users.

But you probably know all that already. What we're going to examine is why Zynga and FarmVille got that large, why they will continue to grow, and how they have changed the face of gaming.

We've blasted FarmVille in our past posts, but we'll let you in on a shameful secret: none of us had actually ever played the game, and as journalists, we felt that it was unfair to cast judgment so blindly. So we decided to spend two weeks trying to figure out how the game worked and what makes it so attractive. And we've come to the conclusion that, like your day job, it's difficult to simply walk away from your farm for good -- and that is a terrible thing.

Farming the Easy Way

Seasoned Internet farmers may want to skip past this bit, but here's some backstory for those of you oblivious to the downward spiral that is FarmVille.

Game setup is designed to be quick and easy. Despite occasional hiccups with the interface (as the game is technically still in beta, even with its massive user base and revenue), you simply follow the prompts to start farming. You pick the look and sex of your 'Precious Moments'-esque hayseed, and then are presented with your buying options in the Marketplace. (Your writer feels compelled to note that there are few options open to redheads for verisimilitude, unless you were born "maroon.") The goal of the game is actually unclear; but, like in real life, the sole motivator is more money and more growth, since you can't ever "win" FarmVille, or, for that matter, "lose." The game donates both coins and Farm Cash (more on those later) to get you going. Simply buy some seeds for the crop you wish, and, after tilling the soil, sow your virtual oats.

After the amount of time specified in the Marketplace for a given crop, you can return to harvest, and gain back some of the coins you've spent. Planting seeds and tilling your soil will also earn you experience points, which will allow you to unlock new aspects of the game (more varieties of seeds, animals and other goodies) as you progress.

One of the key features of FarmVille, though, is how it encroaches on real life; if your crops mature and you don't return to the game in time to harvest, they will wilt. Thus, huge communities of FarmVille players have concocted strategy guides to let you know which crops have the best returns, which ones you should grow overnight, and which ones you can plant over and over throughout the day. There are even "news" sites featuring articles like "Artichokes: The Choice for a Long Weekend Getaway," since -- as far as we got in the game, at least -- you can't ever get longer than a four-day respite from your farm.

Most video games that remember your progress don't change while you're gone. With the exception of other social games like MMOs -- which update as other users play -- the video game world pauses when you're not playing. But FarmVille chugs along and essentially demands that you return on a regular schedule.

Cash Cows

So, you get sucked into playing, just as we did, but there's a slight boredom threshold that must be crossed before the game becomes rewarding. As you continue to click/click/click and till/plant/harvest, your available coins and Farm Cash increase along with experience points.

You collect FarmVille coins when you harvest plants or animal products, but you only get Farm Cash when you reach a higher experience level. Both can be purchased with real money directly through the game. It is more than tempting to throw away $5 on Farm Cash, especially since you get so little of it through the game alone, and since some of the more covet-worthy items can only be purchased with Farm Cash.

There it is: Zynga's dirty technique for making its $500 million. It ropes players into the game with the promise that absolutely anyone can play. It will even float you coins the first time you run out, not unlike the casino that gives a high-roller luxury accommodations in anticipation of making back the house's stake. It dangles the prospect of a bigger, prettier, better farm; as the game loads, you're faced with idyllic images of well-off farms, not unlike the glossy ads for high-end residences. But it's nearly impossible to get some of those goods without ponying up a buck or two here and there. When Zynga's got a user base of 61 million digital farmers, it's easy enough to make ends meet, to say the least.

But paid-for coins and cash could be considered the long con compared to some of the more unscrupulous methods of revenue generation to which FarmVille and its sister games have been connected. Mark Pincus, Zynga's founder, has admitted, "I did every horrible thing in the book... just to get revenues right away. I mean, we gave our users poker chips if they downloaded this zwinky toolbar which was like -- I don't know -- I downloaded it once and couldn't get rid of it. We did anything possible just to just get revenues so that we could grow... " That included selling ad space to sleazy marketers that hooked users with disguised "online IQ tests" and the promise of free trial offers. Zynga and Facebook were hit with a class-action lawsuit back in November, which accused the game developer of pulling in nearly a third of its cash from the "special offers" advertised through its games.

The Belted Cow Is the Princess Diana Beanie Baby

When we said that your farmer-avatar reminded us of a 'Precious Moments' figurine, the comparison was more than just aesthetic; FarmVille goes beyond simple time-suck and into the realm of collectible culture. Once you've figured out how to maintain your farm, you realize that you've got to spend your hard-earned money somehow. It's not like your digital spawn will need it for college tuition, so FarmVille conveniently lets you know which items you need in order to complete a collection. Whether buttons, precious stones or just every variety of arbor, the game encourages exhaustive consumption for its own sake. When you acquire a new item, you are advised to let your friends know through your Facebook Wall, which only encourages one-upmanship.
But the Marketplace is successful because it reflects our own real-life market; goods are given sometimes exorbitant prices simply because they are luxury items, which gives them a higher perceived value. (Why, for example, does the Belted Cow fetch an asking price of a million coins?) As you start to collect, you also begin to display your collection. Like the Beanie Babies of yore, each new item collected is eventually supplanted by a whole new crop of "limited edition" items, such as the current New England collection of Delicate Cottages to go along with whatever the hell else has been thrown out there.

By releasing a never-ending stream of collections, FarmVille solidifies its existence in perpetuity. It's revolutionary in gaming, because few, if any, other games have been so consistently updated by their developers -- although other social games and MMOs have quickly followed suit. When you can't run out of things to purchase, and where there's no such thing as a recession, you just keep on buying.

Your Farm Is Only as Pretty as the Envy It Inspires

To further motivate this collecting desire, FarmVille users are routinely asked to make neighbors of their Facebook friends -- and some aspects of the game, like the construction of nurseries and apiaries, are nearly impossible to unlock without compatriots' help. In our experiment, we set up two different FarmVille accounts, through two different Facebook accounts, just to see how users could connect with one another. It quickly became an unspoken competition between our fake farms; when one of us bought a barn, the other was compelled to buy one, too.

You could argue that FarmVille doesn't explicitly encourage this never-ending envy, but each new "achievement" (which is cheapened by the fact that there are hundreds and hundreds of "achievements" possible in the game) activates a prompt asking if you would like to share the news with your friends. It takes just as long to say "yes" as it does "no," and only the most selfless farmer would choose not to boast of his or her latest conquest in successfully purchasing 100 bales of hay.

But the prompts are a recent change. Many updates used to be automatic, but, as the New York Times notes, "six million Facebook users, who grew tired of constant updates about their friends' games, joined a group called 'I don't care about your farm, or your fish, or your park, or your mafia!!!'." Possibly as a result, Facebook began to restrict the updates, and -- unless you had any doubt about the power of those simple, annoying messages -- the FarmVille digital army dropped 26-percent from its peak of 83 million users.

FarmVille Is Work Masquerading as a Game

Back in January, A.J. Patrick Liszkiewicz, a media critic and adjunct professor at SUNY Buffalo, gave a talk, in which he quoted theorist Roger Caillois on the value of gaming, and related said theory to FarmVille. "While Caillois tells us that games offer a break from responsibility and routine," he asserted, "FarmVille is defined by responsibility and routine." In speaking of objects like the Harvester and Seeder, Liszkiewicz noted, "As you advance through FarmVille, you begin earning rewards that allow you to play FarmVille less. Harvesting machines let you click four squares at once, and barns and coops let you manage groups of animals simultaneously, saving you hundreds of tedious mouse-clicks. In other words, the more you play FarmVille the less you have to play FarmVille."

Ian Bogost, whose anti-FarmVille metagame Cow Clicker we recently mentioned, writes that social games "are games that you don't have to play." We disagree, as must Liszkiewicz, even if we see eye-to-eye on the role that social games play today. You must play FarmVille; if you don't, your crops will die. You are reminded that your crops are ready for harvest, and you read your FarmVille neighbors' Wall posts, announcing their successes in one aspect of the game or the other. You are sent gifts by neighbors, and obliged to send gifts back. (To that end, Liszkiewicz said, "As the French sociologist Marcel Mauss tells us, gifts are never free: they bind the giver and receiver in a loop of reciprocity. It is rude to refuse a gift, and ruder still to not return the kindness.") FarmVille, like Facebook, does not let its users go easily.
Unlike the classic SimCity, FarmVille does not allow its users to destroy their creations without still more work. With SimCity, you could blast your withering megalopolis with a firestorm or an alien invasion; FarmVille is set up so that you can only delete plots and sell off your assets, without ever really hitting bottom.

We found ourselves returning to our farm more and more each day. We were roped into the competition that drives the game -- to acquire more money and points than our neighbors, and to have a better-looking and more profitable homestead. And, for only two weeks spent playing, we feel like we didn't do such a bad job. Still, we realized that, as we logged on late at night or on the weekends ("Just for a minute!" we'd tell our foot-tapping significant others), Zynga had snared us in its web, too -- and we didn't like that one bit. So we did what people do when they've lost their minds and shirked the capitalist system: we sold off every single asset and put the money in hay bales -- and that's where it will stay. We're not about to say that we didn't have fun playing FarmVille, but we will say that it was a relief to finally let go.

Tags: A.J.PatrickLiszkiewicz, CowClicker, FarmVille, features, IanBogost, MarkPincus, top, VirtualCurrency, VirtualGifts, zynga