Saturday, April 24, 2010


Video gaming is massively popular and the top games have a level of realism and depth of experience that is at times breathtaking. So what's the world's biggest computer game then? World of Warcraft? FIFA 2010? Nope, it's Farmville, the very low-tech game on Facebook that is played by an estimated 73 million people. I must admit I've never been attracted by the game so I can't make any direct judgements but what is interesting is that such a game can be so popular.

I've just read an article on Farmville by A. J. Patrick Liszkiewicz called Cultivated play: Farmville. Seemingly the main attraction of the game is the simple fact that everyone else is playing it. It's a bit like the Tupperware concept: it's very hard not to buy when your best friend or neighbour is the salesperson. You get invited into Farmville and you're hooked. There's not a lot of skill involved, nothing much happens and you don't get a lot out of it. It's just there and demands attention. There's a lot of debate about whether or not people will be willing to pay for news content from the major newspapers on the net but people have no trouble paying real money to improve their virtual farms.

"The secret to Farmville’s popularity is neither gameplay nor aesthetics. Farmville is popular because in entangles users in a web of social obligations. When users log into Facebook, they are reminded that their neighbors have sent them gifts, posted bonuses on their walls, and helped with each others’ farms. In turn, they are obligated to return the courtesies. 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. We play Farmville, then, because we are trying to be good to one another. We play Farmville because we are polite, cultivated people."

It's very similar to the Tamagotchi phenomenon of 10 years ago where you had to care for an electronic pet who got angry or depressed if it didn't get attention regularly. If you didn't keep it fed and cared for it died. Similarly your farm demands regular work and will quickly suffer if you are not a good farmer. We have enough duties and bad conscience in the real world without playing games that add to that. But against all logic such games flourish.

It may not be exciting, immersive, engaging or impressive but Farmville does something that may more impressive games fail to do. It makes money, and lots of it. Evidently Zynga the company behind Farmville and several other similar social games is tipped to earn $300 million this year, mostly on in-game micro-payments. Underestimate trivia at your peril.

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