Factory Farmville: An Online Game's Industrialization

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To read Dave Thier's previous article about Farmville, published on TheAtlantic.com in November 2009, click here.

I trusted Farmville. A bucolic, summer idyll all year long on Facebook—it seemed so real I could almost tweet it. But it was a lie.

For those that don't know, Farmville is game company Zynga's Facebook phenomenon that in June 2009 gave rise to a new era in social gaming as millions of people around the world signed in daily to tend virtual crops and spend real money on fake animals, trees, duck ponds, and the like.

Farmville is a savage metaphor for the
death of the small family farm to the grinding wheels of mechanized capitalism. Who knew?

As it turns out, it's also a savage metaphor for the death of the small family farm to the grinding wheels of mechanized capitalism. Who knew?

In the beginning it was all so simple. There was a pleasing, jazzy tune, and my little character walked around planting tomatoes with a self-satisfied little smile. Just a few clicks and I had planted a field of eggplants—it seemed like all that mattered in the world was saving up enough money to buy a house, maybe a couple of banana trees and an elephant.

To supplement my income, I got a couple of cows, some chickens, and some pigs that somehow made money without dying. Life was good.

But I wanted more. There was always more in the market, it looked so nice. But to get that villa, I was going to need to do some serious clicking—clicks to plant, clicks to harvest, clicks to plow. Always clicking.

But why waste your time clicking? Staying up late nights, clicking until your finger is sore, then clicking some more. The game offered something to help, a tractor, and it seemed like a good idea—it just made sense. How could you refuse that bright, shiny machine, with its four-click plowing action? Only 30,000 coins...

Soon, I had a problem. Sure, plowing was easy, but what about planting, harvesting? I'd expanded my cropland but couldn't maintain it without whole minutes of laborious clicking. They had me. A harvester and a seeder later I was in 90,000 coins total.

Meanwhile, the crops grew suspect. Trees that grow Christmas ornaments and confetti smacked of genetic modification. And what kind of blackberries grow in five hours? I didn't care. Had to get those coins. I was starting to get afraid that the loan sharks from Zynga's other game Mafia Wars would come after me with tire irons.

They put a ski lodge and a 2-million-coin pheasant on the market. What a pheasant! Had to get more land, more land meant more clicks, more coins, more clicks, more clicks, more land. The machines that once seemed such a luxury became like chains as I waited for more fuel to arrive. Sixteen clicks and whaddya get. It never changes.

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Rusty Boxcars/flickr

Soon I was cramming my animals into confined animal feeding operations so tight that the cow heads popped comically and tragically out of the second floor. I bought a combine and a biplane. They told me it sprayed an "eco-friendly mix" on the crops to make it grow instantly. I just made sure to get my dog, Spot, off the fields before I sprayed. Puppy kibble isn't free.

Now the game wanted me to get into the value-added market with a winery— I just had to go around begging my neighbors for bushels of grapes. My little character still walked around with that same self-satisfied little smile. I didn't even know if I could trust him anymore.

It became too much. I let the fields go fallow and began playing another Zynga game, Cityville. I see those other farmers still on their land, planted hedgerow to hedgerow, scouring their coops in hopes of golden eggs and waiting for the fat cats at Zynga to bless them with some new piece of machinery so they can click their lives away just to scrounge together enough coins to eke a few more levels toward what I assume is the American Dream. Poor bastards.

There are fields in Cityville too, where it takes just a couple clicks to get all the crops you need to fill your fast food restaurants, diners, and restaurants. It seems so easy.

I looked at my farm again recently— it looks the same, so inviting and green, but I know that dream was a lie. The cows are still smiling in their little CAFOs, but they haven't been fed for months. I'm guessing they just died that way.

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Dave Thier

David Thier is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New Republic, AOLNews, Wired.com, IGN.com, and South Magazine.

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