The Strange Appeal of Virtual Farming


Image by sabrina.dent/Flickr CC

Farmville, a Facebook farming simulation, put a survey to its 60 million plus users the other week: "What kind of farmer are you?" Some farmers strive after aesthetics, some after accolades, and some are just about the bottom line. It might seem to mirror reality. I first found the game after a friend of mine gave me a horse, I clicked "accept," and all of a sudden I had a small farm with some strawberries growing. I wondered, what kind of virtual farmer would I be?

Farmville, the most popular game on Facebook, is in many ways a descendant of the classic Harvest Moon series, a still-running franchise begun on the Super Nintendo. In 1996, Harvest Moon boldly said, "Not very much is going to happen in this game. And you're going to be okay with that." The game consisted mostly of simple, repetitive tasks and a lot of waiting. For some reason, gamers really wanted to do this.

Maxis, the developer behind Sim City and The Sims tried their hand at farming with the more realistic Sim Farm a few years earlier, in 1993. In Sim Farm, players managed a large industrial farm with crop dusters, pestilence, nitrogen-based fertilizers and heavy machinery. It was more realistic, but realism is rarely why people play videogames. Nobody plays Call of Duty for the chance to get shot in the leg and spend six months in an army hospital.

Recommended Reading

Farmville is anything but realistic. The game is a farmer's dream: click on a field and it's plowed, never worry about weather, grow full heads of cabbage in two days. The little cartoon version of myself strolls around the fields with blue overalls and a self-satisfied smirk. Like most sim games, the principle product is satisfaction: Farmville gives you the chance to accumulate things--fields, buildings, animals, decorations, coins--then look at them and feel pleased with yourself.

When I began my farm, I put my training in small-scale organic gardening to use. I planted diverse crops, mixed livestock with vegetables and tried to design a place my avatar could be proud to call his home. Some of my neighbors made more money with massive, industrial expanses planted hedgerow to hedgerow, but that seemed to me improper, even on Facebook.

That didn't last so long. I soon fell victim to the glittering lure of making enough farm coins to afford the elusive, million-coin villa. I found myself planting fields to fit my machinery, cramming my cows into crowded barns, and eschewing my diverse fields for a few high-value cash crops. Finally, in a gesture more symbolic than practical, I echoed Chekhov and chopped down the neatly planted cherry orchard in the back of my farm.

Farmville does in fact, provide a good farm simulation in some ways--materials are expensive, profits are often razor thin, and the only surefire way to get ahead is by pulling out your wallet. This is Farmville's secret: the easiest way for a player to get virtual currency is forking over real currency. It seems unlikely that rational people would be wiling to pay real money for a small picture of a baby turkey, but the numbers tell a different story. Zynga reports that about a third of their annual income comes from such transactions.

When you log into the game, Farmville shows you a random picture of one idyllic farm or another--a bountiful field of pineapples, flowers, and wheat next to a little cottage, maybe, or perhaps an autumn scene of maple syrup and bright red trees. The reality, however, is that in order to afford such decorations you must either pay US dollars or plant endless fields of cash crops. Maybe I'm thinking about this too much, but for a simplistic videogame, Farmville offers a curious model for juxtaposing pastoral fantasy with the industrial realities of modern farming. The parallel isn't perfect: I'm pretty sure an alien cow on a real farm would fetch way more than 120 coins.