Farmville and addiction

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I have a confession. For the last month or so I have been playing ngmoco’s GodFinger. It is an addictive iPad game that has you build a world and move up in levels. Other than that it is boring as all hell with no cognitive processes required. But it did have a social element. A good friend of mine was also playing it and you could exchange gifts and see how you were going. The game pretty much required it. But we kept asking ourselves: “why are we playing this? It is so stupid.”

I’m happy to report that I am now off (on?) the wagon. I reached the maximum level in GodFinger (level 50) and then committed to stop by killing and destroying everything I built. The picture to the side shows the Armageddon. My friend continues on in the hope that ngmoco will add more levels.

GodFinger is of course, small potatoes. The big game is Farmville. Farmville has 26 million daily users — more than any other game. I joke that the daily harvested crop take on Farmville exceeds the daily agricultural output on the United States. It is the biggest shift back to the agrarian society ever. The new iPhone version makes harvesting even easier so I suspect the measured ‘productivity’ of the world is about to increase significantly.

Farmville is on its level an insanely pointless game. Here is a description.

Users advance through the game by harvesting crops at scheduled intervals; if you plant a field of pumpkins at noon, for example, you must return to harvest at eight o’clock that evening or risk losing the crop. Each pumpkin costs thirty coins and occupies one square of your farm, so if you own a fourteen by fourteen farm a field of pumpkins costs nearly six thousand coins to plant. Planting requires the user to click on each square three times: once to harvest the previous crop, once to re-plow the square of land, and once to plant the new seeds. This means that a fourteen by fourteen plot of land—which is relatively small for Farmville—takes almost six hundred mouse-clicks to farm, and obligates you to return in a few hours to do it again.

Indeed, it is so pointless and tedious that that is the business model. Its owner Zynga, earns $300m per year from people paying it to do these activities so they don’t have to actually play the game!

Farmville is addictive. But it is not the game itself that is so (unlike Tetris in another day) as evidenced by the payments to Zynga. The problem is that it is perhaps the first game to tie into social networks and, indeed, require them. You can advance much faster if as a user of Farmville you turn into a dealer. As this insightful post points out, it tugs every social heart-string. There is gifting, scoreboards and even collective efforts to raise a barn! If you opt out, you are letting the team down.

I’ve watched Farmville take over a household. I’ve watched as children are co-opted into routine harvesting. I’ve watched as my own Facebook account was hijacked and a farm established to feed the collective. And I’ve then got an insight into how many people I know who are spending time on this. By the way, a retired politician who shall remain nameless here (you know who you are!) has by far the biggest farm! And they all know it’s wrong. And they all know it is addicting. The problem is that individual cold turkey doesn’t work. It has to be a collective effort — something far harder to achieve than mere substance abuse.

GodFinger allowed destructive forces to commit yourself to destroying what you had built and getting out and becoming of no value to others. Farmville, I am pretty sure, has no such thing. But at some point, a Farmville Judgment Day has to come.

[Update: CollegeHumor makes my point.]

2 Responses to "Farmville and addiction"
  1. Joshua,
    I’ve had an on-again, off-again thing with Farmville. I don’t really see the big deal about the time people are spending on this, except for those for whom it has reached the point of genuine addiction and is impacting peoples ‘normal’ lives.
    That a bunch of people choose to spend their leisure time engaged in virtual farming, rather than say watching television or some other non-productive recreational pursuit, is really neither here nor there I would think.
    As for Farmville judgement day … eventually large numbers of people will tire of the game (as people do with most games and as many did with Second Life) and the number of active users will dwindle. Farms will lie idle with withered cropped and unplowed lands, their animals roaming free and unattended. More proactive users may uninstall Farmville (from facebook or their iphone). But so far, Zynga is doing a good job of adding innovations that keep keen players in the game.
    It’s not for everyone, but the social side that you decry is, in some way, part of the fun since it’s a game I can play with my son even when not home together. (unlike the card and board games we play)

  2. It’s nice to know that at one point, and for a period of time after that, your actions weren’t completely rational Josh. 😉
    I quit farmville, when after 3 rounds of harvesting, I realised my ‘analogue’ plants were in need of watering.

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