Don’t fear the Farmville

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Somewhere deep in the subterranean depths of the Farmville stronghold, a dark and forbidden ritual is taking place at this very moment. The game’s creators, clad in jet black robes, stand in a circle in the server room, chanting gutturally in unison. The focus of their eldritch magicks is an obelisk of pure obsidian in the center of the room, pulsating with a menacing aura of madness and depravity.

With each seed planted, a small portion of the player’s soul energy is siphoned off through the internet to the servers, and then channeled by the chanting into the obelisk. With millions of unwitting participants giving their precious life essence, the chanters share knowing glances; it won’t be long before their task is complete.

Soon, the ancient artifact will reach critical mass, releasing its charge into the aether to tear an ever-widening hole in the very fabric of space and time. On the other side, the Old Ones await to reclaim their bloody dominion over this reality.

This is not speculation or a wild flight of fancy. This is fact. Or at least, it would be to me if the opinions of the “hardcore” gaming internet at large regarding social network games were the only reasoning I was exposed to. I haven’t seen this much backlash against an isometric click-fest since Blizzard unveiled Diablo 3‘s kinder, gentler art style.

Too bad that 95% of what they complain about regarding Farmville is unfounded in reality. There is no threat. 

It’s not just that people dislike the game; I can completely understand why most gaming enthusiasts wouldn’t touch it. On top of that, however, there is an irrational fear that the success of Farmville, Mafia Wars, etc., somehow translates into a negative impact on console titles or game development as a whole.

Maybe it’s the scale of the game’s popularity that scares people. With over 80 million unique players, Farmville already touches over a full percent of the human population on Earth. The closest sized player base for a game, over 11 million (as of 2008) for WoW, is also a target of gamer derision; both WoW itself and those who play it are often lampooned or looked down upon by others. I guess some folks are just intimidated by size.

When it comes down to concrete rationale for the Facebook gaming hatred, most everything I hear is lacking in the logic category. I find the reversal of fortune to be wholly amusing, that the dearth of reason would come from those attacking social networking games. I had grown quite comfortable with it being the Facebook fanatics that rubbed me the wrong way.

Myth: Farmville hurts mainstream gaming sales.

After pointing out the obvious, that outside of “get-ahead” micro-transactions (which are optional) there is no cost to play the game, there are still those who insist that Farmville somehow damages console/PC game sales.

“Aha!”, they exclaim. “But if someone is spending hours and hours playing Farmville for free, that means they aren’t playing other games, which means they aren’t buying other games.”

From the friends and family I’ve spoken with who actually play the game, cost is not the issue. They don’t play Farmville because they’re looking to save a buck, they play it because it is accessible and convenient. It’s extremely easy to learn to play, and it’s enmeshed with an internet tool they’re already using on a day to day basis. No muss, no fuss.

In short, the average person playing Farmville for hours on end wasn’t going to hunt down a used copy of The Red Star, invest in FFXIII, or even look for Viva Pinata if the free option didn’t exist. That’s simply not the experience they’re looking for. There are no sales lost in this scenario.

Myth: Farmville will cause mainstream developers to change tracks.

Proving the adage that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, another argument that I hear asserts that developers and publishers will somehow be swayed from their current investment in AAA or indie games by Farmville‘s success.

Yes, companies are greedy, and will often glom on to whatever ideas are making the most money at the time. However, companies are also lazy and cheap, which means that if they’re already making money doing what they’re doing there is no reason for them to spend time, resources, and people power to move in such a radically different direction.

The skillsets employed in all facets of game development (art, programming, design, implementation, marketing) in mainstream games are radically different from those used to create browser-based games which succeed on a social networking platform. Creative types aren’t going to drop all the languages and techniques that they built their careers on to go down this path when they’re doing fine as is.

Games like Farmville are a parallel market to the titles most of us game-lovers cling to. There’s no direct competition for game sales, human capital and talent, or even demographics.

As long as people continue to buy console/PC games (the numbers support the assertion that they will), this will be a complete non-issue. Bioware isn’t going to divert resources from Mass Effect 3 in order to create the next great Facebook app, although I’m rather curious to know what Bejeweled would play like with dialogue trees and broad moral choices.

Myth: Farmville is the first step in the creation of a futuristic dystopia.

At this year’s GDC, Chris Hecker’s talk regarding achievements and subsequent commentaries posited that trends spurred by the success of games like Farmville have the potential to lead us to a future where our actions are influenced primarily by how we are artificially incentivized. Much homage was paid in this talk to Jesse Schell’s soothsaying at DICE, hence the social networking connection.

The problem was well-stated when he mentioned that a reliance on external motivation or rewards for accomplishing a task has been proven to be less effective than allowing people to draw from their own intrinsic (internal) motivation. A world full of achievements and digital social status symbols would theoretically create a reliance on an inherently inferior form of motivation.

What concerns me here is not the diagnosis of the illness (which is fairly sound), but rather the cure. Removing achievements or working to discredit games like Farmville is a solution akin to banning violent games because some people mentioned GTA after killing someone. The real problem is that those individuals are mentally imbalanced or poorly raised.

Artificial external incentives like frequent flier miles, VIP memberships, and the like have existed for decades, and we haven’t surrendered to Huxley’s premonitions yet. Most of us already subjugate our will to a greater or lesser degree every day to procure extrinsic rewards. It’s called a job. Personally, I’d be much more supportive of a movement to ban jobs entirely.

Killing Farmville doesn’t fix the problem, and the responsibility for ensuring that the people who play games are free thinkers doesn’t lie with the game makers. The more effective and life-affirming intrinsic motivation that drives real success and happiness comes from two things: a strong sense of self and the ability to think critically. These qualities won’t be instilled in gamers simply by removing the extrinsic reward system.

Fostering a future that nurtures and harnesses the intrinsic form of motivation is in the hands of the education system, and more importantly, parents. They are the only institutions capable of preventing the Brave New World that Schell is concerned with. Games really aren’t part of that equation.

Truth: Farmville is actually good for hardcore gaming.

A few months back, my sister-in-law came to stay with us for a few days. Much of the time that we were hanging out, she was on Facebook in general, or playing Farmville while we chatted. I would normally never consider doing it in an environment with my in-laws, as they just don’t get into that stuff as a rule, but in this case I felt comfortable enough to fire up Bioshock 2 while she was playing.

As she played her game and watched my screen out of the corner of her eye, she found herself pleasantly surprised that the shooter genre had more to offer than just explosions and blood. She was fascinated by the art style, dialogue, and story. We discussed the merits of good console games and of Farmville.

It’s not that she was going to go home and buy a console and start playing mainstream games any more than I was going to start planting crops online. It’s rather that there was just enough overlap there for us to find some common ground. Repeat that scenario 80 million times and you have a world much more open to the benefits of our favorite pastime.

Hell, if even 1% of the people who play Farmville enjoy the simple resource management and planning elements enough to try a more complex RTS or a Civilization-style game, you’d have 800,000 potential core gamers to add to our ranks.

I, for one, welcome our new agricultural overlords.

About The Author
Sean Carey
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