My strawberries have withered. I planted them this morning, after acquiring the seeds for the bargain price of 10 coins and being assured of their profitability as a crop.
But I let the day get the best of me – I had work to do, lunch to eat, emails to read – and when I finally returned to check on my plot, the fruit had flourished, matured and died in the space of just a few short hours. This is not the real world, and these were not some mutant GM strawberries; in fact, they weren’t really strawberries at all. This is FarmVille, a Facebook game for which I’ve been tilling digital soil all week, planting crops made up of mere bytes and pixels.
Perhaps you’ve only heard of FarmVille from your cluttered Facebook news feed, informing you that so-and-so has just planted their 15th field of soybeans, or built their first barn, or earned a brightly coloured ribbon in recognition of their virtual agricultural achievements. Perhaps you’ve joined one of the Facebook groups that have been created in protest at the game’s pervasiveness. But your protests would be in vain: FarmVille, the world’s biggest social game, has almost 80 million players – that’s around 20 per cent of all Facebook users; more people than use Twitter or, indeed, live in the UK. Some 30 million of them tend their crops daily. When the site allowed its gamers to exchange virtual Valentine gifts online, 220m were sent and accepted within 18 hours; to get that into perspective, it’s worth noting that Hallmark sells approximately 200m e-cards over the entire Valentine season.
The object of FarmVille is to build and maintain your own virtual farm – pay virtual coins for seeds, plant virtual crops and earn virtual profits. As the game goes on, players can gross enough to buy tractors and livestock, construct outbuildings and expand their plot well beyond the borders of their browser window. The key to its success is social: if a player persuades their Facebook acquaintances to become their FarmVille «neighbours», they can be rewarded for fertilising their friends’ fields or feeding their hogs.
Once, online gaming was the preserve of youngish men in darkened bedrooms, studying strategy guides for World of Warcraft and Halo. Now, thanks to FarmVille and other games like it, that demographic has shifted dramatically towards the mainstream, taking in office workers and stay-at-home mums, children and their grandparents. A recent survey concluded that today’s average social gamer is a 43-year-old woman.
Crucially for its players, it is free to join FarmVille and you can enjoy a long and fruitful relationship with the game without ever spending a (real) penny.
Crucially for its creators, there’s a second option: you can use your real-world credit card to buy virtual goods and stay ahead of your friends in the FarmVille rankings. Most of these digital products are reasonably priced, but among the Valentine gifts on offer was a limited edition, $50 «diamond ring», which protects its recipient’s crops from withering in perpetuity. My strawberries are still dead; romance, it would appear, is not.