Though FarmVille bears almost no relation to real farming and its concerns, Pincus (owner of Zynga) attributes FarmVille’s fanbase to an urban fantasy of owning one’s own smallholding. «I’ve lived in a little row house in the middle of San Francisco for 14 years,» he says, «but I dream of having my own organic farm with lots of space, and animals running around. I think that might be the ultimate fantasy for anyone who’s cooped up in an office all day. It’s also universally acceptable: you can show somebody a field and, whether they live in China or Manhattan, and whether it’s your grand- mother or your niece, they’ll all know what they’re supposed to do with it.»
Farms are a compelling daydream, agrees Tom Chatfield, the author of Fun Inc: Why Games Are The 21st Century’s Most Serious Business: «Psychologically, people like greenery; they like having grass, water and sky on their computer screens. But FarmVille is also very good at demanding your time, forcing you to tend your crops. It’s like a virtual pet, a Tamagotchi; you have to nurture it and look after it every day.»
The power of online social games first became apparent in 2007, with the spectacular rise and fall of Scrabulous, a wildly popular Facebook game that imitated Scrabble to such a degree that Hasbro had it shut down; «With Scrabulous,» explains Chatfield, «people realised that a social platform like Facebook gives people ways to show off to, or compete with, their friends. It’s so much more engaging to do something with people you know than to do it with strangers. You can cheat if you’re playing online with strangers, but playing with friends is an incentive to be fair, and that brings the emotional rewards of competition. FarmVille is in the tradition of family board games, as are many of the most successful social games. These are not high-production, high-budget, high involvement games like World of Warcraft or Halo. They’re low-risk, low-barrier games. Lots of people are playing FarmVille who never played a proper videogame before, but now might.» «Social» videogames have already found a place in the family home with the success of the Nintendo Wii console and family-friendly music games like Guitar Hero. But online social gaming allows people to enjoy that traditional gaming experience with friends anywhere in the world. Significantly, Scrabulous did not require its players to be online at the same time; like FarmVille, they could check their game’s progress at intervals.» This, says Chatfield, «was a way to get people playing one another across time as well as space.»
Cassandra Innes, an MBA graduate from London, is 49 and a FarmVille addict. «Normal business principles apply to FarmVille,» she insists. «It’s a strategic process. But you have to decide whether you just want to get rich quick, or whether having fun is part of the process. It’s not enjoyable if it’s just about grabbing as many coins as possible.» No strawberries are permitted to wither in the Innes household: when her partner accidentally planted a field full of them in the evening, Cassandra set her alarm for 3am so that she could wake to harvest them as they ripened. «FarmVille reminds me of the toy farm I had as a child,» she says, «We’d make our own buildings out of cardboard and spend our money on the animals. My 19-year-old daughter, who’s my neighbour on FarmVille, says she’s grown up with The Sims and other computer games, and she sees FarmVille as a free version of that.» Cassandra, meanwhile, is worried for the welfare of FarmVille’s animals. «Some of my neighbours’ farms are awful,» she says. «Their whole plot is given over to crops, and their cows and horses are all squashed into a corner with no room to move. The game should be structured so that it’s more animal-friendly and you get punished for having too many battery chickens.» Cassandra Innes has even made new friends via FarmVille, after visiting fan sites in search of neighbours. «I introduced one of them to my sister because they had similar interests,» she admits. «I find myself talking to my family more about our nutty farms than about normal things. We have long phone calls about it. The farm is like a comfort zone; it’s easier to communicate about that than about who’s going where for Christmas.»
Maya Forrester, a 39-year-old human resources executive with 57 FarmVille neighbours, is less romantic about her reasons for loving the game. «It’s the competition that got me hooked,» she says. «I don’t have a farm fantasy, but FarmVille fulfils my inner need to beat my Facebook frenemies.» Maya disapproves of some of her neighbours’ approach to agriculture; particularly the factory-style farmers who sacrifice their integrity in favour of easy profits.
Pincus would no doubt be overjoyed by the sincerity of his players’ views on the game. «To be that impactful on, and that representative of, the culture totally excites me and my team,» he says. «I love the idea that we can put out a game that’s as popular as Seinfeld.»