"I know enough about it not to play" I said, voice dripping with contempt, when my boyfriend invited me to play FarmVille on Facebook. Then I started my dog, Mischa, off instead. I'd already set him up with a Facebook account because I am that childish, so it was a simple click away to start him off playing the game. And that way I could pretend it wasn't really me playing and I had not changed my mind about the idiotic farming game. Then my alter ego, Mischa, got hooked and invited me to play. And I got hooked. Because, you see, it is that addictive -- and that silly. For the uninitiated: FarmVille is an online computer game. It can be played via the social networking site Facebook or directly on their website www.farmville.com. It allows a certain interaction with those of your Facebook friends who also play it and is mostly harmless. But let me come back to that later. Because, you see, I have been wondering for a while what exactly it is that has me hooked. Allow me a little punctuated stream of consciousness here: I hate computer games. Short of a brief encounter with Tetris in the early 1990s I don't play them and I find them completely soul-destroyingly dull. That generally goes for the people who play them too. And one reason why I dislike them so much is that the vast majority of them are based around violence of some sort and are also extremely competitive, requiring regular and constant play-time if you are not going to be kicked out of the game. This is why Mafia Wars -- another game that can be played via Facebook -- is no hit with me. Even though it is cartoon-like in its violence, I simply don't like the notion of violence that lies behind both the word "mafia" and the word "war". And the graphics don't appeal to me in any way.
So this is where we come back to the harmless side to FarmVille. The graphics are twee to say the least, and there is not a thing about it that can be called violent. You can collect animals, build and arrange your farm with cottages, dairies, chicken coops, trees, fields of flowers and gnomes. You can get animals as weird and varied as clumsy reindeer and golden chickens that lay golden eggs and sometimes even surprises, and decorations ranging from elephant shaped topiaries to red, blue or green gazing balls.
But there is something you can't get. There is no abattoir. You can't get bacon. Your pigs yield truffles. If you want a steak, this is not the game for you. The oxen, calves and reindeer must all be brushed, the cute little calves with their big eyes never grow up, and the brown cows give chocolate milk -- the green ones give milktonium. It's a completely vegetarian game. There are also no dangerous animals and no weapons. ANd as far as I know, there is no market in virtual goods from click-sweat-shops as has been alleged for the more competitive games.
The interaction side of FarmVille is almost socialist in its reward system. You have neighbours, and you can visit their farms, fertilise their crops, feed their chickens and scare away foxes and crows for them. And for each thing you do you get coins and points in return. You can't sabotage anything on your neighbours' farms, you can't take anything away, you can only help. And you want to help because helping them helps you in return. Socialist communitarianism at its harmless best. (Did I just lose Farmville a group of right-wing American players...? Sorry.)
But it's not the politics of the game that has me personally hooked. It's how I'm reminded of my childhood, of Lego and the logic of the five-year-old that allows green alien cows that give you milktonium -- the sheer silliness of the whole thing. The style of playing: it is not fast and exciting like the war or fight-based games most kids seem to prefer, it's the way I played when I was little and built houses out of cardboard boxes, arranged and rearranged animals and fences, fields and buildings. The way I built my own little kingdom where I was the ruler (are all kids natural-born tyrants?). It's slow and meticulous. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=odBDAcOEKuI&feature=fvst)
A drawback is of course the time it consumes. I find myself at the end of a long working day once more in front of my computer at home. Just to catch up with all the clicking I have to do to harvest and collect and all that. Dog hair on the floor? If I leave it long enough it will count as a carpet. I resurface in the small hours of the morning realising that I'll soon have to get up again to go to work and do the real computer work that is actually my job. Maybe, like the original jazzmen who used their instruments from the military marching bands to create music that subverted and therefore civilised the discipline of the day time, farmville civilises my work-tool for me.
But it does not come for free. There is the temptation to buy Farm Cash which makes it possible for the eager player to buy special items not otherwise available, or reach higher levels faster. And here you have to pop your credit card details in and actually pay for virtual money. To pay for virtual stuff. I am already sceptical about paying for anything Facebook related with all the security warnings that are being broadcast ad nauseam.
But the real danger with anything hugely popular and Facebook related is something outlined by Elisabeth Oppenheimer. In the US, individuals were accessed via these applications on the social networking sites and petitioned into giving certain political factions their support. It was done via the games where the player was requested to respond to a survey in order to reach the next level or get some of the coveted virtual money. She writes:
"To advance past certain levels, you essentially need 'virtual currency' to buy better weapons, tools, whatever. You can buy virtual currency with real currency, or you can fill out various surveys and be rewarded with virtual currency. Get Health Reform Right had players taking surveys, which culminated in an email to the relevant representative: 'I am concerned a new government plan could cause me to lose the employer coverage I have today. More government bureaucracy will only create more problems, not solve the ones we have.'"
And she points out that "making it easy for already-concerned citizens to contact their reps is okay, but giving some external reward to people who may be totally uninterested is not". I couldn't agree more. There you are innocently subverting your tools of work, and before you know it you are supporting an anti-Health-care reform bill in a country that is not even yours.
Maybe all of this will accelerate the time when I and others like me will tire of the clicking and want to get away from the computer again. I won't be looking for a more exciting game, one that can get my heart rate up a bit: usually, it is life away from the computer does that for me.
But right now you will have to excuse me -- I have completely neglected my farm today and I am sure it's time to collect ice cubes from the penguins. I may not be a radical homesteader yet, but I am certainly going through all the simulation training.