My FarmVille Farm (9.13.2010)

What a mysterious thing: how can a horse be 39% ready? Ready for what?

Harvesting, of course!

Before you give yourself the heebie jeebies with thoughts of JELL-O Jigglers and glue factories, I should say that No (Virtual) Animals Were Harmed in the Playing of this Game. When you click on a fully ready FarmVille horse with the somewhat ominous scythe tool, all you do is collect horsehair. For what purpose, I’m really not sure. But I’m being productive, right? And the horse, too.

Enter my recent obsession with what I call “farm-management” or “crop-management” or “agricultural resource-management” games. Others insist on classifying these games as “social games” or “time-management” games, but let’s be honest: they are only nominally social, leading instead to a strangely apologetic sociality (“So sorry, but I need four more hand drills to finish building this yurt, and as it is I can barely relieve myself without six friends sending me daily gifts of toilet paper.”), and they are clearly incentives to grossly ineffective time management (“OMG, I have to check on my farm in 1, 2, 4, 6, and 12 hours or I’ll be a crop murderer!”). As far as I can tell, Zynga wants to render me completely unproductive in the real world by forcing me to check the status of its applications ten times more often than I eat, exercise, or brush my teeth.

On the one hand, the “social” and “time management” genre labels are telltale to the extent that the stuff being managed in such games is secondary to the way in which you manage it. For me, that way = regularly spaced bouts of repetitive, carpal tunnel syndrome-inducing clicks, often with a little help from my Facebook-enabled, spam-tolerant friend-neighbors (a.k.a. freighbors).

It’s no secret that the casual game industry has hitched its cart to Mad Lib-style game design:

Have you heard about this new game, _____Ville? For a while I was playing the

_____ Mania games, but my all-time favorite _____-management game is still Farm _____.

By all appearances, those companies are golden as long as they don’t run out of nouns. Just enter “mania” or “dash” into any casual game site’s search box, and you’ll be up to your eyeballs in shameless spinoffs within seconds. Shameless, but addictive. (Please, please stop me if you ever catch me playing something called “Enema Dash 3” or “TPS Report Mania.”)

If the content is so interchangeable, why am I so intent on management games that model agriculture? Why spend hours playing “social” games like Zynga’s FarmVille and FrontierVille, single-player downloadables like Farm Mania, Farm Craft, and Farmer Jane, and console-based games like the Harvest Moon series? First, I’m curious as to why a significant proportion of the new casual/social games and some of the genre’s most successful examples take farming and ranching as their theme–FarmVille claims almost 62 million active users, about the same as the population of the United Kingdom, and a popular game portal like Big Fish Games hosts almost 25 games just with the word “farm” in their titles. (That’s not even counting the less obvious but still clearly related productions like “Country Harvest” and “Plant Tycoon.”) The cultural historian in me wonders whether, in an era of widespread anxiety over immigration, increasingly scarce natural resources, and inimical abstraction from how our food is grown and produced, crop-management games pander to modern society’s nostalgia for uncrowded frontiers and supposedly simpler, more wholesome rural lifestyles. Though these games are easy enough to criticize for their generic qualities, it’s clear that farming–growing plants and caring for livestock–has a special appeal.

My second reason for writing about these games centers on their mechanics. If one is going to take the natural world–animals, plants, soil, weather–as the primary material for a _____-management game, it very much matters what one means by “management.” Let’s try shifting the Mad Lib-design emphasis from nouns to verbs and adverbs, first carefully unpacking what these games mean by “management” and then imagining a greater variety of modes of operation. Goals for games and players can be aesthetic, political, environmental, economic, or social. Personally, I’m fine with Farm Frenzy but I’d enjoy Farm Subsistence even more, and a Virtual Urban Garden to go along with a Virtual Farm would undoubtedly be the bee’s knees. As humdrum as farming sustainably sounds in comparison to farming manically or frenetically, I can’t help feeling dissatisfied with the ecological simplicity of all the farming games I’ve played so far. I know a ball can’t be dropped that was never picked up in the first place, so… pick… up… the… ball.

Let me share some examples, before I sound unduly snarky. Probably first and foremost on my list of grievances is that none of the farming games that I have played simulates true soil dynamics–in particular, soil erosion and exhaustion. It wouldn’t take that many lines of code to insist that ground that has been repeatedly plowed and seeded must be allowed to lie fallow for some time before again becoming productive. Farm games should also make crop selection less arbitrary and more biologically meaningful, by encouraging smart crop-rotation practices (e.g. planting crops with nitrogen-fixing bacteria after crops that leach nitrogen from the soil) and other important cross-species dynamics (pollination, scavenging, decomposition, etc.). To get there, we need to do away with the blank-slate, Cartesian planting that drives these games (orderly squares on a grid with only one plant type allowed per square), because it replicates costly real-world mistakes committed by industrial agriculture and forestry, for instance via clearcutting and monoculture (replacing ecosystem complexity with the promotion of one species above all others on a massive scale).

As a player, I should be able to increase my crop yield or grow healthier plants by considering their temporal or physical proximity to other species, both plant and animal–for instance, by planting a symbiotic Three Sisters garden (squash, beans, corn), or using my animals’ waste to improve the soil (I have in mind Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farms, featured prominently in Michael Pollan’s writings). Designers are likely to object that incorporating these kinds of considerations would make games unwieldy–too complicated, too gross, too didactic. I disagree, but I’ll save my thoughts on that for another time. Ultimately, though it may prove unpopular to accurately model the law of diminishing returns, or the second law of thermodynamics, these are exactly the realities we need to face as an overdeveloped society (don’t take my word for it, but do take ecological economist Herman Daly‘s word).

My research into this genre is ongoing, and my thought process is still unfolding, so comments and suggestions are welcome!

OMG, I’d better go check on my farm….