Tag Archive: agriculture

New farm games article available

I’ve just received an advance-access copy of a short piece I wrote for Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, called “Back to the Virtual Farm: Gleaning the Agriculture-Management Game.” The print version will be out in the next issue, 19.1 (Winter 2012), but you can now access the PDF here. This article is a slightly expanded version of a talk I gave at ASLE this past summer (and the essay that was awarded best paper)… here I’ve added more detail regarding farm games’ treatment of water and soil, but the full, chapter-length version will have to wait until I publish my larger dissertation work.

I’ve received several requests for the paper from ASLE members and artists and scholars working at the nexus of food politics, environmental justice, and environmental history, so I’m happy to make this work available. If you get a moment, please let me know how you use the work in your classes and whether or not it’s helped you to bring both games and food-related issues into discussion. For example, I believe that Barbara Eckstein at University of Iowa has incorporated the work into a “Locally Grown” Literature & Society class (involving undergraduates, actual farmers, and IT professionals), and I’ve had several stimulating conversations with artist Amy Franceschini of Futurefarmers over the potential for a different kind of farm game: New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and his wife are pursuing one such idea, and the University of Washington Bothell has turned social farm-game mechanics toward wetlands restoration. But I think we’re just scratching the surface of what is possible!

Apologies to Fanon for riffing on his famous words, but my second reflection on the genre of farm games emerges out of a consideration of racial themes. Frankly, I’m shocked at the giant, no, football-field-sized disparity between these games’ happy-go-lucky representations of farm work and the actualities of agricultural labor here in the United States. All the virtual green pastures and cheerful faces I’ve been seeing don’t mesh at all well with the thought of seasonal, migrant workforces exposed to a wide range of abuses, from health risk and lack of medical insurance to extreme poverty and cultural isolation.

A study in the American Journal of Public Health reports the following:

Migrant farmworkers constitute almost half (42%) of the population employed in seasonal agricultural work in the United States. The majority of farmworkers (70%) are foreign born, and of those, 90% are Mexican. In California, about half of the estimated 1 million farmworkers are migrants, and as many as 98% are Mexican. [. . .]. According to the National Agricultural Workers Survey, the farmworker population in the United States is predominantly (80%) male and young (two thirds are younger than 35 years). However, most farmworkers are married and have children. They are also poor, with a median personal income between US $2500 and US $5000, but despite these meager earnings few use publicly assisted social services.

Compare this to the panoply of earthy yet feisty brunettes and redheads, almost all female, that populate most of the farm games currently on the market:

Left: Scarlett of the Farm Frenzy series; right: Maggie the farming witch of Fantastic Farm.

From L to R: Ginger Agronovich of the Farm Craft series, Farmer Jane, and Anna of Farm Mania.

If we were to extrapolate from these examples, the formula for a catchy farm game seems to involve some combination of overalls and plaid shirts, no-nonsense but ever-so-cute ponytails and pigtails, and preferably both pouty lips and delicately arched eyebrows. But what is by far the most striking to me is the complete absence of brown skin–in fact, these fair-skinned ladies sport nary a freckle or sunburn even after slaving in the hot sun for months on end. They must be using SPF 70.

Menfolk are few and far between in these games, presumably because the games are targeted at the growing audience of female “casual” gamers. When men do appear, they are generally relegated to the status of “sidekicks” or helpers. Often, the narrative demands that the sassy, young heroine returns to the family farm in order to save “gramps” or some elderly relatives’ homestead from ruin, neglect, and yes, even the relentless machinations of global agribusiness.

Farm Mania’s “Gramps” and Anna

Starting characters for Country Harvest

As wonderful as the Ginger v. Goliath plots are (down with automation, up with community-based farming!), I’m tempted to describe these games as covert forms of wishful thinking designed to suppress the messier, less palatable aspects of our agricultural industry. In these games, farm life is hard work, but always rewarding (and profitable!); the work is voluntary, not forced upon you by unemployment or transnational labor crises; and the work is often done singlehandedly or with the help of at most one relative or a handful of workers.

After all the games where one person was somehow managing an entire farm with a few clicks or worse, waves of the magic wand (sorry, Maggie), I was happy to see that the Farm Craft series actually implemented a “worker-hiring” mechanic. As Ginger, you can hire men to water, fertilize, and pick fruits and vegetables and take care of livestock, and even a manager to manage all the rest, but let’s take a close look at these workers:

I guess the country rube trumps the migrant worker. Still missing is any kind of acknowledgment that almost half of seasonal agricultural laborers in this country are migrants, predominantly Mexican, though as Alderete et al. report:

In recent years, an increasingly diverse farm labor pool has come to California from Latin America and Asia. Among these are indigenous people such as the Hmong from Southeast Asia, the Mixtec and Zapotec from Mexico, and the Maya from Guatemala.

To Zynga’s credit, FarmVille, perhaps the preeminent farm game, allows players to choose either male or female avatars and a range of skin colors:

Now if only they didn’t look so happy.