Tag Archive: FarmVille

FarmVille 2: “Capitalism is king”

I admit, after my chapter on farm games was completed, I let the dozens of virtual farms I had once carefully managed languish. But the release of FarmVille 2, in June, couldn’t help but catch my interest, and I’ve now been playing this new, “3D” version for a few months.

If you’re familiar with my earlier grumpiness over the original FarmVille’s lack of ecological aptitude, I’m happy to report that FarmVille 2 makes definite strides in this respect. For one thing, you now actually have to feed your animals in order for them to produce materials, including yes, even the tactfully named “fertilizer.”

Secondly, you now have to water your seeds in order for them to grow. Victory! (If you’ve never played a farm game, and you’re wondering how it’s even possible to farm without watering, let’s just say that wells were purely decorative objects in the original FarmVille.) Zynga has even partnered with Water.org to promote charitable donations toward solving world water shortages.

Of course, in many ways, FarmVille 2 is more of the same. It’s still a paean to pastoral harmony, as well as capital accumulation, spending, and expansion. Even so, I nearly fell out of my chair when I first visited neighbor “Walter” and this speech bubble popped up:

Capitalism is king, they say? It’s fascinating to see the game’s inescapable subtext blazoned so boldly. Meanwhile, FarmVille 2 has already led Wired contributor Ryan Rigney to dub it “the perpetual-motion money machine,” while Stephen Totilo’s New York Times review concludes that FarmVille 2 and games like it inevitably “retain the stench of a casino.” Even Kotaku’s Kirk Hamilton, who genuinely gave the game the old college try, eventually had to bid the game goodbye.

At this point, I consider myself a connoisseur of the cunning reward-and-frustration dynamics characteristic of these supposedly “free,” “casual,” and “social” games, so I’m hardly fazed by the constant temptations to buy and then spend “farm cash,” rather than coins. For now, I’m just happy that watering is now a crucial game mechanic and that it is a scarce, but renewable resource. Consider me temporarily placated.

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!

Megalopolis Here We Come

Yes, it has been months since my last post, which signaled the entry of CityVille onto the Facebook social game scene. In the meantime, I’ve been reading (Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist, Madison Smartt Bell’s The Year of Silence, Paul Burkett’s Marxism and Ecological Economics, Michel Serres’s The Natural Contract, Mitchell Thomashow’s Bringing the Biosphere Home, Aaron Sachs’s The Humboldt Current, Ursula Heise’s Sense of Place and Sense of Planet, and most recently Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken). I’ve also been steadily plugging away at my chapter on farm games, and I’ve been halfheartedly maintaining my virtual farms, homesteads, and cities, though I’ve cut the upkeep down to just a few -Villes to save my sanity and my dissertation from even further derailment.

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to participate in a small but incredibly rewarding conference sponsored by various centers here at UC Berkeley, called World Craft: The Business and Culture of Gaming in East Asia. So much of American game studies scholarship ignores non-American contexts that it was refreshing to see academics and industry representatives coming together to devote two days to cross-cultural comparison and the complex experiences of players and player communities in Korea, Japan, China, and Taiwan. For a veteran World of WarCraft player like me, it was flabbergasting to watch “The War of Internet Addiction,” a film made by Chinese WoW players expressing both humor and (mostly) anger over the use of electroshock therapy on videogame players in China and the excesses of corporate and governmental control. I enjoyed learning about how the interaction between Chinese and Taiwanese WoW players reflects the nuances of cross-strait relations (Holin Lin), how player communities are often effectively constrained by latency/ping (Graham Candy), and how the stereotype of the “immiserated Asian worker” embodied by the Chinese gold farmer is a dangerous new form of technoorientalism (Lisa Nakamura). I even got to meet Bonnie Nardi, whose book My Life as a Night Elf Priest: An Anthropological Account of World of WarCraft I recently reviewed (forthcoming), and to talk again with thatgamecompany’s Jenova Chen, whose game Flower for the PlayStation Network I write about in an upcoming issue on contemporary ecocriticism.

While I’m here, I might as well share some of my favorite working screenshots from CityVille, which collectively demonstrate a somewhat terrifying dedication to population growth, urban sprawl, and “more, more, more” consumerism. Perhaps I should have been clued in when I went to name my city Metropolis, in what I thought was a tongue-in-cheek reference to Fritz Lang’s less-than-sanguine-about-urban-life classic, and discovered that “Metropolis” was actually the default name for CityVille cities!

Here Sam, CityVille’s masculinely dressed businesswoman heroine, urges me to start building my new city:

CityVille sets regular goals for you to raise the population of your city (from under 100 to 500 to 1000 to 1500 and so on), which drive you to build increasingly dense urban housing (cozy cottages and country homes just don’t cut it after a while, since apartment complexes and upscale condos can pack in more people). In what seems like a corrective, your city also earns a happiness rating. If the number of citizens currently living in your city comes too close to the population limit enabled by building additional community buildings (banks, police stations, schools, etc.), the citizens become unhappy. However, because of the way that housing and community infrastructure goals are interwoven, the happiness level in effect is less tied to crowding than it is to the lack of room to grow–so for CityVille residents, bigger generally means better.

Recent additions to game content include the ability to build and open factories:

As well as an ever-greater variety of shops:

It’s difficult not to feel a little depressed over this apparent treadmill of expansion and acquisition. While I was actually pleasantly surprised to see that CityVille does include farming (growing and harvesting crops to supply your restaurants and stores), in later stages of the game international shipping and railroad-delivered goods render farming largely unnecessary.

Meanwhile, I await with some eagerness and trepidation the “English Countryside” expansion of FarmVille:

Agatha, the newest FarmVille spokeswoman, assures me that the soil there is “rich and fertile,” a claim I find a bit preposterous given England’s even longer agricultural history. But even more important to this decision to relocate virtual farming to the American “mother country” is the well-known English history of land tenancy and the loss of commons through enclosure, and the gross historical inequality between landowners and rural workers. So as frustrating as it is to have my object of study evolve faster than I can generate coherent thoughts about it, I’m extremely curious about what new head-scratching moments this latest installment will bring.

Bright lights, big city?

Zynga just released CityVille, and seems to be using the game to call retired farmers away from their derelict virtual farms. This giant billboard appeared next to my fields yesterday, but I have yet to pack it up for the big city.

This is yet another chance to play the game, “What would Raymond Williams say?” Let’s just chew on this quote from The Country and the City:

It is significant that the common image of the country is now an image of the past and the common image of the city is an image of the future. The pull of the idea of the country is towards old ways, human ways, natural ways. The pull of the idea of the city is towards progress, modernization, development. In what is then a tension, a present experienced as tension, we use the contrast of country and city to ratify an unresolved division and conflict of impulses, which it might be better to face on its own terms.

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.

Your Horse is 39% Ready: FarmVille Meditation No. 1

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….