“Had enough of city life?” asks the homepage of the infectiously popular Internet game FarmVille. More than 62 million people have. Have you? What if this question was written dangerously close to the large, pink nostrils of a cartoon cow?
A ROYAL FARM(VILLE)
It is 1787, and Marie-Antoinette — that infamous and ill-fated French queen — has certainly had enough of Parisian life. She is not to be found in Versailles’s majestic hall of mirrors, nor in her private apartments. Nor is she walking along the palace’s neatly manicured garden paths with her husband, Louis XVI. Nor spending time with her children. Nor is she meeting with dignitaries. Nor even eating cake.
No, Marie-Antoinette is milking a cow.
Four years earlier, Marie had ordered the construction of a mock farm on the palace grounds, known as le petit hameau (“the little hamlet”), or le hameau de la reine (“the queen’s hamlet”). The farm was complete with a mill, a farmhouse, twelve cottages, a dairy facility, a poultry yard and a few large farm animals. The exteriors of the buildings were convincingly rustiques, although their interiors were marble-encrusted to ensure le conforte de Marie. The hameau was an “admixture of pleasure, unabashed artifice, and decoration,” writes historian Jill Casid in her essay “Queer(y)ing Georgic: Utility, Pleasure, and Marie-Antoinette’s Ornamented Farm.” Marie and her ladies-in-waiting would frequently don peasant attire and visit the farm, which was a welcome respite from the trials of courtly life.
That’s right: The Queen of France spent excessive amounts of money creating a make-believe farm world for herself so she could play dress-up with her servants, experiencing all the supposed joys of rustic farm life while avoiding the associated inconveniences. According to Casid, Marie and her female attendants spent so much time together within the confines of the hameau that the farm was rumored to be a hotbed of l’activité homosexuelle! Ooh la la indeed.
Meanwhile, the French empire was crumbling around Marie, with resentment building up to such an extent that it snowballed into one of the bloodiest revolutions in history. The real peasants were starving while Marie pretended she was a milkmaid churning butter. Frivolous? Yes. Condescending? Definitely. Ignorant, self-indulgent and voyeuristic? Absolutely.
You might think Marie’s breed of farm “slumming” (seeking adventure by engaging in activities associated with a lower socioeconomic class) would have gone out of style along with her cotton-candyesque updos and the guillotine with which she was decapitated. But it turns out that not only 18th-century European monarchs have the burning desire to build their own imaginary — and individually tailored — farm worlds.
Today, thanks to FarmVille, millions of people have created their own personal hameux where they pretend to till soil, plant seeds, harvest crops and raise animals. Players acquire “farm cash” coins for successful harvests, which they can use to purchase new crops or livestock. Access to the game is free, but players have the option to spend up to 10 (real) dollars per round in order to accumulate coins more quickly. The gamer can personalize everything from her farm’s layout to the appearance of her avatar, or on-screen farmer character that represents her.
A FARMVILLE FOR EVERYONE?
“Here at FarmVille, we’re growing crops, tending to our animals and building out our farms. It’s a simple life, but there ain’t nothing like seeing your farm grow,” drawls the game’s Web site.
The site’s 62 million members (among whom 22 million are daily users) would agree. Since its introduction in June 2009 by Zygna, a company with a strong track record of dreaming up addictive Internet games (such as Mafia Wars and Café World, each with about 25 million players), FarmVille has been yee-hawing its way into the fabric of American — and international — popular culture.
The extent of FarmVille’s grip on contemporary society can be gauged not only by sheer numbers of participants, but also by the level of emotional attachment (and dependency) the game inspires in its players.
“This game, FarmVille, is like, taking over my life,” gushed one gamer who posted a video on FarmVille’s Web site.
“I’ve fallen in love!” exclaimed another virtual farmer via Web video post. “I cannot stop thinking about FarmVille! … I feel like [there was] this big part of my life [that had] been missing, and now I’ve regained it, and it’s so beautiful!”
FarmVille’s effect on gamers is no accident — it was carefully crafted by the game’s designers. “First, there’s the anticipation of planting seeds and waiting for them to grow,” explained Bing Gordon ’72, operating director of Zygna, in a phone interview Nov. 15. Players stick with the game, he said, because of the sense of obligation it creates. “You feel like a bad person letting your virtual crops die … There is an emotional hook involved in growing something.”
Because the game takes place within Facebook’s social networking framework, users are encouraged to visit each other’s farms and to help out fellow farmers by rounding up a neighbor’s lost livestock or fertilizing her neglected pumpkins. Thus, FarmVille relies not only on cultivating obsession in individual players, but also on reaping the compounded rewards of a collective frenzy. For instance, a Google search for “FarmVille” turns up over 17 million hits.
In addition, the mixed media coverage of the game’s popularity has contributed significantly to its buzz. On Oct. 29, The New York Times ran a feature on FarmVille called “To Harvest Squash, Click Here,” which deemed FarmVille a “Sisyphean baby-sitting assignment.” But ABC News ran an online article Nov. 5 (“Facebook’s ‘FarmVille’ a Big Hit with Gamers”) that took a more positive angle on the game, hailing it as a “huge success.”
Moreover, gamer blogs like the popular FarmVilleFreak.com provide outlets for, well, FarmVille freaks to share their agrarian successes, vent their frustrations and collectively establish what constitutes a FarmVille faux pas.
“Hate getting gifted white fences?!?!” Asks a post on FarmVilleFreak.com. (The post refers to a feature of the game that allows players to send gifts, such as equipment, fertilizer or livestock, to fellow farmers.) “So do I … Is that what you send to neighbors you don’t like?”
FarmVille blogs also provide forums where players can discuss “cheats,” or loopholes in the game’s software that allow them to gain more coins than they have earned or harvest crops more quickly than the game normally permits. In addition, the blogs serve as exhibition space for “FarmVille art,” a trend where gamers arrange their field of on-screen crops to resemble images from cartoon characters to canonical works such as the Mona Lisa. Really?
While gamers’ passion for virtual farming continues to ripen, a vocal community of FarmVille haters has cropped up. For example, the Facebook Web page “I hate Farm[V]ille” has nearly 31,000 supporters. “Personally, I find FarmVille boring and stupid,” posted one “hater,” or “h8r.”
But on the whole, FarmVille’s opponents have their argument all wrong. The problem with FarmVille is not that it is “stupid,” annoying, or a waste of time. The same could be argued for any computer game, video game or other form of virtual reality.
No, the problem specific to FarmVille is that this game preys on the emotions of million
s of gamers, who, trapped in a society characterized by intense pressures and prevalent shortcomings, feel the need to withdraw into their own simplified and safe worlds. The ways in which FarmVille capitalizes on these vulnerabilities — or fills the “big part” of a gamer’s life that has been “missing” — are threefold: by providing an escape to “nature,” a reversion to simplicity and opportunities for positive — though virtual — social experiences.
The hameau and FarmVille represent analogues of coping mechanisms for humans trapped in a world with something missing, or perhaps with too much of something else to handle.
Be brave: Step away from the computer (or marble-bedecked, servant-staffed farmhouse) before you, too, lose your head.
Forget about your crops. What’s eating you?