- The Washington Times - Friday, October 16, 2009

We’ve come a long way from an agriculturally based society — and thank goodness. No one would want to do the back-breaking farm work their great-grandparents did.

Or would they?

Young hipsters are getting back to the land — virtually. FarmVille, the most popular game on the social-networking site Facebook, uses cutting-edge technology to let players farm virtual plots of land.

Players become online farmers — plowing, planting and picking. They can grow everything from strawberries to cotton, raise animals such as cows and chickens and erect farmhouses, fences and scarecrows.

FarmVille has become the fastest-growing social game on the Internet since its launch in June. Almost 60 million people are signed up; 21 million play every day. They log on from all over the world, from North America to Europe to Asia. The game started out female-dominated, but now its Facebook fan page is more evenly split, with 59 percent female fans and 41 percent male. Young people love the game: Half of its fans are younger than 25; 76 percent are younger than 35.

Even its creators are shocked by its success.

Mark Skaggs, vice president and general manager of the Social RTS Studio at Zynga, the San Francisco company that makes the game, says FarmVille was launched on a Friday night “just for a quick weekend friends-and-family test, with the expectation that after a few weeks, we’d roll it out to a general audience.” They hoped 2,500 would play within 24 hours; 25,000 did. In a few days, a million were playing.

Mr. Skaggs credits the game’s success to its wide appeal. “I think there’s something fundamentally human about planting and growing, especially food,” he muses. “Maybe it’s in our DNA and social consciousness, for some reason. It just feels good.”

That warm thought is echoed by those who play the game.

“It does seem a bit strange,” admits Heather Anderson, a 56-year-old customer services agent in North Battleford, Saskatchewan. “I have often wondered if our ancestors could have a glimpse of our world, what they would feel. Perhaps shocked and/or appalled at what they may consider society making light of their way of life?”

But she says the virtual game — which she likes because it enables her to practice both analytical and intuitive decision-making — has given her more appreciation for the real work they did. “Without their experiences and knowledge, we wouldn’t be where we are today as a society,” she says.

Adam Draginda, a 30-year-old assistant astronomer who lives in Santa Cruz, Calif., but is often in Hawaii for work, has a less high-minded notion of the game.

“You aren’t truly farming — other than the most basic of farming techniques,” he says. “The game doesn’t introduce any ‘real’ farming issues such as pests, crop rotation, irrigation, etc. I think a real farmer would be insulted if I said that I knew anything about farming after playing FarmVille.”

Yet Mr. Draginda has been playing FarmVille for six weeks. Like every other player interviewed for this story, he says the game is addictive. Many Facebook users have seen their news feeds taken over by news of their friends’ FarmVille exploits.

Some players — though not those interviewed here, who all say they play or have played about an hour a day — have even admitted organizing their schedules around FarmVille harvests. Different plants take different time periods to mature, and they’ll die if you don’t harvest them in time; some users even get up in the night to take care of their farms, while others sneak time during work conference calls.

“I suspect that the game is ubiquitously popular because it is so easy to get points and achievements,” Mr. Draginda says. “There is absolutely nothing challenging about the game, and it rewards you continuously for minimal effort. I laughed at the game when I first tried it, as it was way too simple and required virtually no thinking. The only reason I keep playing is that I want to have the highest score/level out of my friends.”

That’s another thing that has made the game so big — it taps into the social-networking features of Facebook. You can get your farm set up next to your friends’ farms and visit them to leave messages and help with minor chores such as fertilizing crops and raking leaves. That interactivity, Mr. Draginda notes, is absent from a lot of other Facebook games.

FarmVille harkens back not just to a time when people grew their own food, but to a more recent time “when all games were social,” Mr. Skaggs says. “When you sat down to play a board game, you had to get friends.” FarmVille allows you to do the same thing, but with friends who might be scattered all over the world.

“First we started time-shifting our TV watching with TiVo and whatnot. Now, with Facebook, we’re time-shifting our social interaction and removing the need to be geo-located with each other,” he observes. “I think it’s what makes it so powerful.”

Zynga was founded in July 2007 and became profitable that fall. The company doesn’t release specific figures but says $100 million is a conservative estimate of its annual revenue. It makes money three ways — the advertising next to the game; offers within the game, such as signing up for a Netflix subscription; and direct purchases from players. You can earn coins free just by playing the game, but if you want to buy big-ticket items faster, you’ll need to give your credit-card number.

The company has four of the top 10 games on Facebook. It recently launched Cafe World. In a possible hint of things to come, Mr. Skaggs asks, “Wouldn’t that be cool?” to be able to make food one day with your FarmVille harvests.

Zynga’s second-place game is a more traditional one that skews to a different audience — in Mafia Wars, players fight to become the “ruling family in NYC.”

Mafia Wars is “a little edgier” than FarmVille, which “is good, clean social fun,” Mr. Skaggs says. “Our goal with [the latter] is to never have anything that would make a mom feel sad that their baby or kid was sitting on their lap.” In fact, some mothers have reported that their children have asked for their own computers so they can play FarmVille, too.

It’s clear that many people who have never played a video game before are getting addicted to FarmVille. Players often call playing the game relaxing, and Mr. Skaggs says it doesn’t have the “emotional ride” a lot of traditional video games have.

Karen Parent, a 33-year-old homemaker in Edmonton, Alberta, is “not an online gamer at all.” She’s been playing FarmVille for three months but admits the novelty is wearing off a bit. “It’s amazing that something so old-fashioned has exploded in popularity,” she says. “There’s a direct correlation of getting out what you put in. And it’s fun to ‘buy’ new things!”

Perhaps the biggest plus of this virtual game, though?

“There’s an instant gratification that you never get in real farming.”

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