Friday, March 26, 2010

Down On The Farm......ville - Real and Virtual

A European official has been criticized after being caught milking a virtual cow on the hugely popular online farming game, Farmville. So what is it about it that's made it so popular? In January, we told you of the game's growing popularity - here's an update.

At the end of a hard day seeing to patients at the surgery there is more work to be done. Tending to the crops, feeding the cows and making sure the fields are ploughed...the Internet game Farmville has become a part of daily life.

The premise of the game is simple - you are a farmer, albeit a virtual one - with your own plot of land. Your job is to cultivate it and rear animals. You get points depending on how successful you are and the aim is to get the highest score you can.

On one annonymous gameplayer's farm, they grow potatoes, watermelons and keep chickens and cows. She never tends to her fields during her working day, but is on it most evenings.

"It does seem like a terrible waste of time," she says. "It's like watching trashy TV though, a bit of escapism to help you unwind."

For her and many others, Farmville has become a guilty pleasure. The game was launched in June 2009, since then more than 80 million people have signed up to it. While it's highly unlikely that everyone who has joined the game plays it on a regular basis, there is no doubting it has a huge regular following, with people around the world, from all ages and backgrounds playing it.

Farmville is accessed as an application through Facebook and now has its own website too. But it's the game's presence on the social networking site which has given the game such a wide reach, allowing it to tap into Facebook's already large user base.

And its availability on social networks has created a new wave of computer gamers, who wouldn't normally go near a console.

Meaningful Effect

In the words of one full-time mom: "It becomes a personal experience and something you care about," The game has a certain "stickiness" to it, because of the nurturing element involved, she says.

"What you're doing needs to have some meaningful effect, like the planting and growing of crops."

The game also has a competitive element - it's about having the best farm and earning the most money to see to its upkeep. But it can also be co-operative and it's possible to interact with your friends' farms on the site by watering their plants and feeding their animals.

The game is free to play, but if you want to buy extra coins to keep up your farm, you are given the option to buy more with your credit card.

Parallels can be drawn between Farmville and the Tamagotchi craze in the 1990s, where people looked after a virtual pet housed in a plastic egg, developing an emotional attachment to their virtual being. But the fact Farmville has been introduced in an age of social media has had other effects.

For many players, it resurrects old friendships - sort of.

"There's a girl I went to school with, and who I never speak to, but I now fertilise her crops for her," one game player says. To the uninitiated, this behavior might seem bizarre, but hardened Farmvillers say all of this helps you win extra points and prizes.

It is this sense of reward which keeps people playing, says psychologist Dr Mark Griffiths of Nottingham Trent University. He describes Farmville as "virtual Lego", where building something from scratch and seeing it grow gives players a sense of accomplishment and a "psychological high".

Educational tool

Dr Griffiths specialises in researching technological addictions and says what underlies any addiction is the reliance on constant rewards. But saying you are "addicted" to Farmville is a bit like saying you're addicted to chocolate, he argues.

"What people really mean is that there is a 'moreishness' quality about it. There's nothing wrong with spending hours on it, as long it's not affecting your personal relationships and work."

There are those who see Farmville as a blight on their daily Facebook feed, when every time they log in they discover that Georgia has traded 50 gold pieces, or that Andrew has harvested his chicken coop.

1. United States
2. Turkey
3. The Philippines
4. United Kingdom
5. Italy

Others say it is not just a blight, but a downright distraction. It was recently reported that a council member in Bulgaria was sacked after he was discovered milking a virtual cow on his laptop during a committee meeting.

There are many others who agree with the superiors in Plovdiv and the game has its fair share of detractors. There are several Anti-Farmville groups online, one called Not Playing Farmville has more than two million members.

"If you are doing this you have... I repeat if you are doing this you have too much time on your hands", writes one member. Another says, "everyone's worried about the swine flu, but I think we need to be worried about this Farmville epidemic".

Bill Mooney, VP and general manager of Zynga, the company behind Farmville brushes off these kind of negative comments.

"If Farmville is affecting people in a positive way, then we're all for it," he says.


"The best thing is, Farmville is played in 5-10 minutes sessions, so you really don't have to get too preoccupied or diverted for a long time. It's more like a coffee break or break from studying."

Mooney says the game has had other positive benefits, like generating an interest in agriculture. Before the game was developed the company did a lot of research into the area, so they could make the game accurate and give people a "real sense of farming".

In the US the appeal of Farmville is being seen as one possible way of attracting younger people into farming. But at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton, Georgia, Alice Campbell who lectures in the subject says the parallels between the real and online world are limited.

"A lot of the students we have here come from farm backgrounds. It is quite tenuous to what they know to be real life [on a farm]."

On a virtual farm, it's all about instant gratification - you don't have to wait six months for your aubergines to grow. But then again, you can't eat them either.

The Real Farmville

We also came across the real Farmville in - where else? - the middle of farm country. Farmville is in Pitt County, North Carolina, eight miles to the west of Greenville, North Carolina. According to a census taken in 2008 the estimated population is 4,615. Farmville is a part of the Greenville Metropolitan Area located in North Carolina's Inner Banks.

According to the United States Census Bureau, the town has a total area of 3.1 square miles, all of it land. As of the census of 2000, there were 4,302 people, 1,839 households, and 1,202 families residing in the town. The population density was 1,387.4 people per square mile. There were 2,010 housing units at an average density of 648.2/sq mi. The racial makeup of the town was 47.37% White, 50.09% African American, 0.07% Native American, 0.23% Asian, 1.19% from other races, and 1.05% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 2.12% of the population.

Individuals who were born in or lived in Farmville include:

  • Joseph Dixon (North Carolina) - United States Congressman (1870–1871)
  • Roberta Flack - American singer, Taught music in Farmville
  • Blenda Gay - Former NFL player
  • Walter B. Jones, Sr. - United States Congressman (1967–1993)
  • Walter B. Jones, Jr. - United States Congressman (1993–present)
  • Mike Sutton - Head Basketball Coach, Tennessee Technological University
  • Allen H. Turnage - General, United States Marine Corps
  • Edith D. Warren - Member, North Carolina General Assembly

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