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Farmville as Hobby

My strawberries are almost ready to harvest. Next, I think I’ll plant lilacs–I haven’t tried those yet. Linda sent me a maple tree. I haven’t seen her since our visit to California at Christmas. I think I’ll send her a present back–maybe a chicken. My four-year-old watches over my shoulder, riveted. After we work on our virtual farm for ten more minutes, I suggest that maybe perhaps we should go weed and water our real garden?

It’s fashionable these days to make fun of Farmville, and with good reason–it’s a dreadful computer game. As A. J. Patrick Liszkiewicz points out, it doesn’t meet any of Roger Callois’ criteria for a game at all. He writes that unlike games:

“(1) Farmville is defined by obligation, routine, and responsibility;
(2) Farmville encroaches and depends upon real life, and is never entirely separate from it;
(3) Farmville is always certain in outcome, and involves neither chance nor skill;
(4) Farmville is a productive activity, in that it adds to the social capital upon which Facebook and Zynga depend for their wealth;
(5) Farmville is governed not by rules, but by habits, and simple cause-and-effect;
(6) Farmville is not make-believe, in that it requires neither immersion nor suspension of disbelief.”

Ian Bogost wrote a wonderful parody of Farmville called Cow Clicker. Bogost writes that he made Cow Clicker because he “realized that theory alone might not help clarify social games.” To me this is nothing less than brilliant. You click your cow, it moos, and you wonder about the whole genre in a new way. But as a colleague quipped, the one shortcoming of Cow Clicker is that it’s actually sorta fun. But why? What are these games, and why are they wildly successful?

Here’s my answer: Farmville isn’t actually a computer game–it’s a computer hobby. In his book Hobbies, Steven Gelber points out that “hobbies developed as a category of socially valued leisure activity in the nineteenth century because they bridged the worlds of work and home” (p. 2).  He continues,  “before about 1880 a hobby was a dangerous obsession. After that date it became a productive use of free time” (p. 3).  Gelber writes:

“As leisure, hobbies provided a respite from the normal demands of work, but as a particular form of productive leisure they expressed the deeper meaning of the work ethic and the free market. Hobbies gained wide acceptance because they could condemn depersonalized factory and office work by compensating for its deficits while simultaneously replicating both the skills and values of the workplace, a process I refer to as “disguised affirmation.”

Disguised affirmation allows participants to think about an activity as leisure-time recreation while it functions as a form of ideological re-creation The capacity of hobbies to act simultaneously as resistance and accomodation serves to remind us that we have to examine all the meanings of leisure to understand any of them” (pp. 2-3).

Farmville is the ultimate hobby, the ultimate idealization of work.  In Farmville, with a simple click, I can plant strawberries, wheat, or maybe a peach tree. The product of my near-effortless labor will be beautiful, and there for me to harvest in an equally effortless fashion–if I am merely attentive to return at the right time, like the good worker that I am. I can dream of building an empire, and with simple persistence it will be mine. And better yet, if I’m feeling impatient, for an amount of real dollars that is modest, I can have what I want without the wait or the work.

In addition to playing on themes of work, Farmville also creates its own elaborate gift economy. In Farmville, your friends can help you out. Gifts are free–it just takes a thoughtful moment, and a cow is on its way to all those near and dear to you. I can also stop by friends’ farms and fertilize their crops. Maybe they’ll stop by and fertilize mine. Today Linda and Katie stopped by to help my farm, and a hundred years of anthropological research explains all the ways I am obligated to reciprocate. A real gift carries more meaning because resources and non-trivial effort were involved. But even stripped down to this minimalist form, a Farmville gift is still a powerful act in a social network.

Farmville is also an exploration of landscape and the built environment. Things getting a bit cluttered? Let’s put that building in storage, and rearrange the cherry trees into an artful cluster. Liz Losh‘s farm is an impressive take on the English country garden, with meandering stone walls and things in bloom in all the right places. The landscape of my imagination is at my finger tips, and is infinitely reconfigurable.

Since I first tried Farmville, I have had a couple lines of Wordsworth caught in my head:

“The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.”

In this respect, Farmville is rather like the wildly popular game The Sims. You may not have enough money for a mansion with a big-screen TV in every room in real life, but you can on The Sims. That grand plantation is yours on Farmville, if you just work hard enough or sacrifice a bit of real money for virtual goods. One of the hobbies Gelber focuses on in particular is collecting. He notes that, “the collection became the sum that created the value of its parts, bestowing singularity not only on often mundane items but also, by extension, on the collector as well” (p. 4). Massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) have a similar quality–a significant part of the pleasure of the game is in collecting the best and most unique set of magical gear for your adventures. My succinct summary is, “It’s all about the hat.” A good magic hat is a pleasure to possess and use. And here we can see the strong tie between consumerism and identity building. As I finally get my boots of speed or build my perfect farm, I am affirming myself as worthy and establishing myself as a particular kind of person within the community. As Gelber says, a hobby  is both a relief from the culturally dominant value of consumerism, and also an affirmation of those values. I’m not a billionaire in the real world, but online I have the virtual goods. I have escaped my station, and yet affirmed the idea that your goods mark your station.

I believe we can understand more about why people play games like Farmville by looking hard at stamp collections, sewing circles, and model railroads than by looking at the history of computer “games.” Computer “hobby” is a better mental model.

If you like this blog post, please send a virtual chicken. Thank you.

(With thanks to Beki Grinter and Josh Berman for suggesting I read Gelber’s book a few years ago and to Andrew Miller for sending me the terrific Liszkiewicz post.)

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  1. July 26, 2010 at 12:25 am

    As much as the game’s updates annoy me, I have to agree with your post. Farmville actually helped a friend’s friend bond with her prospective in-laws who were in India while she was in the US 🙂

  2. July 26, 2010 at 2:33 am

    I like the idea of computer hobbies quite a bit, but doesn’t that label skirt the moral and aesthetic issues too completely? Farmville could be a hobby and also be a *bad* one.

    • July 26, 2010 at 7:00 am

      Ian, really excellent point! So then the question is: what makes a hobby healthy or unhealthy? Is it healthy to spend that much money on Elvis’ signature? That much time looking for it? I think Gelber would say that it’s got many dimensions. The aspect of less alienated work might arguably be positive (maybe), but the affirmation of consumerist values would be negative. I think his analysis leans mostly negative. The more positive aspects are the potential for building connections to others, and also the (modest) potential for creativity.

      In any case, one thing that is unarguably strongly negative: Zynga’s failure to weed out abusive ad sponsor practices is irresponsible at best.

      • July 26, 2010 at 10:03 am

        Right, and surely the answer is complex. But one issue we can’t ignore is the role of a large, demonstrably irresponsible company in managing this “hobby.”

        The ad sponsor stuff is an easy target, but I also find it difficult to reconcile Zynga (and others’) systematic manipulation of player compulsion with activities like knitting or stamp collecting. Indeed, I remain unconvinced more generally that games like this are earnest entries into the cultural sphere, and not simply wolves in sheep’s clothing. That’s not to say that they can’t teach us something about the idea of computer hobbies, however.

      • July 26, 2010 at 10:30 am

        Ian, I agree that consciously manipulating people is problematic. I was on a panel at GDC 10+ years ago where developers explicitly talked about “one-armed bandit reinforcement strategies.” They were trying to make their games addictive, modeled on behaviorism techniques that work for gamblers, and were totally open about it. The good news is that MMO developers are now consciously trying to make play times lower. I’m much more disturbed by MMOs that push you to five+ hour play sessions than games like Farmville that grab a few minutes here and there. No one has flunked out of school because of Farmville or Mafia Wars.

      • July 26, 2010 at 11:06 am

        We seem to be back to the reinforcement strategies. This is a longer conversation, but, I think one of the issues is the collision of silicon valley tech startups with the game industry. It’s an uncertain marriage complicated by the fact that games too come out of the silicon valley tech industry, but that of a different era.

        Something I forgot to mention earlier: I’m almost as bothered by almost everything online these days as I am with Farmville. Twitter, blogs, email–almost everything is an exercise in compulsion. Top that off with the cherry of silicon valley libertarian entrepreneurship and you end up with a disgusting concoction dressed up as a tasty sundae.

  3. July 26, 2010 at 6:13 am

    “I can also stop by friends’ farms and fertilize their crops. Maybe they’ll stop by and fertilize mine.”

    I confess my inner 12-year-old just came up with an idea for a new Farmville variation…

    OK, I’m going to go back to being a grownup now. 😉

  4. beki70
    July 26, 2010 at 9:30 am

    This is great Amy, gad you enjoyed Gelber. Ian, I find your question interesting… One thing that emerges in Gelbers book, although I don’t think it’s throughly addressed is the gender gap among various hobbies. That’s certainly an area for critical examination, of the work that hobbies do in reinforcing various categories.

    I’m not a Farmville player so Im sorry this response will have to serve as my chicken (which is not a sentence I ever thought I would write).

    • July 26, 2010 at 10:05 am

      Speaking of gender, Cow Clicker is currently a game with 97% female avatars 😉

  5. July 26, 2010 at 9:51 am

    @ian i don’t think it skirts these issues, we make moral and aesthetic judgments about people’s hobbies all the time. even if we set the issue of corporate ethics aside (where does the yarn you knit with come from?) the choice to fish on the weekends embodies a different set of ethical and aesthetic values than being a caver/geologist, organic (RL!) gardener, encyclopedist or farmville player. in fact, i would say that i feel more judgmental about it when i reframe the “game” as a hobby than when i was thinking of it as a game. 🙂

    this is my favorite nextbison post yet. v cool! thanks for writing! 🙂

    • July 26, 2010 at 11:09 am

      @andrea, the question of where yarn comes from is interesting and often important, but it’s just in a different league from the blatantly horrendous and immoral behavior of companies like Zynga. Moreover, knitting (or whatever) is not a centralized, ordered, and controlled activity that benefits a very few at the expense of a great many. I tried to deal with these questions in part in the piece I wrote to accompany Cow Clicker, which you can find here: http://bogo.st/fb

  6. July 26, 2010 at 5:23 pm

    Really interesting thoughts, Amy! I especially appreciate that for the most part, too, you avoid value judgements in the post and your comments – that is key to having a conversation. You make some great points, especially your reference that hobbies are “a relief from the culturally dominant value of consumerism, and also an affirmation of those values.”

    But by (most of) the definition of games that you quote, even professional sporting matches are not games since they are: defined by obligation, routine, and responsibility to the league, to the team managers, owners, brands, TV channels, etc.; encroach and depend upon real life and are never entirely separate from it… ask any non-sporty significant other of even a fan of games for a rant on this sometime; is a productive activity in that it accounts for a HUGE amount of money going to a select few *cough*LeBron*cough*; is not make-believe, in that it requires neither immersion nor suspension of belief. Something to consider. 🙂

    I like this, from David Parlett’s The Oxford History of Board Games (but I took it from Zimmerman and Salen’s Rules of Play, tbh): “The word [game] is used for so many different activities that it is not worth insisting on any proposed definition. All in all, it is a slippery lexicological customer, with many friends and relations in a wide variety of fields.”

    And for what it’s worth, I’m designing and producing a social game for Playfish/EA right now. Before that I designed PMOG/The Nethernet and two social RPGs on Facebook. While I’m confessing… I love Twitter, social games, and all other tools that enable people to be playful together.

    • July 26, 2010 at 10:02 pm

      Good points, Merci! Yeah, I agree–defining “game” is kind of like defining “art” or “community.” 🙂 Actually, I have a paper about that (http://www.cc.gatech.edu/~asb/papers/bruckman-community-chi06.pdf)–arguing that using the cognitive science definition of prototype-based categories, the idea of a “community” is a category. A category has “focal” or best members. A robin is a better example of “bird” than a penguin. So we understand something’s bird-ness by exploring its similarities and differences from a focal member. Game, hobby, and sport have different idealizations or focal members, and which one you compare any activity to highlights different features. So I guess I’m just saying the comparison to hobbies gives us new and different insights.

      Thanks for the comment!

      • July 27, 2010 at 9:16 am

        Amy, some people play poker or chess or crosswords or sudoku as a hobby. Yet, those games, like knitting and even stamp collecting, appear to offer a rather different experience than does FarmVille. I imagine some folks consider their slot machine playing to converge on hobbydom too (or their pornography collections). Point being, just as there are focal members of art or game, there are also ones for hobby. I don’t think you’re saying this explicitly, but there’s an implicit suggestion that “hobby” is a generally positive or at least innocuous category, and it’s a word that certainly carries that rhetorical tenor. Which just leads me back to my original comment, namely that FarmVille could be a hobby and be a bad one.

    • July 27, 2010 at 11:16 am

      Ian, yes I was definitely trying to say there are focal members for the category “hobby.” And goodness no–I’m not at all trying to say ‘hobby’ is necessarily positive. Collecting strikes me as pathological. (You spent WHAT for Elvis’ signature? Really?? And you spent how much time tracking it down???) Crafts I have more sympathy with, since there’s creativity involved most of the time. But passing judgement on what people do with their leisure time is messy business, and tends to harbor lots of class-based values in particular.

  7. @dowdle
    July 26, 2010 at 10:16 pm

    forget the lilacs, plant me a money tree and call me for the harvest!

    • July 27, 2010 at 11:53 am

      Mike, I think Farmville *is* a money tree!

  8. July 30, 2010 at 12:38 pm

    i hate Farmville

  9. August 25, 2010 at 1:01 pm

    FarmVille is Ok, but for some reason i prefer FrontierVille, there’s something about it that makes me wanna play it…

    Also take a look at Kingdomes of Camelot, a great game, reminds me of Stronghold…

    • August 25, 2010 at 3:24 pm

      I’m intrigued by your comment. Can you explain why you like Frontierville? I’d love to know! I don’t understand its appeal yet.

  10. November 9, 2010 at 6:52 pm

    im not a BIG fan of farmville but i enjoy playing it time to time 🙂

  1. July 29, 2010 at 12:16 pm
  2. July 29, 2010 at 2:06 pm
  3. November 16, 2010 at 10:20 pm

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