Archive for the ‘games’ Category

Pokémon Go and Work/Life Balance

January 2, 2017 1 comment

I love casual games, though I’ve written before about how they can sometimes be disruptive. Surprisingly I do not find Pokémon Go particularly disruptive. As promised, it promotes walking (you get credit for hatching Pokémon eggs the further you walk.) And it has other interesting qualities I could not have predicted when I started playing it.

Most importantly and most surprising: It promotes better work/life balance. When I am out for a walk, if I have Pokémon Go open, I get credit for the distance walked. As a result, I tend to leave the app open, which means I don’t check my email. That means I am more truly not at work, for my walk.

The bad news of course is that I’m looking at my phone, rather than at the scenery. But generally speaking I find I still appreciate where I am, and enjoy chatting with people I am walking with. It takes little of my attention.

If I am playing while walking with people who are not playing, I never stop to do a gym battle. A gym battle takes a couple minutes, and that’s too long to ask friends to wait. It’s also important to leave the sound off. Most people always leave the sound off. I leave it on when I’m walking alone, because the audio feedback means I spend less time looking at my phone. After you throw a Pokéball, it takes a few seconds to see if you caught the Pokémon or not. If you listen to the sound effects, you can stop looking at the phone and listen for whether you caught it. But if I’m walking with other people, the sound is annoying, and also misleading—they assume I’m more distracted than I really am.

My second surprise: it is a participatory exploration of probability and economics. Probability is fundamental to the game—each time you try to catch a Pokémon, a circle around it shows whether you have a high (green), medium (yellow), or low (red) chance of catching it. A player is constantly calculating: How hard will this be to catch, and is it worth it? It’s a constant reminder of the basic laws or probability: past trials don’t affect the outcome of the next one.

When you try to catch a Pokémon, you have to decide: Am I going to throw a regular Pokéball, a great ball, or an ultra ball? The latter are increasingly rare, but have a higher catch rate. The more powerful the Pokémon, the harder it is to catch, and the higher quality Pokéball you need to use. If I use too cheap a ball, then I have to try again, and again—and might miss catching it entirely, if it runs away. Choosing to use a regular Pokéball might mean I wasted five or more balls, rather than using one or two great balls. It’s like the game is whispering in my ear over and over: don’t be cheap, don’t be cheap….

An economist friend noticed right after the launch of the game that it demonstrates the “sunk cost fallacy”: If it was worth throwing those previous six Pokéballs at that Pidgey, it’s worth throwing one more.

Pokémon Go is good for certain times and places. It’s great for travel, because different places have different Pokémon. It was fun to catch all the Growlithes in San Diego (a Pokémon common there and rare in most other cities). It was particularly fun to use at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, which had a safari-like quality of Pokémon on the day I visited. When you’re visiting a zoo, you do a lot walking, and wander from exhibit to exhibit. Playing Pokémon Go at the zoo made the whole experience more fun. When a rare Pokémon appeared on the radar (a Snorlax), I got to chat with strangers who came to try to catch it from around the zoo. On the other hand, it was also nice to go a number of places (like the lighthouse and beach at Point Loma in San Diego) where there was no cell service, and I put my phone away. The trick of course is knowing when to put your phone away when there still is cellular service.

I won’t lie—I do sometimes play when I shouldn’t. Particularly when I’m somewhere I don’t want to be. A Pokéstop is a place you can get free Pokéballs and other useful items every five minutes. Fortunately or unfortunately, there is Pokéstop accessible in a conference room where I have a number of boring meetings. For a long meeting, I find playing a casual game helps me to pay more attention to the meeting. The distraction is so light that I am still paying attention to the meeting and less likely to zone out entirely. But it’s perceived by others as disrespectful (if they catch me with my phone under the table), and I probably shouldn’t do it. Like any casual game, Pokémon Go requires mindfulness in when you choose to play.

Whether Pokémon Go survives in the long or even medium term depends on whether the developers can keep adding features and special events to keep it interesting. But for now, it’s a casual game that fits into my life better than others.

Activity Balance: An Alternative Approach to Manage Kids’ Screen Time

May 11, 2016 3 comments

Our boys (ages 10 and 12) love video games. And following the truism that every generation has media choices that baffle their parents, they also love watching videos of other people playing video games. They would play and watch all day, if we let them. On weekdays, by the time they get home from school and finish their homework, we don’t mind if they spend the free time that remains playing games. On weekends, we have always limited their screen time.

This policy has always chafed. A few months ago, our twelve-year-old protested, exasperated, “Do you have any evidence that too much video games is bad for you?” I patiently explained, “It’s not that video games are bad for you. It’s that we want you to have a balanced life—read a little, get some exercise, play some video games, practice your saxophone. If you did any one of those activities to the exclusion of others, we’d ask you to balance more: ‘Put down that book and go play a video game! You can’t read all day!’”

Five months ago, it occurred to me: Why not make the policy better match the rationale? Instead of limiting our kids’ screen time, we started requiring them to do a variety of activities each weekend day: read, exercise, and practice their musical instrument. As long as those things are done at some point during the day, they can have as much screen time as they like.

So far, the policy is a huge improvement. There is much less grumbling, and better balance in their weekend days. When asked how the policy is going so far, our twelve-year-old explained that he agrees that reading and exercise are important. (He’s less sure about music practice!) He also finds the new policy makes for a more relaxing weekend day. Our ten-year-old comments, “I like it better. The point is so that I do other things with my day, and I think it’s fair.”

The day-to-day implementation is not without challenges. We still need to remind them, “Did you exercise yet today?” And if the reminder comes too late in the day, it’s just not going to happen. If we forget to remind them and monitor, the new system deteriorates to a full day of screen time. But then again, the old system did too (“Did you forget to turn the timer on? How long have you been playing?”)

It’s encouraging to me that our kids have embraced the values that underlie this system—that you must make choices about how you spend your time, certain activities are important, and balance is important.

What approach does your family use? Leave me a comment!

Categories: balance, games, kids

Goodbye to Fantasy Football

August 6, 2014 1 comment

My husband said at the breakfast table this morning:

I saw an article yesterday that Peyton Hillis is number two on the Giant’s depth chart. And you know what? I don’t care!

He grinned and we exchanged fist bumps. Hooray for not needing to know the Giants’ depth chart!

I have played fantasy football since 2001 and been commissioner of a league since 2002, and this year I quit. So did my husband. We’re relieved.

There’s a lot to like about fantasy football. I feel a genuine sense of comradery with the friends I play with. I love statistics, and pouring over charts to find the overlooked gem of a player is great fun. I’m not bad at it–I almost always make the playoffs (though I rarely actually win the league). But about three years ago, I stopped looking forward to my annual summer pre-draft research, and started dreading it.

Success at fantasy football is built on three things: knowledge, strategy, and luck. I am a bit deficient in the knowledge department (I like reading sports news, but I’m not obsessed with it), but I like to think that I make up for that in the strategy department. Which adds up to making me a pretty good player. But why did it stop being fun?

Fantasy football isn’t just something you do in addition to watching football–it transforms the entire viewing process. And that’s both good and bad. The good part is that I can be watching a game between two teams I don’t particularly care about and rejoice when a player on my fantasy team scores. The bad part is that I can be watching what is truly a great football game, but fail to see it. Instead of seeing the Broncos’ offense as a thing of beauty, I’m thinking “Oh no–don’t throw it to Wes, throw it to Demaryius!” In fact I’m not watching the real game at all–I’m watching the fantasy game, and whether Peyton gets the ball to my man Demaryius Thomas is the only thing I actually am seeing. Which is particularly bizarre if the Broncos happen to be playing my home team, the Atlanta Falcons. So we intercept a ball targeted at Demaryius and I’m sad? Wait, what am I cheering for–for my fantasy players to score, or for my real team to win? Which game am I even watching–the real one or the fantasy one? You’ll often find me in our seats at the Georgia Dome hitting reload on my phone–forget what’s on the field in front of me: how are my fantasy players doing?

Fantasy football also has a crazy frustration factor–injuries. Sometimes these are foreseeable–if you draft someone with a history of injuries in the past, you know you’re taking a risk. But some of them are just random. Even more random when the injury occurs off the football field.

I’ve gotten better over time about not being over invested in my fantasy team. Sometimes on a fall Sunday if we’re out for a hike, I actually can wait til we’re home to check my fantasy stats, instead of reloading them on the trail. But it’s still hard not to feel like you’re under a black cloud on Sunday if everything is going badly. Or to grin like a Cheshire cat if things are going well. But if my husband and I are both playing in the same league, how often is it that we’re both rejoicing at our fantasy football luck? Someone is usually fumbling their way through a weekend disappointment. Not that we care that much–we don’t–but it still can be dispiriting. So in the end the game does not improve our net household happiness.

For this year, I say goodbye to fantasy football and hello to real football. And maybe my former fantasy football buddies will watch a real game with me some time.

Categories: games, Uncategorized

A Great Experience That Must Stop: Words With Friends and the Mindful Use of Technology

April 6, 2013 12 comments

I wrote a couple years ago about how much I enjoyed playing Farmville, and how glad I was to quit it.  And a week ago I quit another fun game: Words With Friends (WWF), Zynga’s version of Scrabble on Facebook.  It’s been a peaceful week.  My quality of life has improved.  Which is odd because the game seems so lightweight–a social and casual game that doesn’t demand your attention at any particular time (like Farmville does), or any particular quantity of time (you can play for a minute or two).  So why do I feel like a burden has been lifted? 

I first need to tell you how much fun WWF is.  I like word games, and WWF is a challenging one.  I take genuine pride in a good play.  And though there is certainly luck involved, it’s primarily skill based–and I’ve been improving in both knowledge and tactics.  I can tell you now that there are no valid two-letter words beginning with c or v, that there are five s’s and two blanks, and that a ‘ratel’ is a small african mammal also known as the honey badger.

As I wrote in my last post, I feel close to people when I play WWF with them.  I’ve played with my cousin, colleagues in my field, friends from high school, college, and graduate school, a former student, and my new department chair.  I feel closer to all those people as a result.  You do learn something about people based on the words they play. I had to laugh when a mischievous friend from college was playing naughty words, while in another game a kindly colleague from another department was playing Christmas words just in time for the holidays.  People are funny.

It’s a fun game, and making a move takes only a couple minutes.  You can play right away after your opponent, or you can wait a day.  It’s creative, challenging, and fun.  So what could be wrong?

Well, one big thing: WWF was slowly taking over my life.  Consider the following situation.  I’m picking my kids up at aftercare at their elementary school.  When I arrive, they are somewhere in a large school building (Doing art in the cafeteria? Out on the playground?) and they are paged to come to the lobby.  It usually takes about five minutes for them to stop what they’re doing, clean up, travel across the building, find their backpacks and coats, and be ready to go.  So it’s a perfect time to make my WWF move, right?  Perfect except that if I’m playing a couple different games, I won’t be done when they arrive.  So I put away my phone, but part of my brain is still thinking about my move (what words end in ‘u’? ‘Tofu’?  ‘Bayou’?) rather than paying full attention to what happened at school today.  Until I finish making that move, I won’t fully be there.  And it’s like that through my entire day. The little gaps I have don’t match the amount of time it takes to make my WWF moves.  The fact that you can play on your phone makes the temptation pervasive.

The design of WWF draws you into playing more and more games in parallel.  Once you start a game with anyone, it will suggest you as an opponent to other friends.  And it seems rude to decline, especially when invited by someone you are fond of but haven’t seen in a while.  After each game, it asks both parties if you’d like a rematch.  If you don’t say, “OK, one more,” your opponent probably will.  It seems impolite not to–especially if you just won.  And pretty soon one game at a time becomes four or five.  A single move can take less than a minute.  Or you could pore over it for longer than you realize (‘I know there’s a seven-letter word in these letters!’)

I confess that I can get intense about the game.  It’s funny because I don’t care if I win at other computer games I play like MMOs or puzzle games.  But I guess I take pride in my skill with words more than other things, and I take the game too seriously.  I don’t mind if my opponent makes a spectacular move–bravo for them!  But if I accidentally leave a triple word score open when I didn’t mean to, I’m genuinely angry with myself.  When I’m focusing on a WWF move, I’m seriously concentrating.  It brings out a competitive side of me that I don’t like.

Fitting WWF into my life worked better when I was playing fewer games. And it worked better when I decided I would only make moves at the start and end of the day.  But then I’m waiting for a meeting to start and folks are late… OK, I’ll make a WWF move. But wait, now the meeting is finally started and I’m still thinking about words ending in u again.  You’ve heard this story before, haven’t you?  This story was weaving its way through my life.

I’m definitely never playing Farmville again.  I’m not sure about Words With Friends. The challenge for all of us is to understand how the technologies we use affect the daily rhythms of our lives. And to make mindful choices.


Categories: balance, games, mobile computing Tags:

When are video games mimetic?

January 16, 2012 2 comments

My son plays on Massively Minecraft, a wonderful Minecraft server for kids. And recently they banned TNT. I’m relieved. Minecraft is a great constructionist learning environment, and I’m happy to let him play it.  But his fascination with blowing stuff up was getting a bit too intense. They disabled TNT on the server because someone (not my son) blew up someone else’s creation.  My son would never do anything like that.  But I still would rather see him building a castle than piling up explosives to see how big a hole he can make.

People often ask the question “Are video games mimetic?” I was at a conference on games at Georgia Tech a few years ago, and one of the speakers at one moment was waxing poetic about what kids can learn from games.  They’re having fun, and look at all the things they can learn! And then moments later, the same speaker dismissed claims that violent games can make kids violent, because kids don’t transfer things from games to the real world–they know it’s just a game!  My friend Liz Losh and I had to hold our breath to avoid laughing out loud, the speaker’s self contradiction was so comic.  She whispered in my ear, “Either video games are mimetic, or they’re not. He can’t have it both ways!”

I’ve read a bunch of studies on this topic that have contradictory findings. I’d love to see a good literature review or definitive large-scale study. But I would rephrase the question somewhat. We shouldn’t ask whether games are mimetic, but under what conditions.  Can kids learn things from games? Of course! Do they magically absorb all that great content? Nah, not most of it.  Do kids become serial killers after playing violent video games? Of course not! But could they sometimes internalize some degree of insensitivity to violence through playing violent games? I’d be very surprised if that wasn’t true.  So the question for the research community is: What specific design features of a game or aspects of the context in which it is played lead to more or less transfer to the real beliefs and behaviors? How can we deliberately engineer games to support more transfer of learning content, and less of things like violence and obsessive consumerism that pervade many games?

There’s a lot of important research to do in this area. But in the meantime, I’m glad my son plays Minecraft. And I’m glad the kids’ server disabled TNT.

Categories: games, kids Tags: , ,

Gender Swapping Reinforces Stereotypes

May 17, 2011 1 comment

At CHI 2011 in Vancouver, Nick Yee and colleagues presented a fun note about gender swapping on World of Warcraft: “Do Men Heal More When in Drag?
Conflicting Identity Cues Between User and Avatar
.” There are many gender-based stereotypes about people’s behavior on MMOs. For example, people assume that women are more likely to play healing characters. However, Yee found that women are in fact not more likely to heal than men. However, men playing female primary characters are more likely to heal a lot.  When gender swapping, players live up to their stereotype of gendered behavior, even if that stereotype is not true.

This fascinates me, particularly because Josh Berman and I found the same thing in our study of an online identity game we created in 1999, The Turing Game.  In the Turing Game, a panel of players pretends to be a particular identity–for example women. (Game types were user created, so people played lots of fun games like who is from Canada, who is under 30, who is a parent, and more.)  The audience asks questions, and votes on who they think is telling the truth. After the game, contestants reveal their real identities and discuss how everyone knew the truth or was fooled. In many of these post-game conversations, audience members would say things like, “I knew you were really a woman, because you use long sentences with lots of dependent clauses. Women talk a lot. Men say things like ‘I’ll be back.'”  The only problem with this is that Susan Herring can conclusively show you that men use more words per conversational turn online.  The stereotype is wrong. And just as Yee found 12 years later, gender swapping  reinforces stereotypes.

We are currently redesigning and reimplementing The Turing Game as a web game with Facebook Connect. Our challenge in the redesign is to figure out how to help these playful explorations yield deeper insights and less bandying about stereotypes (whether true or false).

The Game Industry Struggles to Adapt to the Age of the Social Gamer

March 16, 2011 10 comments

At the Game Developer’s Conference (GDC) this year, my PhD student Betsy DiSalvo was struck by the irony of a bunch of middle-aged white men debating whether social games are evil.  Social games are aimed primarily at non-traditional gaming audiences.  The new hard core gamer is 40 and female.  The irony of a bunch of guys dismissing the games liked by women was apparently lost to the GDC panel.  “Dear ladies, instead of playing free games with short play times per session in which you pretend to grow vegetables or run a café, please pay $60 to buy a game with one-to-two hour long play sessions in which you shoot at things.  Thank you, The Game Developers.”

One underlying issue is diversity in the game industry. Now that we have a more diverse gaming audience, we need a more diverse community of game developers. And game scholars. I remember folks at GDC back in the late 90s dreaming of finding games that would appeal to women. If only we could find what they like–we’d double the potential market for games!  Now that we’ve achieved that goal, we have a tiny little problem: many of the developers now don’t like the kind of games they have to make.  Hence the hostility at GDC.  (Be careful what you wish for….)

People don’t go into the game industry to get rich or have a great quality of work life–they go into it out of love for games. If you hate the stuff you’re working on, that’s a problem. Will game companies now have to offer developers more reasonable working hours? That might be a silver lining.

Researchers in computing education have often argued that love of games is one factor that draws young men to study computer science and pursue CS careers. Now that there are more women playing games, will more young women choose to follow that path too? I’m guessing that they will, but the effect may be smaller than the industry needs–because the new social games tend to appeal middle-aged women, not high-school and college students choosing career paths.  The young women who do go into the game industry will likely find themselves in demand.

The other consequence of this turn of events is that there will be a much greater need for good design practice. It’s relatively easy to design for yourself and others like you–you figure out what you like and do it. As game developers are challenged to design things they would never play, they are going to need to actually read an intro human-computer interaction (HCI) textbook and learn about techniques to get input from members of their target audience before they invest development time to make something.

I agree with my colleague Ian Bogost that these games have privacy implications, and also that it can be problematic to treat your friends as a means to an end rather than an end in themselves.  (That’s the definition of unethical, according to Kant.) But the games also connect you to friends and family in a positive way, and have shorter playtimes that better fit into adult lives. There’s a lot to debate here both positive and negative.

And to the organizers of GDC: maybe the next panel on social gaming could have panel members (other than the moderator) who actually play social games?


Addendum: This is a somewhat unfair shot at this particular panel (which I heard about second hand from multiple sources, but did not attend), but the broader points about the game industry hold.

Categories: games, gender

Goodbye to My Farmville Hobby

November 16, 2010 1 comment

On weekend mornings, I’m up early–before everyone else. The kitchen is quiet, and I enjoy working peacefully–making a pot of tea, emptying the dishwasher, folding laundry, and then plotting an elaborate brunch. Things slowly get more orderly, and eventually everything is in its place. It’s relaxing and satisfying work at a leisurely pace.

When I started playing Farmville, something was added to my routine: before I went into the kitchen, I’d tend to my farm. Mornings are fun on Farmville. Crops are often ready to harvest. And it’s time to see what bushels you can get from your friends’ market stalls. Do I have enough roses to make rose petal water? Yes! But I’m still short of cucumbers for cucumber wine. I should plant some.

Working on my farm only took ten minutes. But I discovered something odd: after that, I looked at the kitchen with dismay. Ugh, I need to unload the dishwasher. There’s clean laundry in the dryer to fold. I don’t think I feel like baking muffins. After my Farmville work, my real work somehow seemed less relaxing and fun. My Farmville work was so perfect–bountiful grape fields, mastered with one click of my level four combine.

The more I reflect on it, the more I believe what I wrote in my post Farmville as Hobby. It really is a hobby. A more satisfying, voluntary version of work. Simple efforts are rewarded, and something new to strive for is added every few weeks. And all those things are attainable, with just enough delayed gratification to make the accomplishments feel significant.

On Saturday, I declared my farm closed. I have my level five winery and have expanded to Mighty Plantation. I have nothing else I want. Part of the impetus to declare “enough is enough” came from the impending apocalypse of Farmville Christmas cheer. To keep players engaged, Zynga has designed more and more elaborate ways to earn festive decorations for each holiday. For halloween, we all got candy buckets and you could build your own haunted house. Haunted houses give you candy for your bucket, and if you collect enough you can trade it in for halloween decorations. You can also get candy by visiting your friends’ houses. It was all quite elaborate, and by the time the real holiday arrived I was already tired of halloween everything. So when I saw Farmville had given me a fruit cake with a teaser message about things to come, all I could think is “bah, humbug!”

Playing Farmville doesn’t take much time. After ten minutes, there’s nothing much to do. If you don’t do something insane like grow raspberries (time to mature: 2 hours) you don’t have to check in that often.  Except ten minutes here and ten minutes there starts to add up after a while. And the ten minutes can happen at inconvenient times in your real life routine, which can be disruptive.

I have no patience with anti-Farmville snobbery. Because snobbery is what it is, filled with unexamined class and gender biases. This is a fun game. Or hobby. It’s got a number of really insightful design features, and I’ve learned a tremendous amount by playing it seriously for a few months. There are reasons why it’s wildly popular, and those reasons are worth understanding. But it is indeed time for me to move on–before the elves and reindeer take over.

I am happy to have my small clusters of minutes back. And over the weekend, I’m planning to make apple spice muffins.

Categories: games, social computing

Product Placement in Games Done Well

November 4, 2010 2 comments

I’ve heard for a long time that product placement in games was coming. I know there have been a few Coke machines in shooter games here and there, but I haven’t seen a lot of it. The latest is product placement in social games. This seems to me like a great business idea, because the placement doesn’t have to be negotiated before game launch. You can launch your game, and then roll out a product placement as a special event.  Which is what Zynga has been doing with Farmville lately–to great effect.

There have been three events over the last few months. The first was somewhat mixed: McDonalds was added as everyone’s friends for one day. If you visited the McDonalds farm, you got a free decorative McDonalds blimp and a McCafe.  Drinking the McCafe makes you move really fast for one session. Sorta cute, but no big deal.  The second placement was much more fun–crop insurance from Farmer’s Insurance. Everyone was given a Farmer’s Insurance blimp, and if you flew it over your farm your crops wouldn’t wilt, for a period of a couple weeks til the promotion ended.  Crops wilting is a big hassle in Farmville, so this was a substantial benefit.  Finally, today was Megamind day. To coincide with the launch of the new movie, Megamind was added as everyone’s friend for the day. If you visited Megamind’s farm, you got a Megamind decorative blimp and also a spray bottle of “mega grow.”  The mega grow makes all your plantings ready to harvest instantly.  If I’d known how cool it was, I would’ve saved it and plotted to do something more substantial with it like instant watermellon (which take 4 days normally). I was just expecting it to be a fertilizer–finding out what it really did was a fun surprise.  Can I have more mega-grow?  Please?  If I go to the movie maybe?  The Farmer’s and Megamind placements were more successful in my view because the game bonuses were actually substantial enough to matter.  I have a warm fuzzy feeling about the brands and the advertising events because they enhanced my game play. And participation was voluntary–you could ignore them and they’d go away.

This is the first product placement in a game that has worked for me. Many people are spending a lot of time trying to figure out how to copy Zynga. Here’s an example of another success to ponder.

Categories: business, games

Farmville as Hobby

July 26, 2010 24 comments

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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