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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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