Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Is Farmville Making Us More Neighborly?

Okay, here's the thing: I don't play Farmville. Anymore. I'm actually a pretty big fan of video games but Farmville presented a slew of privacy issues to consider. And I really don't have the time to harvest strawberries every four hours. Or shoo the crows away from my neighbor's farm every time I launch the application. So I deleted the game from my Facebook account a long time ago. Still, sometimes it seems that I might be the only one. While I've managed to block most game notifications from my Facebook feed, I still sometimes see that Mary* needs help raising a barn or that Jack* found a lost duckling who needs a home. So I have to wonder at the level of engagement that Farmville encourages and its impact on our social order.

The community is important in Farmville. Farmers are not only responsible for their own farms, but they can contribute to the wellness of their neighbors' farms as well. There are any number of tasks they can perform from raking up leaves to driving away pests to pulling weeds, and then there are more decidedly "community-based" activities like barn-raisings for members to participate in. Farmville requires a serious time investment from participants. Crops mature on a schedule designed to keep players logging in but this means that someone may potentially always be keeping an eye on the farm, any farm, within the network.

This immersion within the Farmville world may encourage an increased awareness about one's "neighbors"—both the virtual and real. And may potentially work to increase connections between participants on the network. As with many digital interactions, it can be highly political. For example, there may be connections that you feel obligated to assist in Farmville, such as immediate family or friends. It may seem silly to think about driving away virtual pests, but we make very telling decisions about who to interact with online. If your boss was your Farmville neighbor, would you not respond to a request for help if you could? But if your cousin's boyfriend's coworker's brother whom you met once at a crowded, dark, and smelly bar asked for help, would your response be the same? Probably not. Because our networks can grow so large thanks to digital and social technologies, we need to maintain a means of organizing our connections, and rates of participation may do just that.

The game is built to encourage you to interact with other farmers because it awards you points for your actions that you can redeem for plans or other fixtures. It also allows the option to gift neighbors with trees and other decorative items, as well as farm animals. Remember Marcel Mauss, Readers? And our discussion on gifting? Here's a refresher: Mauss believed that gifts carry an obligation to be returned. That is, to gift someone with an object means that he is obligated and responsible for returning the favor to you. It generates a hierarchical relationship where the receiver is indebted and placed in a lower standing than the giver, so the giver must allow the receiver to reconcile this status and retain his standing. If someone gives you a horse in Farmville, when the gift is accepted you are presented with the option to return the favor almost instantly. We're given the tools to manage our relationships within the parameters of the Farm.

On the one hand, all this weeding may be political, but it may also be somewhat unintentionally altruistic too. Favors may be doled out with the expectation that help will be provided at a later date, but perhaps Farmville is also training players to simply be more aware. "Hey, your neighbor is away from her farm and there are crows eating all her crops. Will you shoo the birds away to help her?" can translate into real world behavior: "Hey, that young mom is struggling with her stroller. Will you help her fold it?" In a world where the digital often encourages us to be less aware, perhaps this may subtly shift the focus.

Okay, Farmville players (and non-players, too), feel free to weigh in. Don't worry, wheat takes three days to mature, so you've got time.

*These are not the real names of Farmville participants from my network.


  1. I agree that games like Farmville are perhaps making us more aware of how our actions effect others.

    Actually came across an example of how non profits can use a similar online model to benefit those in need in the offline world:

  2. Thanks for sharing your post, bloggirl. I'd be interested in learning how the background for the game was developed and what guarantees there are that the funds are actually going where they are intended. That presents a different perspective from what I've discussed, which is really more about personal awareness. It seems that this game is really a means of soliciting donations couched in a game platform - which is something that was tentatively tried with Second Life. Anyway, if you get more information let me know.