Apr 18, 2010

Cultivated Play: Farmville

Here is a very thoughtful essay by A. J. Patrick Liszkiewicz about the potential woes of social gaming, calling into question whether Farmville is actually a game. He tries to do this by invoking Callois's definition of game, but, by that definition, one who plays organized sports is not necessarily playing a game either. And, semantics aside, it is an interesting thought that cultivation based games like Farmville have rather a lot in common with sports -- they both involve gradual improvement over time, they both involve time-based obligations, they are usually more work than fun, and they both involve social pressure to succeed in order not to let others down. Which makes me think that detractors of social games who say "no game that is not fun can survive very long" should perhaps take a moment to consider why organized sports are still going strong after six thousand years, or at least read this paper by Scott Rigby about why "fun" does not seem to be the key reason that people play games.

So -- in short, my opinion is that just because Farmville is not "fun" does not mean it will not survive. Instead, the sustained popularity of a "not fun" game may well mean we've found a new kind of gameplay, and woven one more strand into the mesh that is the Gamepocalypse.


  1. I'm not sure I buy the connection between Farmville and sports.

    Point 1: "they both involve gradual improvement over time". That's some awfully vague wording.

    The important question is improvement of what? For Farmville, you're improving your status (level, farm size, number of neighbors, etc.), your production (which allows you to increase status), and perhaps some artistic value that you assign to your creation (how cool your farm looks).

    In sports, you're improving a set of physical skills. More importantly, with sports the improvement comes from effortful practice, but with Farmville, the improvement comes from the frequency and length of time you visit the game. The only skills you're improving is maybe your mouse clicking ability.

    So beyond a generic idea of improvement that I think you would see with anything you spend time on, I don't see the connection between Farmville and sports.

    Point 2: "they both involve time-based obligations". I'm not really sure what you're getting at here.

    Farmville certainly requires you to spend a certain amount of time at regular intervals to effectively play the game, but sports aren't anything like that. For any sport I can think of, a set of people can get together anytime they want and play a sport, usually for as long or short a period as they'd like. Sports require regular practice to improve skills, but that's true of any skill based game, and is certainly not true of Farmville, where the need for skills is very small, and the opportunity to improve skills is even smaller.

    Point 3: "they are usually more work than fun". Jesse, you must be playing the wrong sports. The sports that I play are generally more fun and more satisfying than the vast majority of video and table-top games that I've played. The idea of "being in the zone" while playing sports is very well known, and if you give any credence to Flow Theory, then I think you would have to equate that state of mind with a high value of fun.

    Point 4: "they both involve social pressure to succeed in order not to let others down". I have to admit that this one seems closer to true (for team sports, at least). But even here, I think there's a qualitative difference between the pressure.

    In sports, you're dealing with a mixed cooperative/competitive problem-solving activity. Everyone on a team is competing with another team to win, but in order to win, they feel the need to apply pressure to their teammates to make them perform better. In Farmville, everyone's trying to meet their own individual goals, and they can meet those goals faster if other people help them out, so they apply pressure.

    But the real source of the pressure is Zynga, which is just applying psychological tricks to try and get more people playing their game. Thankfully, there's no Zynga behind sports.

  2. @Jason: You make good points. I certainly did not intend to say that "Farmville is a sport", but rather that, in some ways, Farmville is closer to playing organized sports than it is to, say, Space Invaders. Which was a thought I found surprising.

    Some notes on your points:

    Point 1: "gradual improvement over time". Maybe this is a little vague, but what I'm getting at is that in traditional videogames, you play to win -- to beat the game. Yes, you improve over time, but it is often for the goal of "finishing." In both sports and farmville, the goal is different -- gradual improvement, slowly, over time, for the sake of gradual improvement.

    Point 2: "time-based obligations". My point here is that with both organized sports and Farmville, you have to show up at appointed times. Yes, one could theoretically play organized sports on the spur of the moment, but more often than not, one makes an appointment, and needs to show up on time, or there are consequences. Space Invaders doesn't give a damn when I show up.

    Point 3: "usually more work than fun". You bring up "being in the zone", but I'm not sure I'd call that "fun". But it isn't fair to call it "work", either. Maybe what I should have said is that "fun" isn't the primary driver for play in either organized sports or in Farmville. I'm sure, that for some people, fun is the driver in both organized sports and Farmville, but I think some different kind of engagement is the dominant factor with most people.

    Point 4 "social pressure". Yeah, the social pressure is different, but it's still social pressure. And, yeah, there's no Zynga behind sports. Yet.

  3. Thanks for sharing. I was especially interested in the point that Liszkiewicz made about social obligations. My teammates and I are working on Zindagi, web and mobile platform that aims to teach kids financial literacy by applying the game mechanics commonly found in social gaming to real money. Think Mint.com meets Farmville. We also plan on using social pressure to modify behavior. I'd very much like to chat with you about what we're doing.