The advent of online games and Flash mini-games has brought about a new genre of addicts. These addicts spend hours, if not days or weeks, on such games and derive solace from the most trivial graphic tasks. Such actions include, but are not limited to, the growth and harvest of crops, the assassination of a drug lord and the hostile takeover of his drug empire, the sale of visually-delicious recipes, and the construction of town halls and businesses to expand one’s city.
These games, the names of which I am sure you would have figured out by now, are primarily hosted on Facebook. But that’s basically it. They are just hosted there. Facebook has not created and does not have any stake in FarmVille, Mafia Wars, Cafe World, CityVille, etc. They were all created by a company now known as Zynga (formerly Presidio Media), which has no binding affinity towards Facebook.
If that is the case, then there is a question to ponder over – how many of Facebook’s daily active users use Facebook solely for the purpose of these games? In other words, if the number of users who use Facebook only for these games is taken away from the number that Facebook claims are active daily, how significant is the difference? This, in a way, defines the relationship between the two internet-based companies.
Zynga, the creator of the games, once attracted a huge fan following and had aggressive expansion plans. In fact, five of Zynga’s games were among the most widely used game applications on Facebook, with several millions of monthly active users. Such astounding figures compelled me to think – what exactly do these people find so lucrative in a game that hooks them on for months, if not years?
While my quest to find the basic reason for these millions to get hooked to FarmVille did not yield much fruitful results, it at least led me to learn something about myself. I realised that I am an addict myself. In a typical rehabilitation centre, I would stand up nonchalantly and say – “My name is Siddharth and I am a FarmVille-holic“.
As a FarmVille-holic, I made several observations about myself – even when the alarm clock failed, FarmVille succeeded in waking me up. The alarm clock’s efforts to break my slumber ended up with me hitting the highly pleasing Snooze button, but the thought of my farm and decaying crops instantly woke me up. Logging on to Facebook the first thing in the morning became a ritual. The game became my irresistible choice.
I also began talking to people I knew personally, who were themselves players, and to people I did not know as such but was friends with only for the social element of interaction required for FarmVille. I then designed a classification of people based on their playing frequency, interest in the game and association with the game.
Let me call the first set of people “The Social Farmers“. They are the ones for whom the game is an escape route to personal gratification. They play the game because of its social connection and interaction, in much the same way as some smokers and drinkers do so socially. They stick to the game only as long as their social network is active. As soon as the network loses interest and moves on to other things, these people also quit and move on. They are like one of the animals in the herd, needing the herd to take them together. For them, the game is just a pass-time to indulge into social assignments and escape the humdrum of life, while adhering to the ideology of “man is a social animal”. As this person is so passively involved in the game, it is very convenient for him to let go of a just-for-fun developed hobby.
The second set of people, “The Frequent Farmers“, are more involved in the game than the social farmers. The game holds a significant value to the frequent farmers, who can be compared with the frequent smokers and drinkers. Just like a frequent smoker does not always need company to light a cigarette, a Frequent Farmer does not always need social interaction to continue a strong interest developed in the game. They struggle to let go of the game conveniently and often seek a window of opportunity to resume their activities on their farm. However, when push comes to shove, they realise their priorities in life and take the tough stand of forgetting the game totally.
I just wish it were that easy for the final set of people, who I call “The Regular Farmers“. They are the true fans (addicts) of the game, who think about it almost the entire day as if their life depends on it. For them, it isn’t just a game – it is their road to happiness. I, myself, fortunately or unfortunately, fall into this category of people who have been addicted to the game and for whom the most menial and trivial tasks such as the harvesting of crops means a lot.
I am not sure how it works for the others but for me, FarmVille is my own piece of land that I own and manage as a business. I am an entrepreneur entrusted with the responsibility of nurturing my farm to ensure that it does not wither away and that I become as successful as I can growing it. Every morning, right after I get up, the first thoughts in my brain, even before the schedule of the day, are about my farms and their status. I ‘own’ multiple farms on FarmVille and each of the farms feels like a subsidiary of my enterprise. I am the Chairman of the group and each ‘delegate’ has to report to me the status of each of the other farms every single day.
Over time, I realised that every single action that I was performing in the game felt like a metaphorical version of running an enterprise. Every click was a decision that felt like an actual activity in a typical manufacturing plant. Right from sourcing the raw materials, the seeds of the plant that I needed to procure from the market, to managing the cash cycle of collections, which came through the sale of goods, I felt like I was responsible for everything.
For instance, the raw materials for producing a batch of Grapes on my farm were the Grape seeds which I could obtain for a pre-set price from the market. If I did not have enough cash with me for purchase, I had to ensure that I had sold my previous inventory of goods. Once I obtained the raw materials, I would plant them and wait for the manufacturing process to complete, which typically has a specified time, after which an entire batch of goods would be ready to be shipped or refined. Quality Assurance was maintained by ensuring that I return to my farm before my Grapes wither away and my initial cost of raw materials has gone down the drain. The batch just produced was then to be either sold directly to the market or sent further for processing and refining to be used for other subsidiaries or businesses. The Grapes just produced could be used to make Wine in the cellar, which could be sold at a much higher price than the grapes, or could be used to make certain goods in Crafting machines to use as fodder for animals, who would then give milk and other products, which could be sold at a much higher price. The distribution or wholesale companies, which might act as the supply chain of the produced goods in a real manufacturing industry, were my ‘neighbours’ and friends on FarmVille, who placed orders for the goods I produced. They were like my partners in business, helping me achieve synergy when I needed it and collaborating to make both our businesses grow and achieve our ‘financial objectives’. Growing crops gave me not only mastery of the crops, which could be used later in the game to achieve more throughput, but also bushels, which helped me sustain my business even during ‘recessionary’ times, when others had stopped playing the game and I had to carry forward my business on my own. The bushels thus earned could be used in the Bakery, Winery or Spa to produce goods that gave fuel for higher productivity. Thus, though the real-world businesses suffer badly owing to a recession, a virtual FarmVille business could be carried forward, albeit at a much slower pace, without the risk of shutting down, which happened only when one stopped playing. This gave me a sense of self-sufficiency, the ultimate objective of any economic profit-making firm.
FarmVille had even come up with Co-operative Farming, a concept highly analogous to forming a consortium to achieve an objective much beyond the reach of a single entity. Much like banks form a consortium of sorts to cater to a large entity requiring financial assistance, Co-op farming was like fulfilling urgent large orders that needed co-operation among all the players to ensure that the targets were met, the profits were relished and the losses, if any arose, were handled responsibly. As you can see, the complexity of the game felt much like being in the Chairman’s seat, deciding on what strategy to adopt next to grow my business.
This parallel with the real world is what I presume kept most of the addicts going on. Vesting powers in one’s hands and giving one the ability to create, expand, decorate and grow a business create an environment to which one’s self feels attracted. I believe this empowerment to which one feels so endeared is the moot reason for addicts to be hooked on to a routine of FarmVille. The “Regular Farmer”, like the regular smoker or drinker, is addicted to the habit and finds it difficult to let go. I, for one, subconsciously, had an internal FarmVille clock that kept track of the status of my farms.
Such obsession does sure border on madness, but it is what I knew I had gotten myself into. The lure of the game, harboured by the social interactions towards achieving a purpose, hooked me onto it like a madman. I remember having quit the addiction six times. Now that I have latched on to a new addiction, I believe I have been absolved of my FarmVille urges. But wait, let me grab a peek at my Grapes to check if they’re fine…