Boldly Going to the Next Frontier(Ville): Actual Farms and Homesteads

I sat down this morning compelled to write a screed about social games like FarmVille and the new FrontierVille, having finally played them for a few hours to see why 240 million people invest their time in games like these every day. But as I started to write, I realized that there was an untapped opportunity buried deep in these activities, which may redeem them. That’s a topic I’ll get to in a moment. First, the screed:

 According to Zynga, the creator of FarmVille and FrontierVille, 30 million people play FarmVille alone, which translates to 15 times more “farmers” on FarmVille than in the entire United States. The difference, of course, is that the only thing that FarmVille farmers are generating is income for the gigantic gaming company Zynga. Oh yes, and they’re generating marketing data and new players (a.k.a. customers) as well, since the only way to succeed in these games is by recruiting friends to play.

 The diabolical thing is that even knowing how manipulative the whole venture is, the game is still addictive, as there’s always one more reward to get just around the corner. New York Times writer Seth Schiesel captured it perfectly discussing FrontierVille (which is basically a repackaging of FarmVille—same concept, different scenery) in a review in the Arts section on Tuesday:

In its infectious appeal FrontierVille borrows liberally from the sound and visual iconography of games from Diablo to slot machines. Every time you clear weeds or harvest crops or animals, little stars and loot pop out à la Diablo, and your rewards are tied to how quickly you click to pick them up. The bloops and beeps are straight off a casino floor. FrontierVille is very intelligent in how it gets the player into a rhythm of clicking and receiving little rewards, always with the possibility of hitting the jackpot with a rare item or piece of a collectible set (like the oak-tree collection, or some such).

In the end all great games, like all great entertainments, involve a bit of manipulation—doing things to consumers that they may not be completely aware of on a conscious level. And perhaps Zynga games like FrontierVille are not manipulative at all in the sense that they are so transparent about how they operate.

FrontierVille Screenshot Courtesy of Zynga

Games like FrontierVille are certainly manipulative, since you can’t truly progress without handing over your personal data, buying some virtual currency (“horseshoes” in the case of FrontierVille) with real cash, and recruiting your friends to do the same. But they’re also manipulative in a much deeper sense, since you feel like you’re doing something—taming the wilderness, building a functioning farm, honing your skills as a Frontiersman—when in reality you’re simply consuming. Consuming a virtual experience and being primed, through sidebar advertising and game prompts, to spend real money on virtual stuff.

But I promised this wouldn’t only be a screed. And that’s because I see an opportunity here. Along with Zynga, the gaming company, there’s whose mission is: “Transforming the World Through Games.” Of course, they view the fact that people are socializing in their game worlds as a positive, which we’ll have to agree to disagree on. But they’re also doing things in the real world. For example, they mobilized their players to donate $3 million to Haiti relief efforts. That’s valuable—although the way players donated was by buying special virtual goods in the game world, and I’m not clear whether Zynga took a cut in those purchases or donated 100 percent to nonprofits, which of course is the difference between clever marketing and real philanthropy (Zynga’s communications team, if you’re reading, please let me know the answer).

But here’s where I see the potential for FarmVille and FrontierVille: if things continue as they are, worsening climate change and the degradation of other ecological services (pollination, freshwater, water purification) are inevitably going to bring down the consumer economy for the great majority of the world, including members of the global middle class who currently spend many hours a days online building virtual farms and updating their friends on what they had for lunch. If FarmVille could actually sponsor its best virtual “farmers” to learn real farming skills, that would be a great contribution to help humanity prepare for a changing world.

Our future, whether we want to believe it or not, will be a return to simpler living, with less stuff and with more people eking out a living off the land. Fortunately, both FarmVille and FrontierVille celebrate this idea—the idea that we can be quite happy living with a little plot of land and a cabin, growing some crops, tending some fruit trees, and raising a few chickens, all with the help of our neighbors. This is Zynga’s true contribution. And if the company can actualize that—bringing the desire to farm into the real world—such as through a farming scholarship for the best FarmVille farmer, or a week trip to learn permaculture on an ecovillage (say “The Farm” in Tennessee), or even a reality TV show where the best FarmVille farmers compete to be the best farmers on a real organic farm, Zynga could help convert virtual farmers and pioneers into real farmers and homesteaders. So that when the time comes that the consumer economy finally buckles (whether through a new economic depression triggered by overextended consumers, financial institutions, or governments, or through the bankrupting of nation-states due to climate disasters and refugee flows, just a few scenarios), people would know how to hunker down and get to growing a new livelihood.

Well, Zynga, what do you say? Are you ready to shell out a bit of cash (say $25,000 for the scholarship and $100,000 to market it) for a great PR opportunity that will surely more than pay for itself, and simultaneously help to get more Americans farming and thus ready for their new economic future? If so, let me know, I’d be happy to help—for, let’s say, 100,000 horseshoes.

And a PS for those of you ready to reclaim the two hours a day you spend on FarmVille or FrontierVille to grow real vegetables in your backyard or community garden: here’s a book that shows you how to grow all of your food in a quarter-acre plot. It may be a bit ambitious for beginners, but it has lots of useful tips. And if you have no backyard, you can find someone who does through Sharing Backyards.

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