I don’t get Farmville either. Like you, I tried it out and found it painfully boring. I liked Cityville a lot. I didn’t know why, but I enjoyed coming back, collecting rent, and using it to add a library or fire station to my city. Sometimes I’d just watch it, enjoying seeing the little people hop, skip and jump down the sidewalk.
But a lot of people I know dismiss them both out of hand. They tried it, didn’t find it fun, therefore something sinister must be causing all those people to play, right? It must be compulsion mechanics! (Never mind they didn’t get addicted! Clean living for the win!)
I have news for you: not all fun is the same. Here is a list of things I do not find fun
Yet I do not deny these things are fun to someone. I don’t insist no one likes golf, they just do it to network (although I suspect it often.) I don’t look at the knitting craze as I would a cigarette pack, wondering how someone gets started with something so obviously disgusting. I don’t wonder what weird endorphins are released by sleeping on the ground with bugs. And I don’t accuse REI of manipulating people into buying expensive sleeping bags they don’t need, even though they are. Clearly.
We all find different things fun. Richard Bartle was the first most famous categorizer of players. In his Hearts, clubs, diamonds, spades: Players who suit MUDs,* he sorted players of MUDs into four types: Achievers, Explorers, Socializers, Killers. Achievers just wanted to be top rated. They love leaderboards. Explorers are driven by curiosity. They are the ones who stay up until 2 am to finish a novel or find out what lies around the corner in a maze. Socializers will tell you they met their best friends playing World of Warcraft. Killers like to win, as long as you also lose. In fact, if you lose, it’s ok if they don’t win. As long as you go down hard. Don’t play Scrabble with these people.
Since then, people have been trying to apply these types to all sorts of games (and gamification). But not all games are MUDs. Amy Joe Kim in What’s Your Engagement Style lists out Compete, Collaborate, Explore and Express as engagement styles found in social games (and social websites).
As well, Nicole Lazarro laid out the Four Keys to Fun, which categorized our game play into Hard Fun “Fiero” (which has become part of the game design lingua), Easy Fun i.e. “Curiosity,” Serious Fun which she equates to “Relaxation,” and People Fun or “Amusement.” I find Nicole’s the hardest to work with linguistically, because Amusement doesn’t quite capture what social play is about. But Fiero nails it. From First Person Shooters to crushing your friends in a close match Words with Friends, Fiero is Bartle’s Killers without the blood.
So what kind of fun is Farmville? I was lucky enough to meet many Farmville players when I was at Zynga, and they were not pale slot machine addicts, fingers twitching over a need to plant a Macaroni Tree. They looked a lot like the folks I saw at Michaels when my daughter and I went there to buy craft materials.
Bartle might say they were Socializers or maybe achievers, except they weren’t that into leaderboards. Some did like having a better farm than their friends. It was a kind of “smug neighbor” syndrome. But these were rare. As for them being socializers, it was more likely they just quietly exchanged “gifts” and did not chat with each other. Conversations features were more ignored than used.
Kim would probably say they were expressers, and this comes closest to what I saw in forums like this one. There is a real pride in what one can accomplish. But those who expressed were also less common than those who made amazing farms, and kept them to themselves.
Lazzaro is probably the winner in capturing the Farmville Fun with “relaxation.” The farmers are hobbyists in the truest meaning of the word. They make things for the pleasure of making. It is a quiet place where they can bring order to their life the way they often can’t otherwise. I suppose most folks on Etsy are there not to earn a living, but because otherwise their houses would be overrun with plarn dresses and paper rose bouquets. Look, it’s ok I’ve made 50 couch doilies. I’m a small business!
Perhaps I recognize this urge to create useless stuff from the model railroaders in Mason City, Iowa, where my grandparents lived. These men could hide from the chaos of the house overrun by kids into the order of the basement wonderland. Perhaps I find myself retreating into the same urge as I cook, giving up the living room as lost to my daughter’s time machine built from Amazon boxes. The kitchen is the one place, cooking is the one time I can be in full control. But the urge to make always overwhelms the urge to consume. My freezer is full, and I throw away too much.
My City in Cityville was the same way for me, for a while, but it stayed in its little box. It was a tiny place I could travel to in my mind, with the wide grassy central square with a gazebo like Mason City, but also a block of brownstones with a deli, like my favorite parts of Brooklyn. I controlled where the Starbucks went, and if it was allowed in. And clean-up was a breeze.
Yes, Zynga does a lot of things you don’t like that retailers also do, like limited-time promotions, artificially limited collectibles and placing way to many pop-ups between you and your play. We put up with the Amazon Gold Box, some people collect action figures, some don’t and no one likes pop-ups (Really Zynga, quit it.) But most people also understand that games are not free, and may be willing to click an ad or buy a gold unicorn because they like it.
They also use mechanics that heighten the pleasure, like the harvest mechanic. The Harvest mechanic** is probably one of the most misunderstood mechanics. It’s not inherently addictive. You do something, then you have to come back later to get the rewards of what your efforts. It’s a strong retention mechanic, one that we recognize from creative acts from gardening to baking.
The irregular reward schedule mechanic***, one of the most addictive mechanics and the one you see in slot machines is not present in Farmville. Let me say it once and clearly: the game is actually fun for a certain set of people. They are not shooting up endorphins any more than your grandfather is when he makes model railroads. In fact, at least your grandfather gets to sniff glue while he does it. And some people do spend way too much time playing Farmville, just like some people spend way too much time building railroads, playing D&D, making porcelain unicorns and other horrors. And some people spend way more money on it than they should. How many porcelain unicorns does one need? But these are outliers, far from the masses who worship roulette in the casino temples of Vegas.
Making just feels good. The Farmville farms don’t mess up the kitchen they way my hobby does. Cityville doesn’t take up room on the shelves, like the jars of jam I make but don’t eat. But all of these provide a quiet respite from the madness of the day, a place to be, and a place to quietly busy.
We all have something like that. We are not machines, to always be of use. We need a place to rest our minds. We need a place to let our imagination out without the pressure of it having to be productive. Perhaps you are a guild member in WoW. Perhaps you wash your car obsessively, dreaming of Lemans as you triple wax it. Maybe you build cities in Minecraft, maybe you collect American Girl dolls that you arrange into oppressive and nonoppresive depictions of femininity.
As one player said “Some people knit. I farm.”
* Multi-user dungeons, an early multiplayer role playing game.
** a mechanic is a rule in the game that gives it shape and often makes it fun. i.e. strawberries take five minutes to reach maturity. or checkers become kings if they reach the far side of the board.
*** Your brain releases dopamine when you get rewarded. When you can’t predict when you will receive a reward, your brain produces more. This is the gambler’s high.