Why is Farmville so addicting?

Alright, I know you've been secretly wondering: What about Farmville, exactly, makes it so addictive? What about Farmville draws people in that they spend hours clicking away to plant, harvest, plow? Perhaps you've even tried the game. 

The other day I was thinking about Farmville, and it suddenly clicked to me. Farmville is becoming a hobby to some people. Yes, yes, you say, and a shitty one at that. But think about that for a second. People are creating something, tending to it everyday, in an online space. The key word I'm going to talk about is creating. 

Creation has become a relatively rare feeling in our culture, but it's still one loaded with meaning and endorphins. We've moved to more and more consumption - those hours in front of the TV or computer that Clay Shirky hates. In the past 10-20 years, some of us have managed to start using these amazing technological tools to create amazing artifacts that could never have existed before. Others of us have used these new tools to accelerate our "old" hobbies by bringing communities of people together whom would otherwise never have been connected.

But that's really old news. We're pretty special for having done this, but what have the majority of internet users been doing? Up until five years ago, I'm willing to venture the average creator might have uploaded their family photographs to Snapfish and made a mug, but not much more than that. The majority of the internet was reading, watching Youtube videos, emailing, and more recently, Facebooking. 

Ah, Facebooking. In the midst of Facebooking, many of these adventurers might have stumbled upon Facebook games, and sensing something new to add to their online social repertoire, might have started a farm. At first, the farm may have looked boring. Perhaps you start out and want to be the richest, biggest farmer on your virtual block. So you may have built a fairly practical farm, maximizing harvesting area, that looked something like this: 

Then, you keep planting, maybe you start to acquire a few buildings, a few animals and trees, so you start trying to find a layout that works better for what you're doing.

Perhaps you realize that you can throw a little fun into it, and create something that looks like this. 

Fantastic. Maybe you decide you like trees way better than plants, or you far prefer animals and you start collecting exotic ones to show off.

 

Says the owner of above farm: It’s so cute! You collect animals, plant seeds and trees, harvest the crops, and you can use the money to buy STUFF. Like, a grain silo. Or a bike! Who doesn’t want more virtual STUFF?!? But I have noticed something about my little farm. First of all, I prefer the trees over the seeds. Second, and rather disturbing, I am so OCD about my farm that EVERYTHING — little animals included — has to be in neat rows. All the apple trees with the apple trees, cherry with cherry, pomegranate with pomegranate. Cow with cow, sheep with sheep, rabbit with rabbit. There’s no casual intermingling of free-range animals on MY farm, thank you very much!


Ah, so there's something kind of fun about that layout, no? So perhaps you start playing some more. You start collecting special buildings and items, arranging them in fun ways, making a little bit of "design." 

Hmm. There's something vaguely expressive about these things, isn't there? Perhaps you start exploring some, and come up with a few things. 

These are from Skull-a-day, a blog where the author makes one skull everyday.

So, then you start to realize you can maybe get a bit more in-depth. Maybe you create a simple scene. 

And that's when stuff starts to get a bit crazy.

...

But seriously. Do other people do this? Maybe you start to spend some time on a site like Farmville Freak or one of the others, and now you know about the rare animals and the crazy tips and tricks. Well, then...

If you've spent the past few minutes ignoring these photos, maybe you'll miss this point. People are legitimately creating things on Farmville. Perhaps Farmville is the digital version of Legos. For many people, Farmville may very well have been the first time they have repetitively come back to something, learned something that might vaguely be called a "skill" (in this case, more of a sense of the type of accessible artistry within the confined toolset of Farmville), used this to express themselves or personalize their space, and finally maintained it. 

If you've ever made anything, you know how addictive the experience can be. The experience of looking at something and being able to say, "I made that." It's undeniably self-affirming, it makes one feel competent and proud. And you can imagine how, for those who have never had a sense of it, it might be completely exhilarating. Many of these people have probably never felt that they were smart enough to create anything on the computer, but they have very slowly and carefully duped into creating these magnificently expressive spaces.

It might be easy to jump to how huge and important this experience might be, how it might teach people about entirely new ways to act online, but I won't jump there. Just now, there's no "easy" way for people to take this experience into something "similar" that might just be a little further up the totem pole to what is commonly respected as "artistic." Perhaps they do make a jump, and become masters of photoshop or javascript extraordinaires. Perhaps they just stay obsessed with Farmville, constantly clicking and harvesting, maybe jumping from Zynga game to Zynga game. More likely (to me), they get bored with it. Maybe they go back to knitting or scrapbooking, or maybe they just keep printing souvenir mugs on Snapfish. 

Perhaps we've done this group a disservice. Some of us think Zynga and other Facebook games are inane, and ignore the area completely. Others think this is the next big money maker, and pour our time and effort into Facebook games. But how many of us have stopped and wondered what is really going on here, and if, perhaps, Zynga is creating a cultural force that we can take just a bit further? 

This post was originally published on my Tumblr.