Cultivated Play: Farmville

liszkiewicz's picture

[This essay was given as a talk at SUNY Buffalo, 28 January 2010, the day after Howard Zinn’s death. I have left the text unaltered, to better reflect the spirit of the talk.]

I’m worried that students will take their obedient place in society and look to become successful cogs in the wheel - let the wheel spin them around as it wants without taking a look at what they’re doing.
                                                      — Howard Zinn

The great social historian Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States, died yesterday of a heart attack. Zinn devoted his life to educating Americans in their country’s history, that they might better understand their place in its present. Such understanding is today at a premium. Ours is a time of confusion, of unprecedented changes that outpace our perceptions. As Zinn might have said, the wheel keeps spinning faster, and the faster it spins the harder it is to see.

At such times, and at such speeds, the task of educating ourselves becomes all the more urgent. We are citizens of a democracy, and democratic citizenship has always been a difficult skill to master. This is why Aristotle tells us that, in an ideal state, citizens would possess ample leisure time: the education of a citizen depends upon contemplation, deliberation, and training. Citizenship requires cultivation and, as any farmer would tell us, cultivation takes time.

Perhaps it seems a waste of time to discuss video games at a moment like this. After all, this is a serious discussion, and games are supposedly frivolous things. Most any concerned parent might say, “Play is an occasion of pure waste: waste of time, energy, ingenuity, skill, and often of money….”[1] So said Roger Caillois in his book, Man, Play, and Games. Of course, Caillois went on to praise games as a source of joy, as well as a healthy means of “escape from responsibility and routine.”[2] For Caillois, as for Aristotle, games are in fact essential to citizenship: they allow us to refresh and renew ourselves, help to socialize us, and afford us opportunities to cultivate our imaginations and reasoning skills.[3]

If games are essential to citizenship, then this could be a promising time for our democracy. According to a recent survey, over half of American adults play video games, and one in five play everyday or almost everyday. Does this mean we are becoming better citizens? Ninety-seven percent of American teenagers play video games.[4] Does this mean they will become more politically active? Before you dismiss these questions, keep in mind that in October 2008, then-Senator Barack Obama became the first U. S. Presidential candidate to advertise in video games, when his “Early Voting Has Begun” ads appeared in Madden 2009, Burnout Paradise, and other Electronic Arts video games.[5]

Much has been made of President Obama’s sophisticated use of new media technologies. He utilized the internet extensively in organizing and raising funds for his campaign, and has maintained an active presence on popular social media sites, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr. To illustrate, he is currently taking questions about last night’s State of the Union address via YouTube, and plans to answer those questions next week in a live, online video feed.[6] While it remains unclear how such events are affecting politics, it is clear that new media technologies pervade the sociopolitical realm. So we cannot simply dismiss video games and Facebook as mere ‘wastes of time.’ Instead, we are obligated to educate ourselves about them, and to try to understand what they mean, and what it means that we use them.

With this in mind, it seems appropriate to examine the most popular video game in America. Farmville is a free, browser-based video game that is played through one’s Facebook account. Users harvest crops, decorate their farms, and interact with one another, in what is ostensibly a game about farming. While this may sound like a relatively banal game, over seventy-three million people play Farmville.[7] Twenty-six million people play Farmville every day. More people play Farmville than World of Warcraft, and Farmville users outnumber those who own a Nintendo Wii.[8] This popularity is not surprising per se; even in the current recession, video game revenues reached nearly twenty billion dollars in America last year.[9] The video games industry is a vibrant one, and there is certainly room in it for more good games.

Farmville is not a good game. While Caillois tells us that games offer a break from responsibility and routine, Farmville is defined by responsibility and routine. Users advance through the game by harvesting crops at scheduled intervals; if you plant a field of pumpkins at noon, for example, you must return to harvest at eight o’clock that evening or risk losing the crop. Each pumpkin costs thirty coins and occupies one square of your farm, so if you own a fourteen by fourteen farm a field of pumpkins costs nearly six thousand coins to plant. Planting requires the user to click on each square three times: once to harvest the previous crop, once to re-plow the square of land, and once to plant the new seeds. This means that a fourteen by fourteen plot of land—which is relatively small for Farmville—takes almost six hundred mouse-clicks to farm, and obligates you to return in a few hours to do it again. This doesn’t sound like much fun, Mr. Caillois. Why would anyone do this?

One might speculate that people play Farmville precisely because they invest physical effort and in-game profit into each harvest. This seems plausible enough: people work over time to develop something, and take pride in the fruits of their labor. Farmville allows users to spend their in-game profits on decorations, animals, buildings, and even bigger plots of land. So users are rewarded for their work. Of course, people can sidestep the harvesting process entirely by spending real money to purchase in-game items. This is the major source of revenue for Zynga, the company that produces Farmville. Zynga is currently on pace to make over three hundred million dollars in revenue this year, largely off of in-game micro-transactions.[10] Clearly, even people who play Farmville want to avoid playing Farmville.

If people don’t play Farmville because of the play itself, perhaps they play because of the rewards. Users can customize their farms with ponds, fences, statues, houses, and even Christmas trees, and compare their farms with those of their friends. It’s important to note that Farmville is a public game, shared with friends across the largest social networking site in America. It makes sense that some people would enjoy the aesthetics of Farmville, of designing and arranging their farms. No doubt some users want to show off their handiwork, and impress and compete with their virtual neighbors. Nevertheless, it is difficult to imagine seventy-three million people playing a game that isn’t fun to play, just to keep up with the Joneses. After all, we have real life for that sort of thing.

Even Zynga’s designers seem well aware that their game is repetitive and shallow. As you advance through Farmville, you begin earning rewards that allow you to play Farmville less. Harvesting machines let you click four squares at once, and barns and coops let you manage groups of animals simultaneously, saving you hundreds of tedious mouse-clicks. In other words, the more you play Farmville the less you have to play Farmville. For such a popular game, this seems suspicious. Meanwhile, Zynga is constantly adding new items and giveaways to Farmville, often at the suggestion of their users. Hardly a week goes by that a new color of cat isn’t available for purchase. What fun.

Again: if Farmville is laborious to play and aesthetically boring, why are so many people playing it? The answer is disarmingly simple: people are playing Farmville because people are playing Farmville.

My mother began playing Farmville last fall, because her friend asked her to join and become her in-game neighbor. In Farmville, neighbors send you gifts, help tend your farm, post bonuses to their Facebook pages, and allow you to earn larger plots of land. Without at least eight in-game neighbors, in fact, it is almost impossible to advance in Farmville without spending real money. This frustrating reality led my mother—who was now obligated to play because of her friend—to convince my father, two of her sisters, my fiancée and (much to my dismay) myself to join Farmville. Soon, we were all scheduling our days around harvesting, sending each other gifts of trees and elephants, and posting ribbons on our Facebook walls. And we were convincing our own friends to join Farmville, too. Good times.

The secret to Farmville’s popularity is neither gameplay nor aesthetics. Farmville is popular because in entangles users in a web of social obligations. When users log into Facebook, they are reminded that their neighbors have sent them gifts, posted bonuses on their walls, and helped with each others’ farms. In turn, they are obligated to return the courtesies. As the French sociologist Marcel Mauss tells us, gifts are never free: they bind the giver and receiver in a loop of reciprocity. It is rude to refuse a gift, and ruder still to not return the kindness.[11] We play Farmville, then, because we are trying to be good to one another. We play Farmville because we are polite, cultivated people.

One wonders if this is a good thing. It is difficult to imagine Aristotle or Caillois celebrating Farmville as essential to citizenship. Indeed, when one measures Farmville against Roger Caillois’ six criteria for defining games, Farmville fails to satisfy each and every one. Caillois stated that games must be free from obligation, separate from ‘real life,’ uncertain in outcome, an unproductive activity, governed by rules, and make-believe.[12] In comparison:

(1) Farmville is defined by obligation, routine, and responsibility;
(2) Farmville encroaches and depends upon real life, and is never entirely separate from it;
(3) Farmville is always certain in outcome, and involves neither chance nor skill;
(4) Farmville is a productive activity, in that it adds to the social capital upon which Facebook and Zynga depend for their wealth;
(5) Farmville is governed not by rules, but by habits, and simple cause-and-effect;
(6) Farmville is not make-believe, in that it requires neither immersion nor suspension of disbelief.

Of these points, the fourth is the most troubling. While playing Farmville might not qualify as work or labor, it is certainly a productive activity, as playing Farmville serves to enlarge and strengthen social capital. Capital is defined as “any form of wealth employed or capable of being employed in the production of more wealth.”[13] New media companies like Zynga and Facebook depend upon such wealth in generating revenue, just as President Obama depends on social capital to raise money, to organize, and to communicate. Unlike President Obama, though, Zynga is not an elected official, and is not obligated to act with the public’s interests in mind.

Zynga has recently used Farmville to raise almost one million dollars to support earthquake relief efforts in Haiti.[14] Social capital can allow organizations to do great and noble things, and to do so quickly and efficiently. Zynga actually began its charitable efforts with Haiti last fall, around the time my family began playing Farmville. Also at this time, Zynga was engaged in numerous “lead gen scams,” or advertisements that trick customers into making purchases or subscribing to services. As of November, one third of Zynga’s revenue (roughly eighty million dollars) came from third-party commercial offers, such as Netflix subscriptions that came with Farmville bonuses, or surveys that involved hidden contractual obligations.[15] One user reportedly was charged almost two hundred dollars one month, as a result of cell-phone services for which she had unknowingly signed up, while following Farmville ads in search of bonuses.[16] So many users were scammed, in fact, that Zynga and Facebook are now involved in a related, multi-million-dollar class action lawsuit.[17]

The wheel keeps spinning, faster and faster. More people are signing up to play Farmville every day, as well as other similar Zynga games, such as Mafia Wars, YoVille, and Café World. Analysts estimate that, if the company goes public in the summer of 2010, Zynga will be worth between one and three billion dollars.[18] This value depends in its entirety on the social capital generated by users, like you and me, who obligate one another to play games like Farmville. Whether this strikes you as a scam or just shrewd business is beside the point. The most important thing to recognize here is that, whether we like it or not, seventy-three million people are playing Farmville: a boring, repetitive, and potentially dangerous activity that barely qualifies as a game. Seventy-three million people are obligated to a company that holds no reciprocal ethical obligation toward those people.

It is precisely at a moment like this—when Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission has made it legal for corporations to spend unlimited monies on political advertisements—that we must talk about our relationship to corporations, and to one another. We are obligated to examine what we are doing, whether we are updating our Facebook status or playing Call of Duty, because the results of those actions will ultimately be our burden, for better or for worse. We must learn above all to distinguish between the better and the worse. Citizens must educate themselves in the use of sociable applications, such as Wikipedia, Skype, and Facebook, and learn how they can better use them to forward their best interests. And we must learn to differentiate sociable applications from sociopathic applications: applications that use people’s sociability to control those people, and to satisfy their owners’ needs.

As cultivated citizens, we are obligated to one another. We care about one another. As Cornel West has said, democracy depends upon demophilia, or love of the people.[19] Unfortunately, sociopathic companies such as Zynga depend upon this love as well. The central task of citizenship is learning how to be good to one another, even when—especially when—it is difficult to understand our own actions. If Howard Zinn had but one lesson to teach us, it is that cultivated citizens must constantly look around and examine what they’re doing, because there is a fine line between being a cultivated citizen and being someone else’s crop.


[1] Caillois, Roger. Man, Play, and Games. New York: The Free Press of Glencoe, 1961 (pp. 5-6).
[2] Ibid (p. 6).
[3] See Aristotle, Politics, from line 30 of 1337b, to line 15 of 1338a; see Caillois, ibid, pp. 37-41.
[4] These statistics were derived from a PEW Internet Project Data Memo, dated 7 December 2008 (…).
[5] This was reported in various media outlets, including The Huffington Post (…) and Fox News (,2933,437763,00.html).
[6] See AFP article, “Obama to take questions via YouTube, answer them online,” 27 Jan. 2010 (…)
[7] Fussell, James. “The Farmville Craze is a Firmly Planted Phenomenon.” The Kansas City Star 22 Jan. 2010 (
[8] Newheiser, Mark. “Farmville, Social Gaming, and Addiction.” Gamasutra 04 Dec. 2009 (…).
[9] Ferro, Mike. “2009 Video Game Industry Revenue Breakdown.” Gamer.Blorge 16 Jan. 2010. (…)
[10] Reuters Blog, 17 Dec. 2009 (…).
[11] Mauss, Marcel. The Gift. Chapter One of version available online at Google Books France (…).
[12] Caillois, ibid, pp. 9-10.
[15] Arrington, Michael. “Scamville.” TechCrunch 02 Nov. 2009 (…).
[16] Lusicombe, Belinda. “The Troubling Rise of Facebook’s Top Game Company.” Time Online 30 Nov. 2009.
[17] Arrington, Michael. “The Scamville Lawsuit.” TechCrunch 12 Nov. 2009 (…).
[19] West, Cornel and Roberto Mangabeira Unger. The Future of American Progressivism. Boston: Beacon Press, 1998 (p. 12).


Scott R Lewis's picture

what if games grow up a little?

I agree with you that most of the first wave of social gaming has a very narrow view of how to achieve success. Mostly how many pink tractors can we sell. :-)

I wonder if you think there is room for games to take on more significance by taking a higher vision as the primary goal? Then using the addictive qualities to drive positive changes in our world. You tie your post into the theme of healthy democracy and I found this very appropriate. Since politicians basically play a real life game, what if there was a virtual game that let regular citizens operate in a virtual democracy. If similar tactics were used to get participation up, could that lead to a more robust level of involvement in real life politics? I think it could. Thus I am working on a new game for debate and free discussion. No farming virtual gardens here, just questions and debate in an massive online opinion farm.

Thanks for writing, I really enjoyed your post! I look forward to more.

Joanna Bryson's picture

What takes our time

Why is entertainment so important?  Is it really boredom we are worried about, or solitude?  The network of obligations Farmville creates gives a sense of socialisation & accomplishment that allows us to reinforce real social bonds, though without learning much.  Facebook already allows us to do this while simultaneously communicating actual content about our lives, thoughts & world at a strikingly minimal cost.  Why replace that with time spent on a game?

Is the popularity of Farmville because people were too bored or too threatened by the real contents of their friends lives?  Or perhaps just too distanced — surprised yet uninterested by the differences?  So they seek company, camaraderie or a sense of accomplishment through a shared meaningless, unthreatening task?

Chris Kubica's picture

Farmville is not a game

 My take: Farmville isn’t a game. It is a virtual world that people decide to live in in the hope that it will be better than the physical world.


So if you think of Farmville as someone’s life, even though it is virtual, you can see easily why people put so much time into even the tedious parts of it.

Frederik Hermund's picture

Third World Farmer

I think it’s relevant to mention the game 3rd World Farmer here, since it’s also a free online farming game, but with a serious content and a social agenda - and thus very different from Zynga’s FarmVille.

3rd World Farmer:

Zynga is a big commercial player in the games industry, but that’s only one side of games as media. There’s also a lot of positive things happening within the fields of Serious Games and Social Issues Games. See for more examples of these kinds of games.

Nick Fryer's picture

Riddle Me This

I know a real working farmer and she LOVES to play Farmville! Why? What do you suppose she gets out of it?

Funny story: one day I was crusing Facebook and saw my farmer friend was looking for help building a barn. When I next saw her at the farmer’s market, I voluneteered to help build the barn. She gave me a funny look. It took me a while to realize that the barn she was “building” existed only in the pixellated confines of Farmville.

Heather Stark's picture

Social games and the seven deadly sins

I join the author in respect for Howard Zinn.  But I can’t sign up to the view, which I feel is implicit in this piece, that no commercial organisation should exploit my social capital for its own ends.  I think there are services/applications/organisations that can enhance the value of my social capital, both for myself, and for others.  I don’t mind if the originator benefits, too.   That seems fair to me. 

Nor do I object to being part of a web of social obligations.  That’s life and I like it that way.   A game which playfully joins in the fun is welcome in my life.   

I’m not setting up shop as an apologist for bad games, or games that are bad for you   - in fact I have argued elsewhere that some social games exploit our human tendencies towards the seven deadly sins (of Catholic theology), or, if you prefer, the five hindrances (of Buddhism).  

Designers who strive merely for addiction are aiming too low.  Addiction just isn’t fun.  Many mental states, however much they may be sought after in the short term, are worth avoiding as a way of life. 

We owe it to ourselves to be mindful of how we invest our time, and our energy.   But I also think the potential for commercial social games is even greater than we understand it to be today.  And I don’t believe that being commecial is incompatible with being good, or being good for you.

Onut Popescu's picture

Well, no

I also think Farmville is a bit of paradox, but the reasons are opposed to ones exposed.
The responsibility and routine are the main reasons for Farmville attractivness, because they are fake.
Read more here:

Steph Mineart's picture

Maybe the problem is how you're defining 'game"

For starters, your comparison of Farmville to Caillois’ six points are all off-base, (some just a little and some a whole lot) when you look at the internal game dynamics of Farmville from inside rather than as an onlooker. Let’s look at two:

(1) Farmville is defined by obligation, routine, and responsibility;

I’m not obligated to help my neighbor - I can farm just fine without them. You aren’t obligated to have neighbors to farm, or to visit your neighbors farms. You say you’re obligated to recruit people to advance - eh. Simply not true. It’s nice to have neighbors, and they do help a lot, but you can go it alone. That’s player choice.

I’m not obligated by routine. The crops don’t plant themselves - it’s up to me when I pop in and plant, and I have a wide range of crops that becomes ripe at a time I know I’ll be back. I can stop planting and leave the farm alone for months or weeks. This is entirely driven by player choice.

(4) Farmville is a productive activity, in that it adds to the social capital upon which Facebook and Zynga depend for their wealth;

There is NO obligation to pay. I’ve got a large elaborate farm and have never given a penny to Zynga. That’s up to player choice. On the other hand - this is a video game (or maybe world since you don’t think it’s a “game”?), which evolves, with new game dynamics and new things to do added all the time. There are real software developers creating Farmville, who do deserve to earn a paycheck. Allowing people to opt-in to pay for some things does allow those folks to get fed, and to feed their families.

(6) Farmville is not make-believe, in that it requires neither immersion nor suspension of disbelief.

My mom will be very dismayed to find that I, her daughter, have a fancy handlebar moustache in real life.

You’re holding Farmville up to Caillois and calling it “not a game” but if you do the same with EVERY OTHER MMPOG - WOW, Second Life, Halo, Unreal Tournament you’d find the exact same objections.

Maybe the problem here is relying on Caillois for your definition of what a game is. Here is the major different between Farmville and most other video games, and that thing you’re missing:

The reason Farmville is so popular is because it’s a collaborative game - whereas every other massively multiplayer online game dynamic is competitive and involves you getting ahead by blowing other people’s heads off - WOW, Halo, Unreal Tournament - all about killing other people for fun and profit. You may have guilds and teams you work with, but that’s secondary to advancing by blowing away the enemy, fighting, and trying to kill monsters or bad guys.

There really are an enormous number of folks in the world who actually think that the way to get ahead in life is to help others; that a rising tide floats all boats. They’re not interested in zapping their competitors or chasing orcs with a sword, but in building a community with others.

Those collaborative folks were a previously untapped game market that the video game industry has not realized existed until now. Gearing every game towards a teen audience that enjoys shoot em-up can give you some serious tunnel vision. But it’s a consequence of a society where only men and primarily young men design all the video games (and young men have been socialized through sports that competition is the only philosophy of life.)

I know of only a few other game experiences that are collaborative, and two of them board games - Arkham Horror, in which you and other players collaborate to keep the elder god from slipping through the gates of hell and decimating Arkham. The other is one I picked up at Good Will that was invented by someone locally and apparently shopped around to game companies unsuccessfully - it’s a collaborative game where you and your fellow game players strive to prevent environmental disasters such as endangered species, melting polar ice caps, and oil spills.

There are also a host of Alternate Reality Games - played in real life, but using the internet to interact - that are collaborative, and those seem to be wildly popular with women in urban settings. That’s a pretty organic market right now, but I expect it will ignite soon.

It both of those games the atmosphere in play is much different - there’s a sense of comradery that’s not there in games with a competetive goal. Sure there’s a sense of disappointment if you lose - if elder gods do take over the city - but it’s a collective disappointment, not a discomfiture based on one person “winning” and another “losing.”


Nick Bowman's picture

Popularity as a motivation for social gaming

I stumbled across your discussions on the motivations behind playing Farmville, and I thought you might be interested in reading a paper presented at the ICA Singapore conference last week (June 23-26). In her paper, Hou finds that the classic motivations for video game play (as identified in John Sherry’s work on Uses and Gratifications in video games) are not really relevant to social gamers; in fact, the largest motivation behind playing these games seemed to be a popularity motivation (that is, showing off your ‘goodies’ as a means of gaining social capital) as discussed here. I included an abstract of Hou’s work (below), but you might also consider sending her an e-mail for more information about the paper and/or her presentation. 

Uses and Gratifications of Social Games: Blending Social Networking and Game Play
Jinghui Hou (

This study applied a uses and gratifications approach to investigate social games - the game applications that are integrated in the social networking platforms – with both social and gaming features. Users’ expected social gratifications and game gratifications from playing social games were examined. Multiple regression analysis found that the social gratifications for being popular figure among friends are positive predictor of game play intensity. The expected game gratifications were not significant predictors of social game use. Results suggest that there is a distinctly social aspect to social games that reflects its social networking characteristics. Social games should be described as social media rather than just one category of online computer games. Keywords: social games, uses and gratifications.


Robert Rebholz's picture

Farmville vs. other social games

 I don’t see that any of the discussion offered explains the popularity of Farmville. It may, I believe it does, explain social gaming generally. But why is Farmville so much more popular than the others?

I suppose it’s conceivable that it’s nothing more than a cascade effect — a runaway social feedback loop that through planning or coincidence landed at just the right time. Maybe.

My favorite hypothesis is a little different.

We’re all now aware of some of the curious ramifications of having a brain that evolved in an environment much different than the one we presently find ourselves inhabiting. Someone blows their horn at us in anger in traffic and we respond, physiologically if not physically, as if we were being attacked by a four-legged tooth and claw predator of the forest-dark kind. Our brains don’t do a good job of distinguishing between the two types of “attacks”. There are countless possible examples — ever played Halo?

In Farmville, the player owns fields filled with grains, vegetables, fruit trees, livestock, etc. And in many/most cases finds himself surrounded by friendly neighbors that also possess abundant resources. It seems reasonable to assume our monkey brains don’t do any better distinguishing virtual abundance and security within community from it’s physical equivalent, than they do distinguishing real and virtual threats.

I think it’s likely Farmville is as popular as it is because it makes us feel safe and secure in the same way that Halo gives us a rush, or the angry traffic guy forces us into a flight, fight, or freeze experience.

Steph Mineart's picture

The Security premise

Robert, I’d say you’re on to something with the idea that it makes us feel safe and secure - that’s possible. That’s close to what I was trying to say when I was stating the collaborative gaming experience (as opposed to the competitive one) is the appeal. People like to help others, people like it when they can make progress and help others do so as well. Safety and security are probably part of the reinforcement in doing those things.


       It’s a agreeable fact that Farmville has been way popular than any other games. It may be because of it’s addicitive features, like we people always dream it may be the first and foremost thing to do for people. So, Farmville striked over there. I tried to play other games like Scratchcards , Mafia wars but these were not so addictive than farmville.

Craig Samsky's picture

Even in College

This is going to sound crazy, but I recently had this exact discussion with my sister who is going to school online. She had been taking an education program and each student was given a video game (computer/online) to evaluate its educational usefulness. My sister is a smart girl, she has her online mba, and she came up with some very good conclusions. Remember when we used to play math blaster and Oregon trail? This is the same thing but more advanced. For the younger portion of this generation I think we can learn a good lesson from Farmville and subconsciously teach these kids some lessons.