What Does Farmville Mean for Farmers?

Posted by Peter Smith

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Stop caring about your virtual farm and start caring about real ones.


The sun always shines. Pink cows produce strawberry milk. Soybeans take two days to grow and ripen. Something is not right. It's too clean. Nothing smells. Coffee bean grows next to squash. Millions of first-time farmers plant new crops every week. And-finally!-people pull out their wallets to support local agriculture. Welcome to Farmville.

Farmville has become a viral internet trend since its launch as a Facebook application this summer. It has now grown to 70 million users, making it the number one application on the social networking site. Players sign up and get fields, infrastructure, and cash. They're tasked with creating bigger, better, and richer farms. The game is a rehash of the addictive Tamagotchi pet toy of the early 1990s, but instead of feeding a little "animal," you're caring for a digital homestead with insatiable livestock and crops that need regular clicking and attention.

The virtual farm provides an odd mashup of social networking with back-to-the-land fantasies. Farmville offers no real sustenance, but its emphasis on cooperation, strategy, and creation represent a culturally significant development in the often violent world of gaming. It's a simulation with less stimulation, a sort of virtual country calm that transports us somewhere else for a minute or an hour. In doing so, the game taps deep into the American psyche, and the longing for an idyllic agrarian past. "People just want to get back to something simpler," one tech writer told NPR.

While using new media to express old agrarian values may seem paradoxical, Yi-Fu Tuan points out in his book Topophilia that the romantic appreciation of nature in literature has always arisen from wealth, privilege, and the urban advancement of society, which distances us from a gentle, unselfconscious involvement with the physical world. Farmville is just the latest iteration of the theme.

But Farmville's farms don't actually mirror reality. In Farmville, farmers can get high returns. Seeds mature at impossible rates. It's a place without slaughtering. There's little of the harsh reality that Americans value food only enough to spend 10 percent of their income on it. If you had any doubts, know that Farmville is complete fantasy.

In 2004, Eleanor Agnew wrote a memoir, Back From the Land, about her homesteading experience. After being lured by the idealism of living in nature and trying to live off the land, she eventually moved back to the city. Life in the country was tough. She spent an exorbitant amount of time making ketchup. Her marriage disintegrated. "Liking the idea was not enough," she writes. Liking just the idea of farming has little potential to transform the world; Farmville's online community of artificial soybean farmers won't improve our food system. To do that we need real farming, and that's not a game. It's time to support actual small farmers and stop playing around.