Fear and loathing in Farmville

One such game, Farmville, that is thought to have over 83 million members worldwide, has become a deadly earnest dalliance for the online subscriber.

By | Thu 28 Oct 2010

If you aren’t genetically predisposed to obsessive compulsive disorders (OCDs), such as the seasonally filmed and unintentionally comedic Tourette syndrome, or the recently televised – UK, Channel 4, ‘Girls on the Pull’ – Trichotillomania (excessive hair pulling), then you might count yourself fortunate. Though it seems an ‘irrational’ ‘obsessive’ ‘repetitive’ ‘excessive’ model of behaviour throughout societies all over the world has lately become irresistibly mainstream, and while not yet classified as a disorder per se, you could say it’s an acceptably conventional madness. I am talking about social game playing. These are games you play online with usually thousands/millions of other ‘players’ or ‘users’. You may also be obliged to call them ‘friends’.

One such game, Farmville, that is thought to have over 83 million members worldwide, has become a deadly earnest dalliance for the online subscriber. For the many who enjoy spending hours filled with doing nothing (an exercise not nearly as frowned upon in Thailand as it is in many other countries), social games such as Farmville are quickly filling the void where once ‘nothing’ used to hold sway. For others the game can become a cost-defective distraction when erstwhile grafters end up tending to pixilated cabbage instead of doing real work, elevating Farmville (perhaps even above that stalwart nemesis of the workplace, Alcohol) to one of the greatest archrivals an employer has ever drawn swords with. It could further be argued that games such as Farmville precipitate something like a slow-death of consciousness in the user, a tune out, turn off, and drop in reality where the likes of books and newspapers are superannuated ghouls, rubble lying amongst the great edifices of online virtual architecture.

In case you are my dad, or are immured perpetually offline in a Draco-deco prison (our readers in the Bangkok Hilton), then I will explain Farmville. Created for Facebook by Zynga games, it is an online, worldwide social media site consisting of players that create personal farms where they can keep animals, plant crops, and buy farm stuff such as fences and barns. You need cash to build, and so Farmville gives you online currency. You plant crops, nurture them, and then you sell crops. If you don’t look after your farm it will very quickly go to ruin. A ruined farm won’t generate profit and so you may become as destitute as many out-of-work farmers in the real world are. You can rebuild, you can be helped. Friends can send gifts to friends, feel good about it, and sleep better at night. You can use real currency too to buy goods. The CEO of Zynga explains: “They can spend it on virtual goods . . . that has been a revenue model that has enabled our company to be profitable for eight straight quarters.”

Cold Turkeys

In Thailand alarms bells are yet to start ringing concerning addiction to online social games, though in the US and UK concerns are beginning to ‘pop up’ somewhere in the background of the media. What sounds like a chapter from one of the ‘Is Your Son On Drugs?’ booklets, Jay Parker, a drug and internet addiction counsellor based in the US writes that “the isolated, the lonely, the bored, and those who have little interest in sex,” are the most likely to become hooked on social games. He goes as far as to say that people’s apathy in the real world will grow as they spend more time in their virtual world, which will eventually lead to a kind of systematic unravelling of our former real world prerogatives and we’ll neither want to fuck, vote or care about the weather. He even sees future game addiction as a possible “deterrent to population explosion”. It sounds science fictionally fantastic, though Orwell’s vapid consumerism prognosis and misgivings about a future dictated by an omnipresent Big Brother would have made most good citizens LOL in the ’30s. Even well known game developers have lately expressed their worries about social games, one spokesman saying at a Games Summit this year concerning online opiates such as Farmville, “So many of the methods for making money are thinly-veiled scams that simply exploit psychological flaws in the human brain” while another developer admitted “I’m embarrassed to be part of an industry that so blatantly manipulates people like rats in a Skinner box, and isn’t embarrassed about that too.”

Nathan Driskell is an American Licensed Professional Counsellor _ Intern specialising in Internet Addiction and related disorders. He has written articles and given presentations exploring the negative effects of Farmville and other social media. He outlined for us some of his thoughts on the matter of this modern phenomenon. “Farmville is a source of accomplishment,” he says, “when one raises a family, or goes to a job day after day, it can be difficult to feel an immediate sense of accomplishment. Farmville offers accomplishment by advancing in level and in the visual appeal of the farm. In addition, you get to broadcast your accomplishments to others on Facebook.”

Our earthly motivations are driven by success and rewards, which trigger our brain’s reward circuits, and in turn we get a bash on the endorphin pipe. It’s no fluke, Driskell explains, that Farmville has become a very successful shareholder in the neurochemical industry. He tells us, “The design of Farmville is to be as addictive as possible. By planting crops that could die, players are encouraged to log in often to harvest their crops. By having a virtual crop wither and die, a player feels guilty, as they have wasted their time and money to let something ‘die’. This is how the addiction begins and builds.

“Although the game is free to play, the real life money purchases greatly advance the user,” says Driskell, adding that, “Farmville can become sinister, as an addict will begin sacrificing aspects of their life to spend time and money in Farmville. The overall purpose of Farmville is to entice the user for the purpose of making money.” He asks: “Does Farmville take time away from life that could be better used for other activities?” If the answer is yes, then he sees that as a concern, saying that “if relationships are suffering and responsibilities are being neglected, Farmville has become a negative influence.”

Nathan Driskell can relate to social game addiction, as he too was an addict. “I suffer from Internet Addiction Disorder, specifically, Online Gaming Addiction. From 19 to 25 years of age I played an online game with thousands of real people. In this game, I was well liked and powerful. The sense of power and control created a type of God Complex, where I felt I had meaning and purpose.” He acknowledges that “in real life I was a loaner and felt insignificant. The online game existed to supply needs neglected in the real world.” The idea of another self, an ideal self, is surely tempting to many people and Driskell worries, “if a user has needs in real life that are unfulfilled. Farmville has taken the place of those needs.”

A daily fix of Farmville is hardly the cure to our (universal) deeper emotional struggles, just as chasing the dragon or smoking meth hardly cures the addict of ‘himself’ for very long. Notwithstanding the inefficiency of drugs in the long-term, they are still highly addictive used as palliatives, as some say Farmville is. Is it reaching too far to think that the online addict might suffer some sort of ‘log off’ withdrawal? Can Farmville players find themselves trapped in a modern Sisyphean (Sisyphus, the Greek guy cursed with pushing a boulder up a hill for eternity) cyber-nightmare? Worst still, Driskell expresses that these social games are designed to look cute, with a cartoonish innocence that is one of the main immediate attractions to children. And children, he says, are pretty easy targets for addiction.

Driskell bemoans the lack of help for people with online addictions, stating that “Mental health services are severely lacking, especially those for internet related addictions. Most people who suffer from an online addiction will never receive help.” He says that in America, internet addiction is not a recognised disorder, and most likely will not be for the next 10-20 years. The mental health community needs to wake up and understand the technology and the addiction, before another generation suffers with no relief.”

2084 – Silicotopia

From a random English class in Chiang Mai I spoke to three students about social gaming. All three, Duang (24), Kaotang (15) and Nut (15) played not only Farmville, but a long list of other Facebook social games (Restaurant City, Zoo Paradise, Hotel City, Baking Life, Mafia Wars, Pet Society to name a few). Duang, who plays at least three hours every day, without prompting came right out and said, “I’m addicted. I stay online all the time, I even recently burned my plug. I can’t turn my computer off.” She says the only time she stops playing is when her hand aches too much, even in bed she uses her phone to play. “I tried to stop, I deactivated my account, but then three days later I reactivated it. I didn’t want to lose my crops.” Nut, the only male, tells me why he can’t stop playing: “I have to keep it open…I need to feed the animals.” While Kaotang says it’s all about making your farm or restaurant look beautiful, at almost any cost: “I wouldn’t spend real money to buy things, in Thailand it’s too expensive. If we get a lot of friends, we can help each other out.” She giggles and expands, “And I can look on YouTube to find the cheats or use my friends’ accounts to send myself things.” All three say about 80% of their friends are similarly obsessed with social games.

Make no mistake, these kids look fairly ‘normal’, they are not emaciated, dishevelled, marked with immunodeficiency lesions and they never acted on an urge to importune me for spare change so they might buy a bag of seed or a kilo of dough. “It’s fun,” they agree, although the older girl, Duang, expresses that the game(s) has some negative influences: “I know I’m spending too much time playing. My boss is my sister, she always says, ‘if you can play, you can work’.” Nut and Kaotang believe the games have some advantages, like teaching you building skills or creative skills, the only negative impact they both agree, is the games impinge on their study time. “We can play in school,” says Nut, “we can use someone’s iPhone, or if we have computer class we play then, though the teacher will get annoyed if he sees us.” Duang looks at me wryly, smiling, aware of the implications of her admission: “I started playing Farmville only ‘cos a friend asked me to log on to her account so I could help her. After that one time, I couldn’t stop.”

According to Jesse Schell, game developer, imagineer, and professor of entertainment technology at Carnegie Mellon University, who recently gave what has now become a cause célèbre speech in Las Vegas at the D.I.C.E Summit (Design, Innovate, Communicate, Entertain), the future will see more games that meld real life with online life, creating a kind of controlled schizophrenia where you and your avatar’s life is intertwined, and intractably co-dependent. “As more people get hooked on these games, there will come a time when the external game reward system will permeate the real world. Whereas before, game makers were mainly concerned about creating some sort of a parallel universe where people can escape when real life proves too much for them, there is now a growing interest to merge fantasy and reality,” says Schell, explaining that he believes many of the things we do in the real world will score us points for our avatars in an online world. Your life, will also become your game. For instance, people might earn experience points for reading books (which will have built-in eye censors) on British 19th century constructed canal aqueducts, these points may save you money on canal tours of the UK or even gain you reward points with the British Arts Council; you might save money on health insurance after you take up jogging or quit smoking, you may get tax incentives for scoring points for taking public transportation rather than driving, or accrue points for watching certain ads on TV, and even derive benefits for sporting e-tattoos that can transfigure anytime you feel like scoring points with a different product. Except you won’t have to ‘post’ your achievements or the countless banal tasks you perform throughout the day, as many users do now on Facebook. In the future your initiatives to do well in life and simultaneously your game, will require perpetual surveillance, which will be engineered by corporations and government entities. “You’ll be watched, measured and judged, ” says Schell, “and I do know it’s coming” – he looks out to his audience of developers, designers, engineers, CEOs and marketing gurus, and says at the very end of his speech, “Man, it’s gotta come, the only question I care about right now is, who in this room is going to lead us there?” Suddenly planting crops seems quite innocuous, silly even, though according to Schell, Farmville and its not too distant cousins are the primitive (st)age of this total online ‘point scoring’ existence, they are the rehearsal for a full future life in-silico.