A.J. Liszkiewicz uses Farmville to reflect on the values of play. He thinks Farmville is really problematic, because it embodies ideas of social control. Since the game’s core activity is linked to reciprocity and human social obligation, Zynga is behaving “sociopathically” by turning those relationships to its own profit.
The problem with his argument? I think he’s missing some core insights about Farmville itself. Much of his argument is based on the notion that you’d never want to play Farmville unless you were socially obligated to, and I just plain don’t agree.
Here’s the basic flaw in his analysis:
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.
The assumption here is that the function of harvesters, barns and other play tools is to let you avoid actually playing the game. Yes, they let you click fewer times to play – but that’s only avoiding play if you think game-play is clicking the mouse on things. That’s like saying playing Halo is about pressing the right button!
Although there are exceptions, most games hope to make the interface invisible as players become more expert. Instead of thinking about where to click or what button to press, players begin to think about the game’s challenges at a higher level. Their interactions with the interface become automatic. There are good cognitive reasons why this has to happen: automaticity reduces cognitive load. It means that players free up mental resources for attending to higher level processes like problem-solving or decision-making. If players stayed focused on the interface, the game would be severely limited in the challenges it could present.
Unlike many other games, though, the experience of clicking in Farmville doesn’t fade away entirely as players become more expert. (I’ve got ideas on why, but that’s probably another post.) Instead, clicks in Farmville are a resource to be managed. A harvester requires fuel, which means you have to think about the trade-off of fuel consumption versus click efficiency. You can click four times fewer – but what about your fuel income? The ways to get more fuel are largely constrained by how often you help your neighbors or your willingness to pay real-world money.
On my own farm, for example, I know that I can expect to get about 1.5 fuel refills a day from helping others. I’ve learned from experience that isn’t enough fuel for me to harvest, plow and re-seed all my crops in the same day without going manual. My current challenge is learning how to stagger crops that mature at different times so that I never have to turn over my entire farm at once. I’ve also become quite sensitive to the differences between manually harvesting, plowing and seeding; manually seeding is the only way to make the kinds of complex crop patterns I see on other players’ farms, so it’s far preferable to seed manually than harvest or plow that way.
I don’t suggest that everyone plays exactly the way I do! However, seeing clicks as a resource gives us a new way to understand many styles of Farmville play. Clicking isn’t meant to be an inherently satisfying activity. The decisions players make around clicking are what provides meaningful challenges.
Liszkiewicz is also just plain wrong in other parts of his argument. For example, he claims that “people can sidestep the harvesting process entirely by spending real money to purchase in-game items.” Most items in the game, however, are available either for coins (the result of harvesting) or for cash (the result of spending real-world money). Players who want to buy a horse or a treehouse do not have the option of paying for it with their profits from crops, because these items are only available using an entirely different currency.
Finally, I’m unconvinced that social obligations work the same way on Facebook that they do elsewhere. Communities develop their own norms of behavior. Sure, we’re still human beings on Facebook, just like we are everywhere else, but we have different tools for being human. For example: you can only send Farmville gifts to thirty of your friends per day. While you can easily see if you’ve received thirty reciprocal gifts back, it’s much harder to tell who’s not reciprocating and who is unless you have thirty or fewer friends. Design decisions like these are going to change the way people understand and perform reciprocity.
The funny thing is this: I’m not sure I entirely disagree with Liszkiewicz’s eventual conclusion. I do believe people should learn to think critically about the games they play and the social activities they engage in. I just don’t agree with him about what Facebook does and how it accomplishes it.