In a fascinating essay, A. J. Patrick Liszkiewicz argues that we do, indeed, play Farmville because we’re polite. More people in the U.S. play Farmville than any other video game.
…over seventy-three million people play Farmville. 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.
The game isn’t popular, he argues, because it’s a good game. In fact, Liszkiewicz thinks it’s a decidedly bad game.
…games offer a break from responsibility and routine, yet 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…
Farmville is so laborious and tedious, that one of the rewards of playing Farmville is playing less Farmville:
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.
So why the heck is Farmville the most popular video game in America? Liszkiewicz says, “people are playing Farmville because people are playing Farmville.”
In other words:
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. We play Farmville, then, because we are trying to be good to one another. We play Farmville because we are polite, cultivated people.
* Title borrowed from BoingBoing.Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.