By Rajini Vaidyanathan
BBC News Magazine
A Bulgarian official has been sacked after being caught milking a virtual cow on the hugely popular online farming game, Farmville. So what is it about it that's made it so popular?
At the end of a hard day seeing to patients at the surgery there is more work to be done. Tending to the crops, feeding the cows and making sure the fields are ploughed.
For one GP, who is too embarrassed to be named, the internet game Farmville has become a part of daily life.
The premise of the game is simple - you are a farmer, albeit a virtual one - with your own plot of land. Your job is to cultivate it and rear animals. You get points depending on how successful you are and the aim is to get the highest score you can.
What would Old Macdonald say?
On her farm, the GP grows potatoes, watermelons and keeps chickens and cows. She never tends to her fields during her working day, but is on it most evenings.
"It does seem like a terrible waste of time," she says. "It's like watching trashy TV though, a bit of escapism to help you unwind."
For her and many others, Farmville has become a guilty pleasure. The game was launched in June 2009, since then more than 80 million people have signed up to it. While it's highly unlikely that everyone who has joined the game plays it on a regular basis, there is no doubting it has a huge regular following, with people around the world, from all ages and backgrounds playing it.
Farmville is accessed as an application through Facebook and now has its own website too. But it's the game's presence on the social networking site which has given the game such a wide reach, allowing it to tap into Facebook's already large user base.
And its availability on social networks has created a new wave of computer gamers, who wouldn't normally go near a console.
Like full-time mum Gemma, for whom Farmville has become part of the daily routine, in-between nappy changes and feeds. Both her sisters and her mum are signed up too. She was initially dismissive of Farmville when she was asked to join, but is hooked now. So, what is the appeal?
"It becomes a personal experience and something you care about," says Johnny Minkley, a computer games expert. The game has a certain "stickiness" to it, because of the nurturing element involved, he says.
"What you're doing needs to have some meaningful effect, like the planting and growing of crops."
The game also has a competitive element - it's about having the best farm and earning the most money to see to its upkeep. But it can also be co-operative and it's possible to interact with your friends' farms on the site by watering their plants and feeding their animals.
Tamagotchi was a huge craze in the 1990s
The game is free to play, but if you want to buy extra coins to keep up your farm, you are given the option to buy more with your credit card.
Parallels can be drawn between Farmville and the Tamagotchi craze in the 1990s, where people looked after a virtual pet housed in a plastic egg, developing an emotional attachment to their virtual being. But the fact Farmville has been introduced in an age of social media has had other effects.
For the embarrassed GP, it resurrected an old friendship - sort of.
"There's a girl I went to school with, and who I never speak to, but I now fertilise her crops for her," she says.
To the uninitiated, this behaviour might seem bizarre, but hardened Farmvillers say all of this helps you win extra points and prizes.
It is this sense of reward which keeps people playing, says psychologist Dr Mark Griffiths of Nottingham Trent University. He describes Farmville as "virtual Lego", where building something from scratch and seeing it grow gives players a sense of accomplishment and a "psychological high".
Dr Griffiths specialises in researching technological addictions and says what underlies any addiction is the reliance on constant rewards. But saying you are "addicted" to Farmville is a bit like saying you're addicted to chocolate, he argues.
"What people really mean is that there is a 'moreishness' quality about it. There's nothing wrong with spending hours on it, as long it's not affecting your personal relationships and work."
There are those who see Farmville as a blight on their daily Facebook feed, when every time they log in they discover that Georgia has traded 50 gold pieces, or that Andrew has harvested his chicken coop.
TOP FIVE FARMVILLE COUNTRIES
1. United States
3. The Philippines
4. United Kingdom
Others say it is not just a blight, but a downright distraction. It was recently reported that a councillor in Bulgaria was sacked after he was discovered milking a virtual cow on his laptop during a committee meeting.
There are many others who agree with the superiors in Plovdiv and the game has its fair share of detractors. There are several Anti-Farmville groups online, one called Not Playing Farmville has more than two million members.
"If you are doing this you have... I repeat if you are doing this you have too much time on your hands", writes one member. Another says, "everyone's worried about the swine flu, but I think we need to be worried about this Farmville epidemic".
Bill Mooney, VP and general manager of Zynga, the company behind Farmville brushes off these kind of negative comments.
"If Farmville is affecting people in a positive way, then we're all for it," he says.
"The best thing is, Farmville is played in 5-10 minutes sessions, so you really don't have to get too preoccupied or diverted for a long time. It's more like a coffee break or break from studying."
Does it provide a "real sense of farming"?
Mooney says the game has had other positive benefits, like generating an interest in agriculture. Before the game was developed the company did a lot of research into the area, so they could make the game accurate and give people a "real sense of farming".
In the US the appeal of Farmville is being seen as one possible way of attracting younger people into farming. But at the Scottish Agricultural College in Aberdeen, Alison Campbell who lectures in the subject says the parallels between the real and online world are limited.
"A lot of the students we have here come from farm backgrounds. It is quite tenuous to what they know to be real life [on a farm]."
On a virtual farm, it's all about instant gratification - you don't have to wait six months for your aubergines to grow. But then again, you can't eat them either.
Additional reporting by Finlo Rohrer
Below is a selection of your comments
I love FarmVille it is amazing !!!!
Katie, Plymouth England
FarmVille, the game you love to hate; I have a farm, worked on it and built up a friend group to help expand. Trouble is, you then get all the "nonsense" the "friends" are posting in addition to the "nonsense" from Farmville, in addition to the scraps of information your non-Farmville (thus "real") friends are posting. I've more or less stopped farming - but I'm loath to drop the app just yet :-)
Timothy Bolton, Selfkant, Germany
One thing you didn't mention, that is pretty interesting in itself, is that the game encourages you to spend REAL money.....you can get rewards that others do not get, advance yourself quicker, grow better crops.....and this in itself also help Farmville players raises £1000s for Haiti (before the earthquake and after) but purchasing (with real money) a particular virtual crop.
Matt, London, UK
21st century Tamagotchi. People have always wanted to nurture through play. People keep pets, and for thousands of years children have played with dolls and toy farms. Does the fact that it's on a computer make it any less a toy farm? In fact, most of these games are basically sophisticated board or card games. You make a strategy, you make your moves. We've been doing this sort of thing for thousands of years, because we're human. We exercise our brains. Just because it's on the Internet doesn't make it any better or worse.
Penny, Basildon, UK
I cannot believe how intelligent people can get hooked on such rubbish! It suggests that they don't have much a life, at least outside of their work. Why don't they go for a walk, a drink or meal with friends, do some voluntary work or some interesting research? In fact even the TV can be more stimulating!
Trish Reynolds, Faringdon, Oxfordshire
I've been playing FarmVille for about 6 months now and find it very relaxing as it is so far removed from my real life. The game encourages reciprocity as there are so many benefits to be gained by helping out your neighbours. One unexpected bonus is that, instead of counting sheep to get to sleep at night I do a mental inventory of all the items I have on my farm and always drop off before I'm even half way through!
Pix6, Vienna, Austria
I recently gave up on FarmVille. It took up too much of my free time and I worried about my animals when I was away. After pressing the "remove application" box I felt so much better.
Oh I love FarmVille. It's great I put the kids to bed and sit down and unwind playing FarmVille xx
Tamara, East Grinstead
One thing that hasn't been mentioned is the monthly increase of Farmville Facebook groups, that try and make you believe you can gain a item or Farmville coins for filling out a survey. Of cause these groups are scams and would never give out a item. Though the same people still join over and over and even if 5% of the people who join (these groups have over 500,000 people joining) then the group owner gains a lot of money from these scam surveys.
I am a police officer and so are several of my 'farm buddies'. There is a strange ' moreishness' and a competitivenes about the game without ever being able to lose at it.
To answer the points raised by others (Trish Reynolds), yes I do have a life, a very happy one thank you. I also have a profession, a family, my hobbies and my social life; none of which suffer to the detriment of my farm. Farmville is good, harmless fun that never sees an animal slaughtered, potatoes blighted or bol weevil infesting cotton. If a farmer sees his crop wither then one simply ploughs and plants more!
Can't stop now I'm afraid, my lambs need brushing!!
Angela, Highlands I agree with you. After wasting about a month by intensively e-farming I deleted it. It felt great. There are so many better things you can do with your time. I would recommend and urge others to do the same. You wont miss it when it's gone!
I used to play Farmville but found it to be far too time consuming so gave it up to get outside instead. That said it is a really simple game that can teach some value in the care and nurturing of things, rather than blowing stuff up like a lot of other video games.
Paul, Milton Keynes
A friend of mine bemoaned the fact last year that her cantaloupes weren't growing as well as mine. I told her if she spent as much time tending them as she did her virtual crops on Farmville, she might have more success! lol! She stuck her tongue out at me. :)
Sue, Thornville Ohio, USA
I love it! Been playing it since my son got me to join as his neighbour last July. Having a very high pressured job it is just the "chill" I need after a hard day at work. I wouldn't play it during work hours though. Also Farmville have donated to various disaster funds through it's players which can't be a bad thing.
Liz, Northampton, UK
When I found that harvesting my crops, raking the land, and planting seeds was taking me about an hour a day I decided to quit cold turkey. And I don't actually miss it
I suppose it retains its audience by making things real time and you have to constantly be caring for it; this aspect is also why I dislike the game compared to similar games such as The Sims, where you can save. With real-time play, all the time, it's like coming home from work to do more work, and worrying about one work while at the other.
Edwin Chan, Calgary, Canada
I played, was addicted, and then one day I just hit delete. It was painful to do but I did it. Now I know what freedom tastes like.
Brian Fleming, Baltimore, MD
I love Farmville - one thing you don't mention is that to succeed you have to cooperate with your neighbours; there's not a shred of violence in this computer game, the graphics are terrific and there are constantly new themes being brought into play - and I play with people of all ages in many different countries - and get to know them too. Great game!
Ceridwen Harris, London On Canada
All I can say is: thank god for that button on FB that allows you NOT to receive updates from all your farmer friends... before I discovered that function logging on to FB was almost like reading some kind of almanac of the 21st century
Meg, Geneva, Switzerland
I played Farmville for several months and at first it was indeed like a coffee break, a nice distraction. However after a while the farm grows and there's more & more to do. Before you know it the game consumes all your time, fills your FB wall with requests for gifts and co-operative based rewards. The urge to spend 'real money' to get ahead became more and more tempting. It all became too much and I'm glad I uninstalled it!
Mark Renshaw, St Helens, UK
The danger with Farmville is when you let it take over. I am a Farmville widower as my wife is on it for a large part of her spare time, and the kids are Farmville orphans. The temptation for her to do a bit of harvesting or plant some new seeds is just too great and the rest of her family simply do not exist when she's having her fix. My wife had two days off sick recently and, although not incapacitated, did nothing but Farmville.
To Dr Griffiths - If you think Farmville is not addictive, just come and witness the zombie-like creature that occupies the computer for most of the evening, most evenings!
John, Portishead UK
I love Farmville and have made several friends around the world through playing it. We now communicate about normal life too. I appreciate that my non-farmville friends don't want to hear about my farm so have set up a group that only copies my farmville friends on my farm achievements.
Gail, London, England
You are all very sad individuals, what ever happened to conversation and reading a book? No wonder the world is in such a state, everyone hiding behind a virtual reality.
Bob Becker, Bournemouth, England
I'm a farmers daughter and realise there is no real comparison to farming but still use farmville.I have also converted several of my friends. Its harmless and is the nearest I get to a stratergy game - or owning my own farm for that matter! Plus its still more constructive than shoot em up games!
I have never played Farmville, but lots of my friends do. I have never seen the attraction - I spend my free time at my own (real) allotment growing crops I can actually eat, exercising and being out in the fresh air. Instead of pretending, get outdoors and feel the real benefits.
Claire, London, UK
I am a 57 year old granny and full time admin worker and I am not ashamed to say that I go on Farmville the moment I wake up, when I get home from work and before I go to bed in order to see to my animals, harvest my crops and fruit trees!!! Its fun and there's no harm in it!
Kathy A, Bradford, West Yorkshire
I play Farmville everyday for about 15 minutes. I play a few other games as well. I also work full time, exercise several days a week, read 1-2 books a week, watch a few tv shows, and also have time to hang out and do things with my boyfriend and friends. To imply that people that play do not have a life is close-minded and idiotic.
Mortisha, Maryland, US
I loved this article, I don't have Facebook and I don't play Farmville, I prefer games to be a little more complex but what worries me is how everyone seems to think anything like this is addictive!
They proved it isn't - if you play any game, or for that matter find yourself unable to manage a hobby without it affecting relationships and your well-being then you have an addictive personality. Games are more-ish and compelling but like an earlier commenter said - it's what we have done for centuries - games exercise your brain and in the 2000's even open up socialising to a whole new level - down with anyone who whinges about them I say!
Chol, Swindon, UK
I am 23, am in the process of buying my first house with my future husband, have a 50 hour a week job, plenty of friends, and a full social life. I also have a farm. It is that little bit of escapism at the end of my day which gives my brain a chance to switch off! I love it, and as for deleting the application, there are others I have cast aside to make more time for harvesting, collecting and brushing!
Kerry Phillips, Poole, Dorset, England
I played it for 2 weeks, then gave up because it was using up time I could have used more meaningfully. Sitting at the table chatting with the people I share a house with is probably more important for building a life and creating a community.
Having said that, it probably nudged me to starting a REAL vegetable plot in the front garden of the house.
Adriel Yap, Durham
Pathetic that adults are wasting time in virtual reality. Later these same people are wandering why children don't know how to socialise and getting fat.
I play Farmville too and I know some people can get frustrated at reading the postings that go with the game when some activities take place. However, I would say to those people, click on the Hide button on the top right hand side corner of the post to turn off postings from this app completely and stop moaning!!! I have done so with other app's postings I could not care about!!! It is a cute game and indeed helps switch off!!
Farmville is popular and many Facebook users are addictive to it in Saudi Arabia, too !!! I used to play it daily when it was 1st launched but after they added uncessary features, I lost interest.
Dalia N.J., Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
Obviously all the whiners and whingers who keep complaining about Farmville and other games cluttering up their news feed aren't intellectual enough to use their ignore button.
They are most likely sitting on their bums for several hours watching the spoon fed pap that passes for TV programming instead.