Of all the fascinating Internet trends in 2009, perhaps none provokes more amazement than the enormous success of the Facebook game FarmVille.
Like an agrarian Sims, FarmVille allows you to tend a virtual plot of land. You harvest your crops, save coins and then use those coins to purchase farm implements, animals and seeds that will help increase the size and scale of your own virtual farming operation.
The game is deceptively simple. The cut-out cartoon-style graphics belies a very complex ecommerce engine which forms the backbone of Farmville's digital landscape. That ecommerce engine has churned out a pretty good harvest for Zynga, the makers of the game, who estimate a total of $150 million in revenue collected from its 56 million Facebook farmers in 2009.
Yes, you heard me right. People pay REAL money to buy special, limited-edition animals and magical seeds that grow special crops which quickly move players up the ladder of the nation's top ranking cyber-farmers. FarmVille's innovative micropayment system has made such purchases relatively painless and created a cornucopia of financial opportunity for social game developers.
There is certainly an addictive quality about FarmVille. Like Mafia Wars (also created by Zynga) the game lets you play in conjunction with your friends (you can give crops or coins to friends to help them along the way) and you can compete your way to the biggest farm in the land.
But unlike Mafia Wars, which gains its appeal via the thrill of knocking someone off, FarmVille is appealing for other reasons.
I believe it taps into a deep-seated desire to "grow things" — to connect to nature in a weird, digitized sort of way. That 500 x 800 pixel window onto the world gives the player a sense of ownership and pride in creating his or her very own peaceable kingdom, a drive that must be secretly hard-wired into our agrarian brains.
There can be no other explanation. I regularly get FarmVille requests from people who are in their 30's and 40's — people who have jobs and kids and who would normally consider themselves "cool" while not engaged in the thoroughly uncool act of planting a pink pom pom bush for their nanny goat.
Somehow these digital goods are fulfilling a social and psychological need. Otherwise people wouldn't be paying real cash and risking getting caught at work in their digital overalls. FarmVille, I think, is not as much about the game as it is about the fulfillment of a fantasy to live a simpler life, a fantasy which seems to grow stronger the more technologically complex our lives become.
It all sounds a bit ironic, but FarmVille does indeed gives its digital farmers a way to "feel good" each day, a feature recently enhanced by the addition of a cause component to the game. A player can now buy special seeds that will go to feeding children in Haiti.
Though it seems childlike, FarmVille should not be underestimated in the new digital economy. Virtual goods — like overalls, nanny goats, tractors and pink bushes — are now very real commodities. According to the Times Online, the digital goods market doubled this year and is set to pass the $1 billion mark.
And as web servers get cheaper, the quality of these games will get more and more sophisticated. It may not be long before the failed vision of Second Life is reborn "from the ground up" by a set up virtual environments knitted together through a common digital currency.
Zynga may well be the heir apparent to the Second Life throne. The company, headed up by social media guru Mark Pincus, recently launched two new virtual worlds — the urban YoVille and the aquatic FishVille. You can see where this is going... EarthVille.