At CABI we have a strong sense of the importance of agriculture, and also that the internet is a key medium for communicating the struggles of farmers to feed the world and survive economically in difficult times. I have to say that my wife and children have seemed largely indifferent to those issues until the last few months. But FarmVille has changed all that. And now I’m starting to wish that they paid farming a little less attention.
For those who are spending time all their time in agricultural research or real farming, FarmVille is a real-time farm simulation video game developed by Zynga. It is available on Facebook as an application. It allows players to plant, grow, and harvest virtual crops and trees, and raise livestock.
The upshot of this is that my wife and kids are spending a great deal of time worrying about their strawberries and stray animals, and going to bed late and getting up early in order to harvest their crops before they wither. Like real farming, I’m told that you need to put the hours in.
Apparently, 38 million people are tending virtual crops on FarmVille, making it the most popular game on FaceBook, even though it was only launched in July. They have to plan what to grow, and sell produce such as milk to sell at market, and then use the money earned to develop the farm further. Mark Skaggs, Vice President of Zynga says that "by combining the best elements of social gaming, with people's instinct to nurture, we've created an incredibly fun, wholesome and rewarding experience."
Several agricultural organisations have seen the potential of games to teach people about key issues. For example “Weed Wipeout” was devised by the now defunct CRC for Australian Weed Management. But is FarmVille giving people a real sense of what farming is like? Sticklers may point out that even with advances in genetic engineering you can’t get chocolate milk from a brown cow. In real life, passion fruit does not grow on a 'Passion Fruit Tree' but on a vine. Farmville crops take 2 hours to 4 days from sowing to harvest, which is obviously pushing it a bit.
Another point is that while pigs and other farm animals can be farmed, they cannot be slaughtered. The produce associated with pigs is truffles, rather than bacon, which my vegetarian son finds much more acceptable. While harvesting is critical, crops also do not have to be watered, and animals do not have to be fed.
Several online forums have noticed the addictiveness of virtual farming, as it is a very high-maintenance operation (or massive timewaster, depending on your viewpoint). As harvest is virtually continuous, there is no downtime to allow you to renew real-life communication with your family, harvest real tomatoes from the unwatered growbag in the back yard or do your homework, as appropriate. It reminds me a little of Tamagotchis, the highly demanding electronic pets that sometimes meant that real-life pets didn’t quite get the TLC that they might have.
I suppose the reassuring thing is that, in our house at least, Tamagotchis have come and gone. So one day I’ll get my family back. Maybe then we can go for a walk and look at a real farm?