Dedicated to anyone out there who’s ever been addicted to an online game that ends in “world,” “wars” or “ville.”
Once upon a time, I was mindlessly surfing Facebook, when a message popped up in my newsfeed:
“Brenda could really use some help fertilizing her crops in FarmVille!”
Not thinking much of it, I continued scrolling. Anne was collecting props for a Beef O’Bradys commercial. Rod was doing laundry and scanning some old theater photos. And there it was again:
“Jan is such a thoughtful farmer and just fertilized Jo’s farm in FarmVille.”
“Carol’s chickens are mighty hungry! Happy, fed chickens give more Mystery Eggs!”
“What’s that all about?” I wondered, continuing to scan the feed.
Courtney needed a break from her job. Jim was looking for a good pulled pork recipe. And then came a status update that changed the course of my life:
“Ann just earned the Vegetable Virtuoso ribbon in FarmVille. Ann got a big ol’ reward for being such a great farmer and wants to share her success with you.”
I couldn’t stand it anymore. I had to see why so many of my friends were hooked on computer farming. I must be missing out on something great. Moments later, I was the proud owner of my own 12 x 12 field of dreams … a virtual dirt canvas, just waiting for me to plant and harvest my own imaginary squash.
I began plowing my field by clicking on 144 squares of dirt, one square at a time. Then I clicked on each square again to plant my first crop of strawberries. Having used up my seed money, there was nothing else to do but invite my Facebook friends to be my FarmVille neighbors and gift them each a cow. As they accepted my invitations, I discovered that I could visit their farms and click on their squares, too.
As I fertilized their crops , little gold stars twinkled in their fields and my account filled with virtual coins for my good deeds — mine to spend in the FarmVille market. So I moseyed on over to the market to see what I could buy. There were barns and garden sheds, farmhouses and luxury villas. But I couldn’t afford any of them. They cost millions of coins.
“Oh my God,” I thought. “I’ll be clicking ‘til AARP comes knocking.” But I rolled up my sleeves and developed a whatever-it-takes attitude, determined to click my way through FarmVille and someday live in the lap of virtual luxury.
My first crop didn’t do so well. I didn’t get the concept of the faux farm. Each seed has a specific time until it matures — four hours, 8 hours, 12 hours. Don’t show up on time to harvest, and your crops die a painful death. I planted a four-hour crop before bed and, after hundreds of well-intentioned clicks, my berries met a bitter fate.
Back to square one — literally. Not only did I lose my seed money; I had to plow again — 144 squares, one click at a time. I had to seed again — another 144 clicks. This time around, I wasn’t taking any chances. So I timed my errands to be home at harvest time. With each successful crop I earned coins to buy more seeds — better seeds — seeds with better coin payoffs. Every few hours, I planted, harvested and planted again … eggplant, wheat, soybeans … tomatoes, squash, pumpkins. I could hardly wait to be seasoned enough to plant artichokes, pineapples and grapes — crops that paid the big fake money.
I faithfully tended my neighbor’s fields and fed their chickens daily, hoping my “do unto others” attitude would pay off on my own farm. I shooed away foxes terrorizing Carmen’s sheep. I chased off the birds destroying Pat’s tomatoes. Click by click, I filled my virtual purse, unlocking new seeds and new virtual gifts to send friends: a pomegranate tree … a topiary shaped like a goat. And before I knew it, I was winning awards for my farming skills.
“Parri is movin’ on up in FarmVille,” my Facebook page boasted. I cashed in some coins to buy a chicken coop and a plow that allowed me to fertilize and plant four squares at a time.
But it wasn’t enough. I admired my friends’ farms. Some had garden sheds and corrals. Others had log cabins and greenhouses. And the serious players had landscaped manor houses with gazebos, Italian fountains and orchards of fruit trees.
That’s when something in me snapped. I became a virtual coin whore. I did anything I could to get more coins in my account, so I could buy a virtual dwelling of my own. I downloaded the FarmVille iPhone app, so I could be on call 24/7. All day long, I checked my newsfeed. Had Jan earned a new ribbon where I could click and share her bounty? Had Midge found some mystery eggs to share? And if so, could I get there in time to score a free chicken?
And my efforts paid off:
“Congratulations! You got the Pretty Garden red ribbon. …Check your gift box for a special prize!”
The FarmVille app then asked if I wanted to publish this news to my Facebook page.
“Hmm,” I thought. “I don’t want to brag. …” (And the 360 friends who don’t play FarmVille might de-friend me for the annoying posts.) But hadn’t I clicked and received bonus points when Ann was dubbed King of Compost? … when Jen was named Lord of the Plow? “It’s my duty as a citizen of FarmVille,” I thought, publishing my news.
Sane friends started pleading on my Facebook wall: “PARRI! GET OFF THE FARM!”
But my watermelons were twinkling with the virtual fertilizer of friends. I felt loved and cared for. I couldn’t stop. I checked status updates at red lights and in the checkout line at Publix. I secretly held my iPhone under the table in business meetings to see if anyone had free fuel for my plow. I even hijacked my kid’s Facebook account to gift myself some whitewash fencing and a pig with a party hat.
And then one day, salvation came into my newsfeed:
“JOIN THIS GROUP AND UNLOCK A SECOND CHICKEN COOP IMMEDIATELY!” I clicked to find a fan page with a “Top Secret” stamp across the top. And here’s what it said:
“Dear Future FarmVille Tycoon: If you’re sick and tired of running around totally broke while other players get barns and greenhouses and the most expensive villa, this information is for you.”
The author went on to boast about spending months using stealth tactics to track high level players and learn their secrets, which he used to develop the definitive handbook. And for just $47, it could be mine. FarmVille could soon have a new mayor!
Was this for real? While scientists dedicated their lives to finding cures for the worlds most heinous diseases … while rescue workers struggled to pull people from the rubble in Haiti, some yahoo had committed to discovering the secrets of how to be a better virtual farmer?
For weeks, I’d taken precious work time, writing time, family time, even sleep time and spent it clicking around cartoonish patches of dirt, trying to win imaginary cash to buy a pretend cottage on a fantasy farm in an animated town. And truth be told, it wasn’t even fun. You can’t “win” FarmVille.You just keep clicking, until you have enough coins to buy a bigger 16 x 16 farm. Now you have 256 squares to click on every day. Then you upgrade to an 18 x 18 farm – 324 squares to click on … then a 24 x 24 farm. My God, where would it end?
Were there 12-step programs for people who spent hours clicking brown squares and watching imaginary crops grow, so they could harvest fake fruit and watch their virtual bank accounts increase until they have enough coins to buy more brown squares? What was happening to me?
And then it hit me. I was feeding my livestock, collecting eggs and milk, wool and feathers. But never once was I asked to clean the stalls.
Mine was a shit-free farm.
In FarmVille, I wasn’t a 24-month unemployed statistic in the economically-challenged state of Florida. I wasn’t underqualified to be a Director of Corporate Communications and overqualified to be an entry-level copywriter. Chemical companies didn’t tell me I had no previous phosphate experience. Theme parks didn’t tell me I had no amusement park experience. FarmVille hearkened back to an era when hiring managers had enough foresight to see a transference of skills. In FarmVille, I could plant pumpkins and peaches.
In my virtual world, I wasn’t a lonely middle-aged woman in a new city, struggling to reestablish a career, while finding meaningful friendships. In FarmVille, I had friends I could count on. Twenty times a day, I logged in to find that Carol fed my chickens and Ellen fertilized my Forget-Me-Nots. I was a rich woman. I never had to tell my daughter, “I’m sorry, but we can’t afford guitar lessons.” My kitchen cabinet laminate wasn’t peeling, my roof wasn’t leaking, and my house wasn’t worth six figures less than I paid for it. In FarmVille, life had order: plow, plant, harvest, payout. What I sowed, I always reaped … if only I could get back to the computer in time.
FarmVille was more than a vehicle for checking out of my own life. It was a virtual metaphor — a lesson in faith in an instant gratification, high-tech, low-touch world that I’m not sure I know how to live in: If you plant and cultivate, there will be a day when you harvest. But you have to keep going. And you have to believe that the harvest will come, given time.
FarmVille’s charm was in the almost-instant results. If it played out in real time and I was forced to wait three months for my corn to mature, I’d never have gotten sucked in. This game was to farming what the falling in love montage is to a romantic comedy … what the training sequence is to a Rocky movie … compressed, painless and unrealistic wishful thinking in a free Facebook app.
I thought about that as I returned to my farm and clicked on the gifts button to send my neighbors a final goat of appreciation. Ironically, I finally had enough coins for the manor house, but I never did make the purchase. I went to the top of my Facebook page, clicked on application settings and hit delete. A message appeared asking me if I was sure I wanted to delete FarmVille.
As I stared at the words, I remembered just a few nights before, when I was chatting online with an old colleague I hadn’t seen in a dozen years. We were catching up on our lives and having what I thought was a heartfelt conversation about a mutual weight struggle. I had a lump in my throat as I typed a rather painful revelation. And right in the middle of our exchange — what I thought was a real human connection — she had to go harvest her grapes.
Yes, I was sure I wanted to delete FarmVille. And with a click of a mouse, I did just that.
And in a flash, I was me again …
Onto my next — hopefully real — adventure!