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Friday, October 30, 2009

FarmVille players outnumber actual farmers in the United States by more than 60 to 1

RASPBERRIES? In the FarmVille game on Facebook, livestock and crops take a lot of time.

AT high schools and colleges across the country, students are hard at work, tilling their land and harvesting their vegetables.

Jim Wilson/The New York Times

PLAYING Mark Pincus, founder of Zynga, says his game company is profitable.

“It is clear this obsession with FarmVille is an issue, especially since it is taking away time from studying and schoolwork,” Danielle Susi wrote this month in The Quad News, a student newspaper at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn.

Adults, too, are blaming their problems on FarmVille, an online game in which people must tend their virtual farms carefully. On blogs like FarmVille Freak (slogan: “I can’t stop watching my crops!”) and others, people share tips on fertilizer and complain about, for example, a spouse’s addiction. An anonymous blogger who said she was pregnant wrote: “I was starving ... and he told me I’d have to wait a few more minutes so he could HARVEST HIS RASPBERRIES! I waited ... in the car and waited for his stupid raspberries to be harvested.”

That there are actual farmers who spend less time on their crops is beside the point. FarmVille has quickly become the most popular application in the history of Facebook. More than 62 million people have signed up to play the game since it made its debut in June, with 22 million logging on at least once a day, according to Zynga, the company that brought FarmVille into the world.

Crazes on Facebook seem to come in waves — remember sheep-throwing, Vampire Wars and lists of “25 Random Things About Me?” — but devotion to FarmVille has moved beyond the social network. Players gather online to share homemade spreadsheets showing which crops will provide the greatest return on investment. YouTube is rife with musical odes to the game, including versions of its theme song. There is a “Farmville Art” movement, in which people arrange crops to resemble the Mona Lisa or Mr. Peanut. And many a promising dinner date has been cut short to harvest squash.

“I can’t hang out with any of my friends without talk of apple fields and rice paddies,” said Taylor Lee Sivils, a student at the University of California, Riverside, in an e-mail message. “I have to wait for my friends’ soybeans to grow, because we can’t chill until they’ve been harvested. All I want is to be able to go back to talking about anything tangible, but FarmVille overcomes.”

The game starts off simply: You are given land and seeds that can be planted, harvested and sold for online coins. As you accrue currency, you can buy things, from basics like rice and pumpkin seeds to the truly superfluous, like elephants and hot-air balloons. Impatient players can use credit cards or a PayPal account to buy more money, although purists tend to frown on the practice.

But like The Sims and Tamagotchi pets, FarmVille soon becomes less of a game than a Sisyphean baby-sitting assignment. Crops must be harvested in a timely fashion, cows must be milked, and social obligations — like exchanging gifts and fertilizing your neighbor’s pumpkins — must be met.

The game seems to have mesmerized people from all walks of life. Every night for the last two weeks, Jil Wrinkle, a 40-year-old medical transcriber in the Philippines, has set his alarm for 1:30 a.m., when he will wake up, roll over and harvest his blueberries.

“I keep my laptop next to my bed,” he explained by phone. “The first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is harvest, then I harvest again at 10 in the morning, then again in midafternoon, then in the evening, and then again right before going to bed.”

Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University, said he had seen the craze firsthand among his students.

“Just like Guitar Hero lets you feel a little like being a rock star — you get to pose and dance a little while you’re doing it — with FarmVille there is a real sense that you’re actually doing something that has a cause and effect,” he said. “The method of dragging food out of the ground and getting something for it is really satisfying.”

FarmVille isn’t the only popular farm-theme game on Facebook. MyFarm and FarmTown, which are made by different companies, also have huge followings. Some academics have gone so far as to suggest that their collective popularity points to a widespread yearning for the pastoral life.

“The whole concept of ‘I’m sick of this modern, urban lifestyle, I wish I could just grow plants and vegetables and watch them grow,’ there is something very therapeutic about that,” said Philip Tan, director of the Singapore-M.I.T. Gambit Game Lab, a joint venture between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the government of Singapore to develop digital games.

Of course, real-life farming is quite a bit messier and more dangerous than FarmVille (perhaps just one reason that FarmVille players outnumber actual farmers in the United States by more than 60 to 1). Yet some of the game’s biggest fans are farmers.

“I was having all these deaths on the farm and hurting myself on a daily basis doing real farming,” said Donna Schoonover, of Schoonover Farm in Skagit County, Wash., who raises sheep, goats and Satin Angora rabbits (real ones!). “This was a way to remind myself of the mythology of farming, and why I started farming in the first place.”

Zynga, which is based in San Francisco, specializes in games that are easy to learn but hard to walk away from. It also makes Mafia Wars (25 million players) and Café World (24 million), the second and third most popular games on Facebook, respectively.

Mark Pincus, the founder and chief executive, said that Zynga earns money from advertising, sponsorships and players who buy in-game cash. Zynga has been profitable since 2007, he said.

“It’s really the same formula that makes Facebook successful,” Mr. Pincus said, “the ability to connect with your friends, to express yourself, and to invest in the game.”

FarmVille takes advantage of Facebook by allowing — nay, nagging — players to become “neighbors” with their friends, even those who have not joined the game. Players can earn points by helping with their neighbors’ work. They can also irritate friends who don’t want to play FarmVille with endless notifications and invitations to join, which has led to a vocal backlash.

Cropping up alongside fan blogs like Farmville Freak, which after just one month is getting 25,000 unique visitors a day, are Facebook groups for people who are tired of listening to their friends talk about their eggplants. On “I Hate FarmVille,” the largest of the anti-Farmville affinity groups on Facebook (it has more than 17,000 members), one person commented, “No, I will not give you a tree! No, I will not be your neighbor!”