Tens of millions of homesteaders had already staked their claim and were well along their way to becoming successful farmers when I sowed my first plots of vegetables. By the time I raised a barn, sunk a few trees into the digital soil, and met a few of my neighbors I was anxious that I would never catch up. Others already had giant chicken coops, multiple cow milking operations, pig stys, horse barns and wondrous collections of garden kitsch.
My wife thought all of it was a bit crazy. A grown man—and a professor—playing FarmVille seemed childish. I admit I occasionally felt a twinge of embarrassment whenever I loaded up my farm and the distinct twang of the country-style theme music started to drift around the living room. In the late spring, while she was outside in our real garden weeding and planting and sweating, I sat inside brushing my fingers across my new iPad, planting row after row of seeds. A few weeks later when summer started to heat up, I had passed level 20, expanded my farm two times, built a house, a windmill, added four silos, a greenhouse, a well, and a beehive. I constructed some fencing to keep my animals penned up, found time to add some additional underground storage, and had even started a farmers market.
The first months alone on my farm were filled with hope, wonder and opportunity. The vast open green spaces that surrounded me beckoned with their yet unrealized potential. I imagined what I would build there as I diligently planted and harvested plot after plot of vegetables. I grew blueberries and blackberries and squash and flowers. Periodically throughout the day I loaded up my farm, planted and harvested according to a synthetic seasonality.
I read online that some unusually hard-working farmers would wake up in the middle of the night to harvest. Not as diligent as they were, I chose to carefully manage the growing times of different plants—anticipating when I would have time in the next day or two to harvest. Grapes took one evening and I usually harvested them around breakfast time. Raspberries were ready after about two hours—just before lunch. Anything with a six to eight hour growing period could then be planted in time to harvest in the early evening. I waited days for squash and corn and melons to grow and ripen. Hour after hour, day after day, week after week, month after month, as I planted I gained more knowledge about my virtual environment and accumulated more experience.
As if by magic, the perfect seeds that I planted yielded perfectly beautiful plants. There were no pests, no droughts, no floods and no mosquitos. At worst a few crops might wither if I waited too long to take them in from the fields. Generally, I had one hundred percent harvests that I sold at fixed prices, which guaranteed me a stable income. With the profits from my harvest I bought things. If I got anxious and didn’t want to wait, I could even convert my US dollars into virtual Farm Cash at the bank. While I did lay down $5.00 of real startup money when I first got my farm, I was committed to making it on my own—earning my own way in the virtual landscape.
As my farm grew, I met other farmers—a smattering of friends from various times of my life who had also decided to make a go of the pastoral life. From the US, Japan, Taiwan, England and the Middle East, from high school, college, graduate school and beyond—they appeared to me as cute little nostalgic farmer-avatars. We didn’t talk much, however. We mostly just kept to ourselves; occasionally visiting one another’s farms to check out a new acquisition, fertilize some plots, or help out with a bit of harvesting.
My friends were valuable, however, because they gave me stuff. I got my first chicken from a friend, and my first mango tree too. They gave me wood for my beehive and nails for my orchards. Each time I visited my farm I found friends’ special delivery packages waiting for me to open. From time-to-time I even got mystery gifts filled with unknown surprises! With a click I returned the favor, often giving them exactly the thing they needed for their current project. No useless gifts, or frustration at guessing. No wasted time. We enjoyed nearly perfect exchanges every time.
Each day I added things to my virtual world and day-by-day I saw my farm grow. Every week or so another friend from my past or present would find me on Facebook and their farm would pop up next to mine. I had a constant sense of moving forward—of progress. Gradually I improved my farm life and the results were spectacular. I even acquired a tractor, harvester, combine and an airplane that dramatically improved the efficiency with which I planted and harvested.
Over the months that followed I made more friends, expanded my farm, and built more buildings. I constructed over a dozen orchards filled with nearly 300 trees of all types—from pedestrian apples and oranges to exotic lychees and star fruit. I acquired llamas, turkeys, oxen, ducks, sheep, pigs, rabbits, reindeer and even an elephant! I bought a monumental sculpture of Paul Bunyan and Babe, his blue ox. At one point a UFO crashed into my fields and I just planted a few trees and flowers next to it—transforming it into just another piece of yard art.
The holidays were best. In the winter I changed my farm to white, hung Christmas lights and bought all kinds of decorations. At new years, a few of my friends set up party houses. For Valentines Day I had a mailbox for valentines. On St. Patrick’s Day I collected gold pieces in a pot and invited leprechauns into a tree house that I constructed.
In the depths of a snowy and cold Minnesota winter, I built a winery and began to produce a variety of great beverages with the products of my harvest. I brewed sake from green tea, lilacs and rice. I bottled different types of wines, mixed tasty fruit vinegars and made spicy tomato juice. I concocted herbal elixirs and rose petal water. My friends bought these from me, and with the profits I bought more stuff. I was even able to exchange my surplus for fuel for my tractors!
Meanwhile, to support my lavish farming lifestyle I dutifully continued planting and harvesting. As the months passed I became increasingly experienced and was recognized as a master grower of over 20 different kinds of fruits, vegetables and trees. Those were heady days, when the pleasures of the virtual life seemed to never end.
I had the ideal farm—a utopian farm that could never exist in the real world. With minimal effort I could grow a wide variety of things, and raise a wide variety of animals. I didn’t have to apply pesticides and—near as I can tell—nothing I did depleted or harmed the environment. The grass was as green, and the land as fertile on the day I arrived, as it was a year later. No animals aged or died and I never had to send them off to a virtual slaughterhouse. They were always ready to let me “harvest” them—and I never did any permanent damage. I earned a steady income of cash at fair prices and I didn’t go into debt for my farm implements. I didn’t have a mortgage and I didn’t need to pay taxes. The Man in Washington didn’t bother me. No death. No taxes.
Then, suddenly about a month ago without warning my utopia began to fray at the edges. After months of regulating my life according to the compressed growing seasons of the digital pastoral, the excitement of growth, the joy of collecting and the fascination with new kinds of vegetables, plants and animals began to lose its appeal. While the vegetables and fruits looked beautiful, they all took the same amount of effort to plant and harvest. They had the same non-existent fragrance and were equally tasteless. My brews were bland. Clicking on my chickens got tedious. The variety of options became a burden. Even with my super combine and plenty of fuel, there was no joy. I tired of the harvest. Before I knew it I had abdicated my duty to produce—my trees bore fruit that I never picked and my fields lay fallow for days at a time after harvests.
I didn’t feed the chickens.
I never harvested my ducks.
I failed to fertilize my friends’ farms.
I slept in.
Initially I felt guilty not answering the urgent Facebook announcements from my neighbors that they needed my help. Before long, however, as their messages piled up in my inbox I grew numb to their calls. Their packages and gifts piled up unopened. I had hundreds of tasks to do and multiple opportunities to build new buildings on my farm, but I became indifferent. Progress became pointless.
The thrill was gone.
The folks at Zynga, the company that opened the digital Westward Expansion and provided me with my homestead, seemed to anticipate my malaise. Nearly the same time my interest in my farm waned they introduced CityVille. After all the time and effort I invested in my farm, however, I didn’t want to go urban. Then, a short time later a blimp landed on my farm with a British guy in it who wanted to invite me to farm in a new place! It was mildly ironic that even in the digital world, the options to my over productive farm mimicked the real world. I could migrate to the city or expand into a new space. Rather than colonialism, however, I the British guy invited me to farm in England!
I began playing Farmville out of curiosity. What it was about the game that sucked so many people in? I was also looking for some games I could use in a class I am cobbling together on digital culture. My farm was a field experiment in the realm of so-called social games. I have played my fair share of first-person shooters and other games that involve hunting and slaying things. Farmville, however, was an entirely different experience and I am surprised how seamlessly and effortlessly it was possible to fit the game into the rhythms of my everyday “real” life.
Initially I was very unprepared for how enjoyable it was to simply “grow” and acquire and build in a cute virtual landscape. The ideal landscape and the pixelated beauty of my blemish-free farm were aesthetically pleasing. Filling up space and being responsible for regular management in a world with consistent and knowable rules was comforting. I enjoyed a fertile farm with a vast heterogeneity of plants and animals. I had an income and stability unimaginable to a real farmer in the real world. Relationships were rational and always mutually beneficial. There was no waste, no external constraints and no pollution. It was perfectly productive ideal of capitalist accumulation. An added bonus of the virtual was the ability to move and remove things—to decorate and design space. No labor problems. No fertility problems. No mosquitos. No cowshit. It was fun. My iPad or computer screen was a window to my own little private garden. The pleasures of the virtual pastoral were many.
Ultimately, however, my farm was a victim of its own success. It collapsed under the stress of its own unconstrained production. Production without purpose became pointless. Accumulation without end—without effort and without challenge—became boring.
Recently I have yearned for disaster—a flood that would wipe out my horse barn or a hailstorm that would decimate my orchards. I want to clear out my henhouse, slaughter them all, and stock my virtual freezer with fresh chicken breasts. How about a digital outbreak of Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis to shake things up? Perhaps Zynga could introduce GMO crops and I could start farming Frankenfoods? I want to wake up one morning, log into my farm and see mysterious crop circles.
I have waited. Each day I continue to see messages on Facebook from my FarmVille neighbors. From time to time I still think that if I log in I can make things right—that it might be possible to return to that innocent time of agricultural idyll. Alas! I have recently visited my farm a few times only to find my virtual-farmer self just patiently standing there, bright-eyed and smiling in the LED sunlight, waiting to plant and harvest. The fecund trees, their fruits hanging heavy from their branches await my mouseclick to begin a new growing season. The endless cycle of production and expansion beckons even now.
I can take this no more. It is time for me to start a revolution to free my farmer by destroying his world.
I am sorry my friends.