Rewriting The National OS: Why Farmville Brings Out The Worst In Us

This is the second in a series on the values and attitudes we have as a population, why I think they need to change, and how I think they can be changed. Previously I wrote a general overview of the problem which can be read here.

The reason I'm talking about Farmville first (particularly when I've got a lot of bigger and more important topics on the list) is because it serves as a great introduction to an idea that I'm going to keep coming back to over the coming posts: misplaced energy/effort.

In creating Farmville, Zynga has created a metric for people to compare themselves against their contacts based on nothing more than the time and money they dedicate to Farmville. There's no skill required, just dedication. The tight integration with your social contacts and low barrier to entry drives adoption of the metric until it becomes pervasive. Then it's a matter of people who can't measure up to their peers getting comfort from the fact that while they may not be as smart, as stylish, or as talented as their peers, at least they can be the best at something. People have always diversified their interests to find their niche, but those interests have typically required the development of talent or skill. Not everyone's got an eye for fashion, or the brain to excel at chess, but if you can set an alarm clock to harvest your crops and click a few buttons, you can be the king of your friends on Farmville!

Self-Esteem without any meaningful success or accomplishment doesn't benefit anyone. And I realize that people derive meaning and value from different things, so let's define the value someone brings to something as the difference between the original state and the outcome. Taking a few random pieces of vintage from the thrift store and turning them into an outfit? That's worth something. Going to a company that's in the middle of a PR nightmare and giving them the tools and messaging they need to turn it around? That's worth something. Hell, even managing all the different pieces you have to juggle for a successful WoW raid, or keeping a balanced budget that lets your city grow in SimCity... these things take some measure of talent because they involve complex systems. Not everyone can do them, and there's consequences when they don't get done correctly. Farmville has no such complexity - if you don't apply the time, you just grow more slowly than your friends (or not at all).

When we wanted to build bigger and better cities than our friends in SimCity, we typed in FUNDS. When you want to build a bigger and better farm than your friends in FarmVille, you pay funds.

We've become a society where people are so hungry for ways to compete with one another and distinguish themselves that you can invent a completely arbitrary metric to rank people and it'll get supported to the tune of 80 million monthly users, a not-insignificant subset of whom are paying for the privilege of being told they're better than their friends because they dedicate more time and money to the company that's telling them they're better than their friends.

In order to break this vicious cycle, we must do more to encourage and direct this competitive energy into more productive applications. At the same time, we have to make sure people understand the concepts of scarcity and abundance, and that while there are plenty of times when we must compete, there are just as many, if not more, situations where greater gains can come from collaboration and cooperation. To succeed in the new economy, we need to know which is which. My next entry will be going into more detail on how the dynamics of scarcity/abundance are changing, and why we're not taking advantage of these changes to the extent we could be.

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  • I'm not sure if I'm misunderstanding Farmville, but I thought it was a leisure activity, like the Sims where you build a customized farm and the more time you spend developing it the more options become available. I have no doubt that some people may view it as a competition but I'm not sure that is its main point. I don't really see how it is different than people who compete to be the best at any video game.

    Also, from the half hour I spent on Farmville I definitely saw strategic decisions which could be made that could educate players about the importance of opportunity cost. If profit was your goal there are decisions which lead to faster accumulation of wealth than others and being able to recognise that is a valuable skill that is useful in many other endeavours.

    Personally I don't think Farmville is a threat any more than any other video game. If it brings the user value in the form of relaxation or mental stimulation and they aren't forced to play it, I don't see too much harm.

    I think you are absolutely right about scarcity and I look forward to your post on it. Our system of intellectual monopolies is a prime example of attempts to take an infinitely abundant resource and create a false scarcity out of it, with significant costs to society.

    • Brian
  • The biggest difference I see between Farmville and other games is the
    social ranking aspect. It's possible to compare how you're doing in
    The Sims with your friends, but not easy – Farmville has a toolbar at
    the bottom of the page telling you which of your friends are doing
    better than you to keep you playing and paying. Other games have done
    this – online leaderboards are a mainstay in dozens of games, but I
    think that Farmville's hit a tipping point in terms of ubiquity that
    other games haven't come close to touching. I can only compete against
    those friends who have the game I'm playing… Modern Warfare 2 has
    sold over 10 million copies… and yet I only have 5-10 friends that
    own it. Just about everyone's played Farmville so you can have that
    broad base to compare and compete against. And I do know people who
    take it pretty damned seriously, who'll throw money into it to get
    ahead of their friends and family… and that's money and time that
    could be more productively put towards just about anything.

    I don't think it's the cause of our problems, but it's a pretty big
    and glaring symptom of the situation we're in.

    • Brian Alkerton