I need to make a (somewhat embarrassing) disclosure. Yes, I once played Farmville. And Cafe World. I started playing out of both curiosity and the sense that I needed to try it out because of its relationship to my research; I stayed because it hooked me the same as it hooks millions of other players. Yes, I wasted hours planting and harvesting virtual crops and “cooking” virtual dishes. I never took to the creative aspect of the games by trying to create the most aesthetically pleasing space (mainly because I’m not very artistically inclined) and I never posted about it to my News Feed (because that is quite annoying). Instead, it was the competition that kept me–I certainly took a small pleasure from “beating” fellow network members at leveling up, at least in the beginning. After awhile, even that becomes a chore as levels take days, if not weeks, to increase just one level.
Then one day earlier this year I quit on impulse; I removed all game-related applications from my Facebook. And I felt a relief when I did so, like I had taken out the trash, trash that was starting to stink.
Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a little on that last statement. But I did feel some relief when I quit playing the games, like I no longer had to hide a dirty little secret–that I played the most annoying game on the Internet–from my friends. Why was I so loathe to admit to playing games that 240 million other people do? Why is Zynga (the company behind these games) the source of so much wrath, its games stigmatized by many? And to take a step back even further, what benefits (if any) could be accrued through playing these games?
While Zynga founder Mark Pincus is nothing if not a shrewd businessman (his company is set to clear $500 million in revenue this year and the company reached 100 million users years quicker than Facebook), his games also excel at inciting a deep-seeded hatred by non-players. If you Google “I hate Farmville,” 124,000 results pop up. A popular YouTube video spoofing a Farmville commercial opens with, “Are you tired of playing games that are fun?” And while I agree that Farmville and its cousins are not the action-packed games you often see on PS3 and Xbox these days, they’re certainly not anything new. People have been playing simple games like this for years: whether it’s Solitaire or the Adventures of Lolo, there is a slightly competitive element, but in the end, it’s merely just another way to pass the time.
I think why people hate these games so much is because of sharing abuse–as one interview participant noted in research I conducted at the beginning of the year, she hated that her friend kept “polluting her page” with constant updates about Mafia Wars. It should be noted that in March, Facebook changed some of its policies to halt the influx of notifications from third-party applications like Farmville–and that these changes are attributed to a multi-million-user decrease in players of these games between April and May 2010. But the onslaught of updates throughout late 2009 and early 2010, coupled with people not knowing that it was easy to hide all those updates from their News Feed, was certainly enough to try even the most easy-going person’s patience. And, unfortunately for Zynga, the games became synonymous with words ranging from irritating to devil-spawn.
My research team–led by the awesome Yvette Wohn–recently had a paper accepted at HICSS 2011 that looks at the potential positive outcomes associated with social network game (SNG) play. Employing qualitative methods (consisting of in-depth interviews with 18 adult Facebook users ages 25-55), we found some recurring game-related themes emerge across interviews. While some non-players may see SNGs as anti-social, players in our study repeatedly referred to social aspects of gameplay. We found three ways in which these games benefitted relationships between various sets of individuals on the site, which we classified as initiating, maintaining, and enhancing. Below is a (very brief) summary of findings related to these three types of behaviors.
- Some individuals forged new relationships through SNGs. At first, these “friendships” were created so as to advance within the game, but oftentimes game-related interactions led to real relationship development and interaction outside of the game.
- Many individuals play these games with existing offline friends as a relational maintenance strategy similar to the short communications that may occur through other communication channels in Facebook, such as wall posts of status updates. Especially for friends or relatives who were geographically dispersed, in-game interactions such as gift-giving acted as an alternative way to say “hi” or “I’m thinking of you.”
- Finally, some individuals noted that gameplay allowed them to strengthen relationships with previously distant (or non-existant) ties. Establishing common ground through the game led to interactions that would most likely not have occurred without the impetus of shared gameplay.
So maybe Farmville isn’t evil after all. I know people love to hate on it, but these games represent yet another option in our relationship maintenance toolbox. Just because the tool is there doesn’t mean you have to use it, but it’s pretty apparent that beyond simply providing many people with entertainment, it may actually be serving a positive function for users looking to form new relationships and maintain–and even enhance–existing ones.
That still doesn’t mean I’m logging back on, but I guess I won’t diss it so much anymore.
I’ll post a pdf of the full paper once in a few months.