Podcast #75: The Coming Farmville Apocalypse

Farmville may not seem like a big deal now, but that’s because you hid it from your Facebook news feed a year ago. Since then, Farmville has amassed 80 million users, and a surprising amount of those users actually, you know, use Farmville. Scared yet? Well, you should be. Social/casual game phenomenons like Farmville and Foursquare involve themselves in our actual lives and relationships in a way that’s unprecedented, and they rely almost solely on psychological tricks in order to get us to play them. But is that enough to make them wrong? We’re not telling… in this paragraph. Did you know I’m trying to get you to listen to a podcast? Oh, speaking of making you want to listen to a podcast, Ben and I try Chat Roulette during this podcast. Ben is adequately horrified. It’s a good time.

Every week, Richard Clark and Ben Bartlett acknowledge and respond to the big issues in popular culture. We love feedback! If you’d like to respond you can comment on the website, send an email to christandpopculture@gmail.com, or go to our contact page. We would love to respond to feedback on the show, so do it now! Subscribe to us in iTunes by clicking here. While you’re at it, review us in iTunes! We’ll love you forever!

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  • wendy

    Someone sent me this article about why external rewards can be demotivating, and therefore Farmville shouldn’t scare anyone:


    But I may still listen to the podcast just because I like hearing people get all terrified by things on the internet (chat roulette). It reminds me that there are people out there who aren’t numb to the terrors that the internet has to offer.

  • Hey Rich, you’re aware that restaurants, businesses, and airlines have been doing achievements for far longer than videogames, right? At restaurants, they have these little cards that you get stamps on and when you get enough, you get a free meal. Airlines have mileage clubs and those who achieve enough points with a particular airline are rewarded with better treatment and free flights. And in many places, businesses will reward customers for the achievement of buying two of an item by giving the customer a third item as a gift.

    So yes, videogames are kind of late to the game. And no, this won’t change anything. And yes, you can stop being afraid. And no, it’s not all that insidious. And yes, it would be kind of sad if someone based all their decisions around the rewards they could reap from these so-called achievements. But no, I don’t think there are really a ton of people who do that in any realm outside of videogames.

    I think it may be because people put on a different set of glasses as soon as they engage virtual worlds. People, surprisingly enough, do not act the same in virtual worlds as they do in actual worlds. As the barrier between these erodes, this distinction of behaviour may become a greater problem, but I can almost guarantee you the problem won’t be with achievements.

  • That’s a thoughtful criticism, Dane. However, I would point out that restaurants and airlines are doing that as an incentive to pick a particular company offering a service you were already going to use. The somewhat shocking thing about Farmville is that people are paying time and money into something they seem to think they are NOT doing… playing computer games.

    The question here is whether using social media and interet capabilities with much more sophisticated design structures -built to take advantage of human psychology rather than merely offering incentives- will add a much more significant layer to the already incentive-laden industries… whether it will alter decision making in a way not quite seen before.

    The other day I met a girl who had never been camping and never eaten at an ethnic restaurant (referring, naturally, to Qdoba). I wonder whether this isn’t going to be a more and more common implication of these advertising upgrades.

  • I was mostly responding to Rich talking about Xbox achievements, a subject that was only tacitly related to Farmville. The achievement systems are really entirely unrelated, Xbox’s not offering tangible benefits and Farmville’s offering tangible benefits. Farmville’s function far better as a dangling carrot for offering overt benefit.

    I think the stats on Farmville are misleading in that it’s not quite so entrenched a phenomenon as the media (and Zynga) would have us believe. I also doubt that the majority of players don’t view it as a computerized diversion (I would be hesitant to refer to it as a game as there’s very little game to it, much less than say Candyland); it’s more a lightweight sandbox, farming-sim with no goals other than the goals users create for themselves (in this, it’s extremely diversionary—leisure activity one might say).

    But back to Farmville achievements. These function identically to restaurant stamp cards and frequent flyer miles in that they convey a benefit to the customer/user as a reward for continued use to the end of keeping the customer/user. These achievements don’t draw in people who aren’t already playing or paying.

    There is definitely an interest in probing the human psychology in order to better market and sustain the brand, but this isn’t any different from the demographic (i.e. psychological) studies that have been driving market research for decades.

  • I was absolutely shocked to see a complete Farmville farm for sale on Craigslist in our area (Charleston, SC). It was listed for $500.

    I don’t know anything about Farmville (I prefer Mafia Wars and Farkle), but I can’t imagine paying that kind of money just to have a fully developed farm. I don’t even know if the Craigslist ad is legit or not. I just don’t know what to think about that…

  • Matt

    While I’m completely with Ben on the whole “chat roulette” thing, that was the most hilarious segment I’ve heard you guys do. Great listen for the commute today.

  • farmville is the best game ever and this is the best blog post!