Watching Virtual Grass Grow

Video Games

Late one night, seized by a fit of temporary insanity, I decided to play “Farmville.”

I’d heard of the game, of course—I, like everyone else, received a half-jillion little notifications about it on Facebook before I finally blocked the application. And I’d made fun of it quite a bit: a game that revolves around maintaining a farm seems, well, about as fun as maintaining a farm.

But I was curious. The game has millions of players, and the company that makes the game, Zynga, is worth billions. Surely there’s got to be an interesting game there, right?

“It’ll be fine,” I told myself. “Just make sure you don’t send any requests to anyone, and no one will ever know.” I took a surreptitious look around the room, then began typing in the address, and clicked the ‘Play’ button.

Thing is, no one ever told me Farmville has music.

Within seconds the banjo notes were blaring out of my computer, and every person in the room turned to stare at me.

“Julie, what was that?” a friend asked.

“Nothing! And definitely not ‘Farmville!’ Because that’s totally lame!”

Yeah. I’m not a very good liar.

My cover blown, I still decided go ahead with the “Farmville” experiment. As soon as I finally found a button to mute that terrible music, I eagerly plowed all the land on my farm and sowed as many seeds as I could afford.

“Awesome, now I’m all set up!” I thought. Then I started clicking around, looking to see what else there was to do. Was there maybe a cutesy farming village to visit? Nope. Maybe there was some sort of mini-game, like a puzzle or a race or something? Nope. Maybe I was just overlooking something?

Nope. It seemed I was back to option one. And option one was, quite literally, “Watching Grass Grow.”

Of course, you’re not supposed to actually watch it. You’re supposed to go away and then come back a few hours later to harvest it. Then you repeat. And after you do this enough times, you can get more money, so you can get more crops, so you can get even more money, so you can grow more crops. But you’re still playing a game whose entire point is to watch grass grow.

Let’s review our choices here. We live in a time where you can pick up a video games that will let you: become a Renaissance-era assassin; steal cars and dodge cops; hurl birds through flimsy fortresses; fend for your life in a zombie apocalypse; save the world in dozens of different sci-fi and fantasy scenarios; and become a rockstar. And yet one of the most popular games of all time, a game with over 30 million players, revolves around watching grass grow.

To be fair, there is one other major component to “Farmville:” spamming your friends. I wasn’t able to walk three steps around my farm without the cutesy little pop-ups assailing me, insisting that I notify others about my flourishing crops, demanding I let everyone know that I’m now a “Level 8 Farmer”—whatever that’s supposed to mean—and so on. My personal favorite: “Fertilized crops grow faster! Share this knowledge with your friends?”

Evidently Farmville thinks my friends aren’t smart enough to know that fertilizer fertilizes. I’m not sure how the messages could get much more banal—unless there’s a “Breathing helps you stay alive! Share this knowledge with your friends?” pop-up I haven’t yet discovered.

Adding insult to injury, there’s quite a bit of lazy game design going on. For example: when you click on things on your farm, a little scythe icon appears and the game announces you are “harvesting.” This makes sense for spinach and apples. But why does the game insist on holding a scythe to my cow’s throat whenever I just want to milk it? I was always scared I was going to slaughter the poor thing.

Also, for an extra dash of political incorrectness: not only can you buy, use, and sell seeds; you can also buy, use, and sell farmhands. Wait, what? I thought this was “Farmville,” not “Pre-Civil War Plantationville.”

Still, I continued to play “Farmville” for another week or two, out of sheer confusion: why, oh why, is this game so popular? I kept waiting for a ravenous farming instinct to kick in, compelling me to check in on my crops at all hours of the night. I kept waiting for the gameplay to feel less like waiting on a stopwatch and more like an actual game. But in the end, it all still felt like watching grass grow. And watching grass grow, I guess, just isn’t my thing.

—Columnist Julia E. Hansbrough can be reached at jhansbrough@college.harvard.edu.

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