Stone age memes: The computer in my underpants

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I always liked that scene in Mission Impossible where Tom Cruise is lowered into the CIA computer. There’s all kinds of suspense having to do with external constraints like being suspended from a cable while hacking into the computer and not being able to make any noise and so on. As any computer user knows, though, what’s amazing about the scene is that Cruise manages to get the computer to do what he wants. All those external plot-heightening devices are nothing compared to the mundane suspense of going to work and trying to do something with a computer at all. Think about the nature of the hacking in this movie: it’s not chaos-loving mischief making. It’s trying to get control of the bloody thing: we all know about this. Yesterday it did what you needed and today you’re there with Cruise, hanging from the wire, and trying to break in…

I’m actually leading up to talking about the new social game on Facebook called FarmVille, so bear with me while I wend my way from the classy spy thriller to the compost-free fields of my virtual farm.

In 1984, my university sponsored a lecture by one of the architects of the computer revolution, who predicted that our world would soon resemble the GE Carousel of Progress that I had seen at the 1963 World’s Fair, but with personal computers everywhere, and we would all learn to program them, changing our lives for the better.

My dear colleague Jane Stellwagen fell asleep, snoring gently a few seats away. We had all heard this before, and computers looked different to those of us “in the trenches” of the computer revolution.

By then I had already been working for a couple of years to teach the use of PC’s to my colleagues; there was a strong core of “early adopters,” but most were resistant, even hostile. Computers were complicated and hard to use, and it was as difficult to get them to do what your really wanted as it was to want what they really did. As a writer of code and a teacher of documentation, I had struggled with the engineers who designed computers, so I knew that they weren’t really interested in solving these problems. Today these things are still true, though there are exceptions, and FarmVille may well point the way to their nature.

As we left that lecture in 1984, I said to the person next to me “People aren’t all going to embrace computers (as the learned speaker predicted), because they’re too hard to use. Instead, we’re going to put computers in everything. Your TV already is a computer. Soon your shoes will be computers. Your child’s teddy bear will be a computer. Your dog will be a computer. And there’ll be a computer in your underpants. And you’ll know how to use them because you already know how to use those things.”

It’s a big whoop how smart I was in 1984, but that’s not the reason I’m telling you this story. The point is what I wasn’t able to see then, even though all of my predictions have come true. Namely that, as a result of these changes, it’s pretty hard to tell which parts of our world are real any more, if you define “real” as not generated by a computer. When little Sluggo is hugging that computer-enhanced teddy Bear what is he reacting to? The ages-old maternal substitute or the clever interface?

There are actually name for the ideas I’m bringing up here. The field is called “ambient intelligence,” and refers to

… devices [that] work in concert to support people in carrying out their everyday life activities, tasks and rituals in easy, natural way … As these devices grow smaller, more connected and more integrated into our environment, the technology disappears into our surroundings until only the user interface remains perceivable by users.

The experience of using such a device is called VR Presence. The term was actually developed to task about how people interact with avatars, but I think the idea applies as well to (non-virtual) teddy bears. Here is how Matthew Lombard defines it:

Presence is a psychological state or a subjective perception in which the participant, although working with an instrument, fails to understand the role of technology in his experience. Although the subject might assert (except in extreme cases) that he is using technology, up to a certain point, or a certain degree, the subject gets involved in the task, in objects, entities and event perception, as if technology was not present.

This meaning of presence is derived from telepresence, an idea first depicted in Robert Heinlein’s 1950 short story Waldo. “Presence” was first used as a technical term by Marvin Minsky in 1980 to refer to the illusion of being in a physically remote or simulated site.

Show of hands now. How many of you still believe this column is about FarmVille? How many of you remember that I asserted that 700 words or so ago? I always like to play with people’s expectations, so if you still have any, here goes.

FarmVille does not by itself have VRPresence, but I would venture to say that as a module embedded in the social network, it contributes to the “presence” of participants in Facebook. And here’s how.

If you are not familiar with it, FarmVille is a game you play on Facebook. You have a farm and you raise animals, grow crops, pull weeds, and so on. You invite your Facebook friends to be neighbors and you exchange gifts with them. You send each other items that will help build a farm, mostly livestock and trees.

As a virtual farm it’s kind of lame, though it does have some charming aspects. The crops are beautiful, and they grow. For my first couple of times on FarmVille, I was mesmerized by the metamorphoses of my strawberries and soybeans. Fully grown soybeans are especially beautiful, though if you leave your strawberries unharvested, they wither repulsively.

Weeds, crows and the graphic death of neglected crops is about all the bad that can happen to you in FarmVille, though. I kept expecting Oregon Trail-like messages. I imagined “You failed to rotate your crops and so your fields are drained of nutrients. Your topsoil has blown away and you are now a character on the HBO series Carnivale. Hope you’re good on your back or strong with your hands.” But no.

FarmVille is not a skill-based game. You have to check back regularly and spend minor amounts of time caring for your farm, mostly harvesting and planting crops. It’s about nurture, not learning, and certain aspects of the farm experience are sacrificed to that, though there are people who “really get into it.” Here’s a quote from one:

avisatsuma: its not easy being a farmer. I’ve lost so many crops because I thought it was okay to go to bed, but it’s fine, I’ve learnt not to plant things until the morning so I can harvest them before I go to bed. My cows nearly readyyy! :) I havent been to school in 3 days. I’m not getting into college. Back to my farms. Goodbyeee.

Actually, FarmVille is more like a kind of Tamagotchi, the little electronic gizmo kids carried around with them and took care of in the nineties. They still exist; now you can get them with a touchscreen. In fact there has been a menagerie of programs to chose from if you want to nurture something: Nintendo Petz is an adventure game you undertake with a pet you design. Another game called Nintendogs allows you to train your pet and enter it into contests. In addition, there are web-based digital petsites where you can breed your pets and transfer the resulting animals to other sites to play in story-based adventures. You also find a virtual community who share interest in these activities.

FarmVille does a bit better with crops than with critters – at least you have to plow the land and sow the seed. But with animals, there is no cost for raising them but time– you don’t feed or water them! And the same now suddenly ominous-looking sickle appears for “collecting” animals as for harvesting crops. Are we gathering truffles or makin’ bacon?

Another of the missing elements is animal breeding. If you want your critters to do it “like they do on the Discovery Channel” you’re out of luck. As a result, you can’t have friendly veterinarian James Herriot come to the farm and turn that breech-positioned calf around while delivering words of wisdom. (See, I know a lot about real farming!) There is a minister on the web who has extracted moral lessons from FarmVille but these are more at the level of depth of All I really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten than what Herriot would say.

As with any new-ish thing, there’s plenty of puzzlement on the Internet about FarmVille and whether it’s worthwhile. It seems easy to participate, but people are ambivalent about the results. There’s a lot of discussion out there about the “premium” level, where you buy FarmVille money to acquire the best goods and the experience points that go with them.

The sale of “virtual products” may be unfamiliar to this community of more casual gamer, though it is well known in other groups, like those playing Sims, Warcraft and Second Life. It has also been a highly profitable area in Chinese gaming, which is reputed to be ahead of us in this kind of venture. On Facebook discussion pages, people seem pretty adamant that “its (sic) ridiculous that you have to pay with real money to get fake money!!” Yet the income of Zynga corporation suggests that there are many who do just that. As it says on mediahyperopia:

Zynga systems are not just providing the system out of the goodness of their heart, they reported $2 Billion in virtual goods sales (VGS / where players spend real dollars to buy virtual currency or items in the game) across their gaming line in 2008. FarmVille only launched in June 30 and the game is theorised to have catalysed higher consumer involvement than any previous Zynga development ultimately leading to increased VGS.

It may be that this economic aspect of the game has annoyed people and turned them to hacking, or maybe it’s just that there are people who’ll hack anything. There is abundant discussion out there of how to hack FarmVille, but most of it seems to amount to lame tips. Facebook Hacker has a relatively good page called “FarmVille Tips, Hints, Cheats and Hacks” and Wonderhowto has a page of tips and hacks for the game, including videos on how to speed up the game, how to hack your money and experience. Some of these methods require the purchase of “cheat” software.

I tried one simple technique which involved trapping your farmer in an enclosure made of bales of hay so you could hoe, sow and harvest without her ambling over to each plot. It worked, but I kind of like watching her as she works, and I felt a little S&M locking her up like that. Zynga seems to patrol pretty regularly because a lot of the bugs people were exploiting have disappeared, and some of the (probably more successful) videos telling us how to hack things have been taken down because of a “copyright claim” by the corporation.

More interesting are the various analyses of profits per crop per hour. The best of these are “The Personal Economics of FarmVille,” The Personal Economics of FarmVille, Part 2,” and “Posh Daddy’s Guide” (Excel required). Muskar also has a pretty good levelling guide.

The people why try to “achieve” in FarmVille miss the point, though. It’s a social network game, and the goal is to spend time with friends, not to reenact “he who dies with the most toys still dies.” These games in social networks are the up-and-coming thing, and they represent a changed model from the solitary gamer or even the band of Geeks giving up their lives to World of Warcraft. To explain the rise of these embedded games, Benedetti quotes Mark Pincus, founder and CEO of fast-rising game company Zynga which makes FarmVille:

… games used to be inherently social things – back when board and card games existed in the real world and we gathered around a real table with real friends to play them. … with the rise of MyFace and Spacebook (sic), all your friends are now gathered online in one convenient place.

The point is to build an experience economy, where what you gain isn’t outside of you: it’s a series of inner, mental events. What I find so interesting about FarmVille hacks is not that they are so lame, even lamer than the game. The hacking is just a misguided attempt to play FarmVille as if were a real game, and it is not. Farmville is an overlay on Facebook. That is, Facebook itself is a metaphor of sorts – it’s a cross between a database and a messageboard, where you participate to gain strokes from others – and FarmVille is a layer of metaphor on top of that.

Virginia Heffernan’s column last Sunday reported that people are getting fed up with Facebook, and FarmVille may be one of the attempts to correct the ennui arising from amassing hundreds of strangers who post stuff you mostly don’t care about, like my annoying constant updates that I won meaningless distinctions like the Treehugger ribbon in Farmville. (Annual report’s coming up: do you think I can put the ribbon in my resume?) I don’t know if social network games will revitalize an experience users are tired of, but it has to be better than turning Sims into zombies.

FarmVille reminds me of the old days where you stood around the water cooler on Monday morning talking about what happened on Bonanza the night before night. It was a chance to be part of a little community harmlessly swapping views and theories about what they saw. It didn’t change the dynamic between the participants, but it reinforced a small thing they had in common.

The burgeoning of cable TV channels means we don’t have that experience with TV any more, and maybe part of the allure of FarmVille is that it gives us a safe little community again. Lolfed has some similar musings in, “Measuring our GDP, in Sheep, on Facebook“:

Are we, as Rousseau might have liked to think, coming to the realization that the best path to bliss is to explore our peaceful agrarian roots? …Has the desire for stability manifested itself in some kind of desire for radical self-sufficiency, consisting of a barn and herd of cows and government-stabilized milk prices?

There by the water cooler, though, maybe you watched The Judy Garland show on Sunday night, so you tried to fake a response to the events on the Ponderosa. And in fact some of the so-called “social interaction” in FarmVille is actually fake. Supposedly your neighbors “ask you for help” with their farming problems, but actually it’s just the game asking for them. They could be lying dead while you wander through their fields picking weeds.

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3 Responses to “Stone age memes: The computer in my underpants”

  1. I ain’t gonna work on Eva’s farm no more.

  2. I was curious about the “social gaming” craze. I grew up with the notion that games were anti-social, particularly video games, perhaps because they deprived children of the socialization that came with “real games” like baseball. Baseball helps kid to develop sportsmanship and high-level social skills like cursing and spitting. So I started playing Farmville and Mafia Wars. But I don’t think I’ll be feeling vindicated any time soon, at least, not by Zynga.

    Eva is right, of course. Farmville is compelling, and the comparison of tending sheep online to Tamaguchis makes sense to me. I think all computer games, to some extent capitalize on users abilities to empathize with the strangest things, be it an avatar that you design to make look like you, or a simple low-resolution Pac-man. I think the designers of Tamaguchis figured out an important rule, which is that kids can become just as addicted to raising their Tamaguchis as they are to carrying around their favorite stuffed animals, because its not so much the “thing” that they’re attached to as the way you interact with them. So there’s probably some sort of gradation here from animals to stuffed animals, to tamaguchi’s, to webkins, with Farmville pets being perhaps the least grounded in any resemblance to reality. But I find myself not only thinking of my Farmville flora and fauna as Tamaguchis, but my game friends or neighbors too.

    I chuckled at the end of Eva’s column, because there is something creepy about Farmville avatars going about asking friends to do chores for them when the players are absent. Its creepy because I’m compelled to do these chores in spite of knowing that users won’t know one way or another, unless I send them a notification. And this is the genius of the game, because people do leave notes, because they want people to know that they were helped, and because the notes offer players the chance to return the favor and earn a little extra money. Who are we to deprive them of this?

    This is the rule in Farmville: it gives us the illusion of helping people, and it makes us feel like a jerk if we don’t do it. I find this most remarkable when it comes to the banners I’m asked to post on Facebook every time I level up, earn an achievement or grow a pea. These notes also come with links offering to let fellow players share in the wealth, but they looks suspiciously like advertising banners. How did my Facebook feed get filled up with these things? I used to refuse to use hotmail accounts because of the advertising notes placed at the bottom. Now I’m willfully posting Farmville ads on my newsfeed and . . . .feeling good about it? I’d understand that kind of manipulative, underhanded trickery from a game with questionable values like Mafia Wars, but from Farmville?

    Worse yet, players of both Farmville and Mafia wars make advancement depend upon the number of friends you recruit for the game. In Farmville, the size of your farm depends upon the number of neighbors you have. The plot of land you start with is small enough that you can maximize the profit your farm within the first 3-4 days. You may still enjoy rearranging that farm in clever ways, but it won’t be turning any more of a profit unless you start getting more neighbors. In Mafia wars you can continue to grow your empire with only a few friends, but it’s a slow business—and the game continually provides items and properties that require users to require two more mafia members before they can buy them. The result is that there’s a whole game outside the game in Mafia Wars of recruiting friends, friends of friends, and then strangers on web sites until they can grow their mafia to 500 players or more. And with them of course, come 500 people who can share gifts or collectibles, help on each other’s jobs, and generally speed up the development of the empire. I held out for as long as possible, but eventually posted something like: “Mafia Wars isn’t fun. It’s a pyramid scheme, which coerces players into recruiting others in order expand their own empires. Keeping this in mind, I need two more players because I want to buy another “really bloody chainsaw”.

    I find this disheartening. I want collaborative games like Farmville that can complete with game sales for first-person shooters. I’m not opposed to shooters because they’re violent, but simply because they represent a large part of the market share and they aren’t particularly inventive. Ironically, though, the current generation of multiplayer shooters require far more “social interaction” than games like Farmville. Saving the world from alien bugs or a zombie apocalypse, after all, requires strategy—chatter about defensive positions or flanking maneuvers. Some, non-violent games, like Schizoid, go one step further making it possible for players to pass each level unless they can talk their way through each puzzle with their friends. But all of these innovations still seem less “social” to me than the earliest generation of on-line games: chess. As a kid during the golden era of local area networks, I spent many hours playing chess on-line with friends and strangers. I used to turn the lights off in my room so my parents didn’t know I was awake. And you know, if you’re going to commit to playing chess with someone for an hour or more, you have to find a lot to talk about between the moves. Its just common decency.

  3. @Ted- Thanks for your comments. I read them just after sending out “reminders” to people to friend me so I could have a bigger farm, so especially appreciate your astute observations about the Zynga version what constitutes a social game. My kid, who plays FarmVille, was able to surpass me even though he started later, because he has scores of FB “Friends” to deploy for FarmVille. He is more gregarious, genuinely gregarious, than me, but not THAT much so. I have grown more slowly because my definition of “friend” is more restrictive and restricted. There are all these terms that we are supposed to redefine in accordance with the mandates of advertisers and I am not always “game.”
    It’s funny. I had very minor foot surgery yesterday, and the hospital where it was done prides itself on having the attending nurses call you the next day to see how you’re doing. (Fine.) I just took that call and chatted to a woman who obviously has had this PR task added to her busy schedule. She knew little about my case, and had little help for my question (“My bandage is falling off.”). As I struggle with the question of whether PR can redefine “friend,” I should apparently also be worrying about whether it will redefine “patient care.” What’s next? “Quality of life?” George Orwell would say, “Bless us every one!”

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