Why Are We Obsessed With Online Farming?

Zynga and Slashkey have bet the farm on Facebook apps that tap our agrarian instincts. Why do they work?

I've spent time in my life working on two farms. The first, tucked into the rolling Tuscan hills just south of Siena, demanded early mornings, sweaty labor, and a willingness to tackle and retrieve the occasional stray pig. For the second, I log on to Facebook. Yep, I am addicted to FarmVille, a game developed by Zynga that lets users plant and harvest virtual crops, gift livestock to other players, and grow fruit trees. And I'm far from alone.

FarmVille

More than 12 million people logged onto FarmVille in the last month, according to AppData, and almost 13 million pulled on their virtual overalls in Farm Town, a near-identical game developed by Slashkey. InsideSocialGames ranks FarmVille and Farm Town as two of the Top 10 most popular apps on Facebook this month and both are growing at an impressive rate.

But why? There's plenty that the Facebook apps can't offer when measured against their real-life counterparts: The sun in your face, the dirt in your hands, the actual, edible fruits of your labor. There's not even a true sense of victory to be had: users don't compete against one another and as long as you're willing to watch the clock and harvest your crops on time, there's no element of peril to the play.

Could it be that the more tech-saturated us city folk become--I live in Manhattan and venture off the beaten concrete only on weekends--the more we crave some sort of agrarian experience? And that for many of us, plugged in 24/7 and restless to nurture even pixels on a screen, this is as close as we're likely to get? Or is there simply an itch to be scratched by games that mimic the pointless, patient wanderings of real life: The Sims, in which users build lives, is pretty plotless play, but it's also the best-selling computer game in history.

I was wondering about this late last night, staying awake an extra half-hour to harvest my strawberry crops with a point and click, and I realized there is one reason I opt for farming over city-building: I already live an urban life. I want to play at something else.

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