FarmVille  has more than 62 million active users, many of whom have probably never set foot on a real farm, but spend hours of time and piles of real dollars on the game. Given the chance, would these players be interested in taking care of a real farm, as long as they could still stay in their living rooms? That's the hope with MyFarm , an experiment that gives up to 10,000 online "farmers" the opportunity to vote on everything from what crops to grow to what livestock to nourish on a real, live farm, all for a onetime price of $48.
The U.K.'s National Trust has chosen a 2,500 acre farm--the Wimpole Estate in Cambridgeshire, U.K.-- as the site to experiment with the whims of the crowd. Participants will get to vote on every major decision at the farm, including crops (what kind of wheat should be planted?), livestock, facilities investments, and machinery choices. There will be some restrictions--the farm manager will give participants a list of choices for each decision, so the virtual "farmers" can't just decide to tear up food crops and start planting marijuana. Beyond that, participants have free reign to run the farm--or run it into the ground.
The MyFarm  site does everything it can to educate participants about the basics of farm life--which will hopefully make for better choices among its farm-ignorant users--courtesy of videos, discussions, and blog posts from on-site farmers. One blog post about soil illustrates the kinds of choices about crops that virtual farmers will have to make:
At Wimpole there are two main sorts [of soil]: clay and chalk. Our clay is excellent soil, but it is heavy, holding water when it rains and becoming really slimy when wet. This means we cannot drive tractors on it unless it’s dry, and that cattle cannot graze it over winter without churning it up really badly. So although this soil is fertile, growing vegetables on a large scale is going to be difficult. On the other side of the coin, the chalk soil drains really well, but is stony and less fertile...The fact it’s free-draining means livestock can probably graze it year-round without damaging it..So this means my other main focus to date is the animals, or livestock. But again, let’s see what you think!
That's a lot more to think about than when you play on the computer. Here it can take months or even years for changes on a farm to really make an impact, and it's hard to say whether MyFarm will be able to keep its virtual farmers engaged for that long when they're used to crops growing in just a few hours. And what if their actions result in the death of a cow? Will these users, used to the comfort of virtual life, even be able to handle the confrontation with the uncaring harshness of nature?
MyFarm won't reveal how many people have signed up yet, but one MyFarm fellow named "Farmer Jon" reports , "I think it's fair to say we're exceeding expectations." When the press dies down, we'll see if MyFarm can hold onto its user base and increase awareness about how agriculture actually works--or if participants will get bored and go back to their virtual, uncomplicated farms.
[Image credits: Flickr user publicenergy , MyFarm]
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