Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Mass Appeal of Farmville

A critical discussion about Farmville is one that inherently revolves around money. All art is naturally about money on some level, you’re still selling crap to people, but in terms of intrinsic importance most critics seem to ignore it. You can declare something is not worth the 60 bucks and that this ruins the experience, but I think most people still critically separate the two elements when discussing a game. Once you start addressing the money element in a video game you cross into Andy Warhol territory and that tends to make people uncomfortable.

Warhol was an enormous fan of capitalism as an art form and understood that the difference between good and bad art had a lot more to do with the consumers than it did any intrinsic element to the work. Or put another way, I don’t really have to make a good painting so long as everyone thinks it’s good and will cough up money for it. The knee jerk reaction is to bitch and moan about this idea because it implies that people are being ripped off but I think that’s a bit misleading. We are, unfortunately, living in an era of things that are mostly good at selling and not actually being good but that’s another rant. You still have to admit that convincing millions of people that you are correct/talented/worth buying is extraordinarily difficult. I’ve heard people describe this talent any number of ways. Alan Moore called it a type of magic, lawyers call it trial advocacy, charisma, charm, divinity, whatever. Warhol simply declared that the act of persuasion itself was an art. And by that standard Farmville is an astounding piece of work because it does not bother with convincing anyone of anything. It is not, by itself, a persuasive work of art. It is instead selling persuasion itself through the mechanics of video game trophies.

The game of Farmville is to see how much money you can not spend while still effectively competing with your friends. This is not quite the same thing as buying a magic sword for WoW on Ebay. The magic circle is not broken here, it simply never existed. Almost none of the goods you can buy in this game serve any purpose except decoration. Creating an elaborate farm has more in common with posting a funny link on your facebook profile than it does being a high level warrior. And if you hadn’t noticed, people like to post crap on their facebook profiles. It does not need to persuade anyone of anything, it is simply another set of things to broadcast about yourself on the internet. That twinge of pride you feel at your gamerscore? That urge to post on Twitter what you’re ticked about that day? That’s Farmville. That’s Warhol’s prediction about 15 minutes of fame, but now Zynga is selling it one minute at a time to whoever will pay in time or money.

This post is the culmination of several months of working on various critical approaches and combining them. The ideas I’ve been using to critically discuss a multiplayer game come into play along with a lot of research on synthetic economies and culture I’ve been doing. I actually finished this column a month ago, which is recent by my standards, but I decided to post it since everyone seems to be jabbering about this game lately. It seemed appropriate to sell out a tiny bit and stay in the spirit of things.

So long Farmville, and thanks for all the free stuff.

No comments: