Virtual Mooncake Exchange

A friend of mine, who’s going to go nameless in this post, called most Facebook social games “window dressing on the poke application.” He wasn’t specifically referring to FarmVille, but it fits.

FarmVille’s genius is turning our contract with society into a game. The addictive side of play is not so much the virtual sheep or farm improvements, but because we have social expectations surrounding favors and gifts (even if they’re pretend ones).

I really like farming sims, I’m having fun with MyTribe on Facebook, and I love the idea of a casual MMO game, so I was expecting to enjoy a recent assignment on FarmVille. But as I played, I saw less of the pretend raspberries and coffee beans, and more of a social currency.

Sure, I noticed the addictive powers of game mechanics like limited-time availability of items, the slot-machine draw of random gifts, the timing and variety of in-game achievements, and the pull of FarmVille status updates, but what fascinated me most is the gifting system.

We have social expectations around gifts and favors, but FarmVille turns the guanxi network into a game. FarmVille encourages you to send free virtual gifts to your friends!  Who wouldn’t spend a couple mouseclicks on a gift to a friend? You do have friends, right? You aren’t some kind of friendless pariah, are you? And you’re not some horrible jerk who won’t share, right? Look at this poor homeless calf! You’ve got to find a home for it!

And then, you have to respond to gifts. Of course you’re going to send a thank you gift — who wouldn’t spend a few moments responding to a virtual sheep? You’re not totally lacking in social graces, are you? And now you’ve exchanged your virtual items, you’re locked in. It would be kind of mean to accept their help for a barn-raising and then not offer them a pink cow or perfect bunch of daffodils. It’s window dressing on our social contract.
That is also the problem with FarmVille (and similar games). The frustration comes when invitations and free sheep from distant acquaintances on the far edges of our social networks seem more like spam than actual connections.  I’m beginning to see Easter eggs or pear tree exchange the way I saw certain Chinese English students accosting me to practice their English on a real foreigner. Somehow the personal connection is missing from what seems like a personal interaction.
What do you think? Is FarmVille brilliantly turning our social contract and expectation into huge fun (and huge profit for Zynga)? Or are we fake-interacting with each other, like the mall greeter, as we grow our pretend crops?
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11 Responses to Virtual Mooncake Exchange

  1. Anonymous says:

    I think we discussed this once before, but the gifts systems for all Facebook games, including Farmville, feel impersonal to me, so I don’t really get the whole social obligation thing. When I get a message saying “Soandso is sending you a whatchamawhozit! Do you want it?” I know perfectly well that soandso did not see the whatchamawhozit, think “Wow, Lex would really like that!” and pick it out just for me. What happened is that Soandso was asked by the game, “Do you want to send a whatchamawhozit to your friends?” she (Yes, she. My friend Soandso is definitely a hot gamer chick) clicks yes because there’s some sort of in-game benefit to doing so, and all 5,000 of Soandso’s friends immediately get offers for whatchamawhozits. The fact that it has the word ‘gift’ stamped on it doesn’t make it one. This is constantly reinforced by the fact that I’m constantly getting ‘gifts’ from people I used to know who haven’t messaged me in years and probably don’t know or care if I’m even alive.

    That doesn’t invalidate the idea of utilizing a social dynamic like that in a game, though. I think the potential is fascinating. I can envision a system that encouraged REAL gifting rather than just empowering you to spam your friends, and that WOULD be interesting. Restrict the sending of gifts to one, or possibly a handful at a time, and have the benefits to the sender only occur if, say, the person on the recieving end actually uses it enough or does certain things with it, so that some thought is actually put into what sort of thing to send to who.

  2. Lunarhound says:

    And the above post is me, by the way. Forgot to fill in a name and email. Please reply to this one, so I know something’s being said.:P

  3. Meg says:

    Haha, I knew it was you anyway!

    I see a lot of potential for trading in a social game (If you can ONLY get bumbleberry seeds through me, do I hold out to screw you? Give them to you free because it’s us vs. game? Trade for something I can only get through you?) but the free gifts turn to spam so quickly. I blame Farmville/Zynga in part, for offering so many ways to spam your friends, making “send to absolutely everyone” the default option and providing in-game bonuses for harassing as many people as possible, but I also blame the folks blanketing their friends with self-interested “gifts”.

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