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!