Saturday, September 18, 2010

Gradual Alienation from Nature in Virtual Farming

Obviously, games imitate reality to some extent, whether in faithful adherence to real time and space, items and society's interactions or in our emotional responses to events and characters. Virtual Farming, in particular, can be very realistic.

Harvest Moon games are set in a detailed universe filled with diverse Characters and different goals. Facebook Farming Games, one would have thought, are far more simple. The basic goal is to raise experience levels and earn enough money to purchase new Crops and Items.

I became involved with various Facebook Farming games partly at the behest of a friend and partly out of curiosity. I did write 'strategy' guides for a number of these games and over the course of a few weeks, discovered which of them actually had lasting appeal to me.

A Russian game called 'Lovely Farm' is my personal favourite of all the Facebook farming games. The graphics are very Russian, reminiscent of illustrations in old folktales. The crops are luscious and detailed, some of them extraordinary in their beauty. I never realised how beautiful a Watermelon could be until I played Lovely Farm...

Many players complain that the necessity to raise experience levels and earn money means that one never has enough space in these games. One tends to place more Animals and Trees than one would wish aesthetically simply because one needs to earn Coins from them. Experience can be earned by placing an item once, but where Trees and Animals are concerned, the ability to 'harvest' them means that one is best served if one can keep them on the land.

A packrat by nature, I have discovered that I am no different where games are concerned. It is difficult for me to sell items and Animals to make space for new ones. They are too real to me in a way. There is a point, however, where one cannot advance much if one does not begin to sell off Trees and Animals regularly.

Any Farming Simulation game is based primarily on Farming, which translates into tilling the soil, planting Crops, watering them (in some games only) and finally, harvesting them. What is ironic is that, the more experience that you gain, the fewer Crops one tends to grow. As one unlocks more beautiful decorative items, the size of farming land diminishes gradually as squares are needed in order to be able to place luxury items that produce nothing but lend enchantment and beauty to the land.

Each time I transform a tilled square of land into space for a decorative item, I feel a little guilty. More than half of the squares of land on my Lovely Farm now are devoted to decorative items rather than Crops. There was a time when I kept all Animals I received or purchased. Now I am forced to sell some of them in order to reclaim space. On the whole, the Animals, however charming or fetching, are less beautiful than fountains and roses, with the exception of the glorious Peacocks.

What sort of Farmer transforms rich, tillable soil into space for decorations and sells productive Animals in order to place another Gazebo or Marquee on the land? These games are designed to persuade players to invest in beautiful buildings and decorations... and in this, art imitates life. When one is scratching out a bare subsistence from the soil, one is not in any position to think about luxury items, but later, when one has wonderful Milk Cows that yield profitable Milk like clockwork and levels of experience have unlocked some of the most beautiful decorations, one begins to think in terms of aesthetic beauty rather than counting squares and profit margins for each Crop.

In a game like Fantasy Kingdoms, one actually can 'freeze' Crops in any stage of growth. As time passed, and my own energies had to be turned elsewhere, I froze all my Crops. My Kingdom, therefore, now produces no new Crops.

The gradual alienation from Nature and her fertile bounty has occurred in all the Facebook Farming games I play. I still plant Crops daily on my Lovely Farm, but the amount of space devoted to real farming is greatly reduced.

Farming simulation games ordinarily operate in real time and every Crop has a different growth time. Inevitably, as my levels increased, I began to choose Crops on the basis of growth times that were most convenient rather than those that appealed to me most. Crops, however lovely, that matured in two or four hours were less convenient than those that matured in 24 hours or even 2 Days.

The beauty of any of these games is that one can change everything at any point in time. I could sell all the buildings and decorations or place them in storage and reclaim every square of land for farming. Until that day, however, I live in the shadow of guilt, feeling that I am being disloyal to the Farmer's Code somehow by preferring luxury decorations to the honest satisfaction of seeing an enormous field filled with growing Crops.

Success brings its own negative influences as well. When one is striving to attain a level to unlock specific Crops or items, one works diligently and faithfully. When one has attained these goals, one is less excited by the prospect of labour. One does not lose interest entirely, but the flame diminishes slightly and one becomes less dedicated.

One of the most important side-effects of gaming is self-knowledge. One learns about oneself and cannot ignore flaws of character and weaknesses as well as strengths. People who dismiss games as 'time-wasters' do not understand how much gaming can be a true mirror of life.

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