Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Holidays and Online Games

On the day when the United States celebrates 'Thanksgiving', Farmville, the popular online game on Facebook, announced a 'double mastery' event that would extend through the holiday weekend, ending Sunday night.

My first reaction was disgust. It was an obvious marketing ploy to entice players away from their family and friends back to their computers at a time when gaming should have been very low on the list of priorities.

'Mastery' for the uninitiated, is a concept that allows one to gain points whenever a specific Crop is harvested. Bushels of the Crop randomly are produced whenever any Crop is harvested and Mastery increases the probability that one will obtain Bushels. In the simplest of terms, Bushels of Crops can be used to craft Items and can be traded to other players for monetary rewards. Giving double Mastery points over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend therefore would encourage players to plant and harvest Crops when they otherwise might have left their fields fallow for four days.

Farmville, a 'free' online game, is owned by Zynga, one of the most aggressive online gaming entities. The object of the enterprise, from Zynga's perspective is to persuade players to bring new players into the game and to encourage them to spend REAL money on it. When you are playing Farmville, you never are allowed to farm in peace. Every couple of seconds, a prompt will appear, telling you of some item your farming efforts have uncovered, and suggesting that you 'share' it with friends and neighbours. Nothing wrong with the concept of sharing, but 'sharing' is the means by which messages from Farmville are posted on players' profiles on Facebook. If you are not careful, your entire Facebook profile can be swamped by Farmville messages, giving outsiders the impression that you spend more time and energy on virtual farming than you do in living.

After my initial disgust at Zynga's blatant strategy to exploit a festival weekend, I began to think of all the people who would spend their holiday alone... I have spent many holidays alone, away from my home, surrounded by strangers on different continents at different times in my life. How much less lonely I would have been if I had the ability to 'join' a virtual community like Facebook, to entertain myself with the illusion that I was planting and harvesting Crops and setting a Table for a feast, sharing the rewards of my labours with 'friends and neighbours' throughout the virtual globe.

I never will find online games more attractive than games created for consoles or handheld systems. I dislike the intrusion of the game creators in my virtual life. 'Free' games require advertising of some kind and marketing to persuade the users to invest in them. There is nothing wrong with that. An individual who is willing to spend twenty to fifty dollars on a DS or Wii game should be willing to invest the same amount in a 'free' game that they play regularly. After all, how can the developers of these games be paid to continue creating new options if no one ever invests in the game? I have a very limited income but I do not expect to receive something for nothing in this world.

It is interesting to visit the farms of other players and to see how every one uses items differently. Some of the landscaping I have seen in games like Fantasy Kingdoms, Lovely Farm and Farmville is incredible. Players have created real works of art in many cases. On the other hand, the vagaries of the internet can be extremely annoying and frustrating. Online games on Facebook often fail to load or lose items or load so slowly that one is in danger of falling asleep (literally) while waiting for a screen to load. These games change constantly, as does Facebook itself and the need to coordinate changes on both sides can bring enormous problems to every one. Nonetheless, it is rather heartening to realise that the whole world truly can be connected in the celebration of a festival even when people are isolated in reality.

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