Digital Farming- What’s The Deal?

Homegrown Neighbor here:

So here in the world of urban homesteading things can get pretty busy. We can become so preoccupied with work, chickens, vegetable gardening, cooking, cleaning, blogging duties and email that we can miss some of the things going on in the world. I do like to occasionally check in with the world at large by reading the newspaper. I just read an article that I have to comment on.

A recent New York Times article titled, ‘To Harvest Squash, Click Here,‘ introduced me to the world on online farming. Apparently people spend a lot of time “farming” on line. Twenty two million a day in fact, according to the article. There are several farming games on Facebook, Farmville being the most popular. You can get seeds to plant, watch your crops grow and then harvest them. Some people are so addicted that they are eschewing real life responsibilities and social obligations to harvest their virtual soybeans.
It is even suggested that the popularity of these farming games is indicative of a collective yearning for a more pastoral life. I’m not sure I get this. I spend all day outside in the dirt making things grow. At sundown, I lock up the chickens. Then I harvest something to make into dinner or on a special evening, I’ll make a big batch of jam or sauce and spend hours canning. I’d rather spend as little time online as possible.
I can’t wrap my head around how a video game can in any way replicate the experience of farming. I may be an urban dweller, but I get my satisfaction by getting real, not virtual, dirt under my fingernails. Can any one explain this trend to a clueless non-gamer like me?

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  1. Sure. It’s relaxing and mind numbing. I play Farmville when I’m not too tired at the end of the day. It’s simply a matter of clicking on what you want to harvest. Want eggs? Click on a chicken. Want squash? Click on the plant. There’s no chicken sh*t, no mud, no coops to muck out, no 90 degree weather with humidity. It’s a way to unwind at the end of the day. Does it actually replicate the experience of farming. No of course not. Clicking on a white animated chicken to get an egg has absolutely nothing in common with slogging outside in the rain, through the mud to muck out a chicken coop with the pitchfork while trying not to fall on your butt in the mud. And that’s a good thing because I have enough of that during the day.

  2. This is the same way musicians talk about the Guitar Hero games. The games are harmless, and they let people explore their interests with a much lower level of commitment. On top of that you can learn a little bit, on the system level, of what goes into growing your food.

    The games aren’t for farmers, they’re for people who romanticize farms. But that’s not a terrible thing. At least a few people picked up a real guitar because they enjoyed Guitar Hero.

  3. When the iPods all link up in 2012, we will be able to transfer our consciousness onto our online avatars, leaving our cumbersome obsolete primate vehicles behind, and enjoy a delicious e-omelet. Get with the program, people!

  4. Being a nurse, I watch my co-workers spend 90% of their time on the job playing Farmville. The other 10% gets divided up into patient care and eating. I try to leverage their interest in Farmville into maybe coming over and helping me in my real yard, but this has yet to pay off. I think it’s probably just a fun game that has zero connection to actual gardening, much like playing Mario Cart doesn’t mean you want to be a race car driver.

  5. I looooove video games, and Farmville was boring. I did get caught up in WoW briefly, and when I realized that all the things I liked about the game (besides the fighting) was that I could advance my skills in herbology and a whole mess of stuff I’d rather do in real life. Just give me a good ol’ Mortal Combat, let me punch the other guy on the TV screen, and go hang out with my chickens in real life.

    p.s. I’m a nurse too, and we barely have time to check my work e-mail at work, would be interesting to have enough time to spend 90% of my time on Farmville.

  6. I wish I could ‘splain it . . . I signed up for FarmTown on facebook, and it was fun for about a day (really about 20 mins of actual computer time). I’d much rather be doing it For Real.

  7. I play farmville, but I think what get people to play the game is not so much the farming itself, but the gain in new items/special items at new levels, and the limited interaction with your friends on facebook. The game has been trying to find ways of rewarding players from extended play time, including surprises that occur only when you’re logged in. I told myself I’d quit when I got a million farm coins, and buy the villa (the most expensive house/mansion), but they’ve started to come out with more and more types of animals for the farm, which are a bit more interest to me (recently, a turtle, swans, owls, etc.), and playing the game has become a bit of a routine habit, like checking email. I don’t understand how people can spend *that* much time on it though. My gaming habits from when I was younger dictate that to level up the fastest, I’d plant the most profitable crops over the most amount of space. If I have work to do, I choose crops I can’t harvest until later in the week. I can only imagine the people who spend a lot of time on Farmville are the ones that are constantly rearranging their farm.. It’s funny you guys commented on this- My boyfriend, who recently applied to the UC Santa Cruz Farm apprenticeship, says my virtual farming is a mockery of his intentions of having a real farm. I’m not so sure about that, but there is a romantic feeling to seeing my log cabin surrounded by a pond, fruit trees, a green house, and other things I’d like my own house to someday have. Upon graduating this year from a masters program at UCLA, I’ll be saddled with about 80,000 dollars in debt, and an uncertain job future… owning my own land and house might not happen for a long time. But I digress.

  8. Apparently, cooking programs are loved not because people actually learn how to cook any recipes, but because it is very relaxing to see other people cook. Perhaps it is an similar approach with Farmville, with it being an relaxing activity playing a farmer while not being one. I suppose if you were to watch a real farmer farm, she would tell you to either help or get lost.

  9. How nice that you have room to plant and a place for your chickens. Did you ever think about the fact that most “urban dweller[s],” as you call yourself (I really doubt that you could call yourself such if you have such room) don’t?

  10. Anonymous:

    Mrs. Homegrown here. You’re right–Erik and I and Homegrown Neighbor are lucky to have a little land. We live in tiny houses on small plots of land in the heart of LA.

    But we really believe you don’t need land to do a lot of this stuff. That was perhaps the central message of our book.

    If you have a south facing window, a balcony or patio or a flat roof, you can grow in containers. You can get a plot in a community garden. You can appropriate land from public spaces, friends or family members. Even urban centers are full of neglected potential growing space. With the exception of a couple of notable cities, most of America sprawls.

    The post wasn’t just about gardening–Neighbor also mentioned that its fun to make jam and sauce — to screw around in the kitchen with the bounty of nature. It’s also a helluva lot of fun to make beer. Or go out walking and see what wild foods you can forage.

    I’m just saying that you can do a lot of things that put you in touch with the seasons and the cycles of nature, even if you live in an apartment.

  11. Mrs. Homegrown: I’m not sure how it is in other cities, but the waitlist for the community garden near me (the mar vista area) has 440+ people ahead of me, and is essentially a 2 year wait.. 🙁 I think the majority of the people who play farmville have no idea how to grow anything and have no true real life interest in it (I say this because the majority of my friends on facebook are like this. Maybe only 3 out of the 25 on my ‘neighbor’ list have interests in growing, and out of the 3 only one actively gardens/keeps chickens). Which just makes me think of the importance of urban outreach programs.. if people are interested. It’s sad to say, but in these modern times of convenience, like the people who have no interest in cooking and eat out all the time, others likewise have no interest in attempting to put forth elbow grease in growing…

  12. My understanding from an article in this month’s Fortune magazine is that the company that makes FarmVille (Zynga, based in San Francisco) is making a stinkload of money (projected annual revenue for this year is $100M). The company was founded in 2007. Talk about growing something.

  13. I think it’s our society growing more and more passive. Kind of like millions of people watching “The Biggest Loser” while sitting on the couch.

  14. As we all know we have gotten very lazy as a society. I am guilty of “farming” on facebook also – but do have a garden in the same area of los angeles as our homegrown evolution team. I am a huge promoter of everyone that has a little bit of land plant some edible trees, veges etc. and have a compost bin of some kind. But…..realistically I guess it is easier to buy tomatoes at $2.99/a pound than plant. This summer/fall I have harvested about 200 pounds of awesome tomatoes from two enormous tomatoes plants in my back yard.

  15. Farmville is about a false sense of achievement. It’s a “grinding” game, similar to World of Warcraft.

    Eskil Steenberg very recently wrote about the relationship between designers of grind-intensive games and their players in terms of an abusive relationship, and that makes sense to me (link: click on my name, above).

    The one redeeming thing here is that the achievements in this game convey a power to nurture, rather than a power to kill.

  16. I hope your book has tips on what to do if you live in the Northeast and *don’t* have south-facing windows! My boyfriend is babysitting my herb pots for the winter. Will check it out.

  17. Video games look so unbelievably boring.

    Anonymous the first, Mjlai: I live in Philadelphia. In my city, it’s only the community gardens in rich neighbourhoods have hundreds of people on the waiting lists. The wealthy neighbourhoods are also the more densely populated. In the ghetto, where I live, I had to wait a couple of weeks, maybe a month, for my garden plot. I won’t be signing up again next year, because there are so many abandoned lots on my block. I have materials to build a fence and raised beds, most of them trash picked, waiting in my basement.

  18. I’m glad to see I’m not the only “farmer” who doesn’t get Farmville. My Facebook friends bombarded me constantly with invitations to waste even more time with games like this until I figured out how to make the requests disappear.

    Sorry, I’m too busy with my first life to even contemplate a second, virtual one.

  19. Hey, I have the best of both worlds. I have my FarmVille, which really can’t replace the real thing and I have the real thing, a plot at a garden club where I can keep bees and grow vegetables. I prefer the real thing so I let a bot take care of my FarmVille account.

  20. I tried Farm Town (similar) to see if it might have virtue as a teaching tool. Nope. Did I get rewarded for starting small? for setting up crop rotations? for creating a permaculture food forest? cover crops? No to all of the above. You can’t even plant peas until “level 7”. Seems like there are few real-farm problems. The game rewards you for playing and buying stuff, that’s about it. There could be SO much more to it. I’m not a gamer, but Farm Town has nuttin’ on the feeling of looking at the garden put to bed, and the jars of put-up food. (Note: garden = less than 400 sq ft.)

  21. We have so many students that are doing this digital farming. I’m asking two as we speak what the fascination is and they say that it gave them a sense of responsibility to take care of something that was all their own. They enjoyed the rewards they would get for taking care of their farm, which came in the form of seeds for another crop, without having to get dirty and do actual labor. One says it is a lot like Sims and is very addicting. The other student would even get up and check his farm before going to school. But both have recently stopped doing it and closed their accounts.
    I don’t get it either. When they first showed me I was extremely perplexed.
    Your friendly neighbors at the
    Altadena Compound

  22. A friend hooked me into playing Farmville because she “needed more neighbors”. I spend maybe 30 minutes a day on it, end up rearranging my “yard” once a month or so. But I annoy my more digitally-inclined friends by making technical complaints about the game.

    Why can’t I save my seeds?! Screw this buying seeds every time!

    Where’s the Manure?

    Passion Fruit dosen’t grow on trees!

    Milk costs way more than that.

    Why do the elephants give you Circus Peanuts?

    Why can’t I butcher my animals?! Screw this happy-fluffy “Click the pig to collect truffles”…I want bacon!

  23. I think you are having trouble understanding it because you are trying to quantify two completely opposite activities that share a theme but have inherently different goals or purposes. Your mistake is that you are passing judgment on those playing the game by equating it to a waste of time since it is not an activity involved in sustainable production. You could equally criticize anyone for spending time going to the movies or doing any number of other sports, hobbies etc. Yes making jam is fun. Digging in the dirt can be fun or it can be work. Growing your own tomatoes can be rewarding or a huge disappointment. I don’t find it all that confusing that people would like playing the game; but I do find it puzzling why some people have such a sense of superiority for not playing it. I also find it interesting that certain assumptions are made about the player’s quality of life and goals based on their participation.

  24. I think the games are an enjoyable way to wind down. When I check my email and friends updates in the evening it just takes a few more minutes to check the game. And with the growing season being over it helps fill the void 🙂

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