So, I’m an online gamer, but particularly since I was laid off in October 2009, I’ve started playing social games such as Farmville much more often. Partly because it’s really easy to slip in some time on the farm in between filling out internet job applications. Partly because even though they are called “social” games, there isn’t a whole lot of interactivity to them. But that I mean real-time interaction with another player. Oh sure, I can head to a neighbor’s farm (or homestead or cafe or house, depending on the game in question) anytime to do some work such as fertilizing their crops or feeding the chickens, but beyond leaving a message, there is no avatar-to-avatar contact between us. It’s lacking that part of the social interaction.
So what does make these games “social” if you aren’t interacting with other people? Well, you are interacting with them, it’s just not real time. To be successful, you need neighbors to help you out (and you help them in return). More neighbors means a bigger farm plot, or easier access to some goods, plus it really helps to have others come fertilize crops and feed chickens, because that also yields higher benefits. But those neighbors could be anyone and not necessarily someone you actually want to be friends with. These kinds of games promote what I call “neighbor whoring” because if you want more neighbors (for whatever reason) and you don’t have enough known friends who are playing the game, you need to find neighbors somewhere else.
Sometimes, it’s possible to find neighbors by checking out your friends’ friends lists and see if there is a second level contact you can neighbor with. But many times, random strangers who are also looking for neighbors seems to be the most common option. Over on the official Farmville community forums, there is even a thread dedicated to people looking strictly for FV neighbors. Now, this means you end up friending them on Facebook as well, but simple friends lists and monitoring of how you post updates easily keeps information going to the people you want to see it. I’ve set up customized lists specific for each game I play and when I make an update post from the games, I change my settings so only the people on that list will see the information. It’s the only polite thing to do when you also have friends who don’t play those games; why should they see all the game spam messages when it doesn’t interest them?
Beyond all that, I can see why these games have become more and more popular now. It’s right up there in the second sentence of this post – “it’s easy to slip in some time playing in between…”. Pop into game before leaving for work. Check out your team’s progress at lunch. Peek in while making dinner. One last look-see before bedtime. There is no pressure to do anything more than what you choose to do within the boundaries of the game itself. Some of my neighbors have huge farms and just about every special edition item available. Some have very elaborate farms where the actual “farming” part of the game is minimized. A few have a nice blend of both. Some people put lots of effort into making the farm look “natural” and landscape around it. It suits all play types and there is nothing wrong or right about how you play the game. There are no real stringent barriers of entry into the game itself. A new player does exactly the same thing as a long term player, just in different quantities.
And that’s another good reason for why social games are so popular now and becoming mainstream – no barriers of entry means anyone can play. My dad used to like playing solitaire and mah-jong on the computer; I’m pretty sure he would have loved some of the other similar kinds of games on Facebook as well. The games can appeal to everyone, not just the hip, computer savvy technophiles. And that’s a good thing, IMO.