I recently traveled to Oxford University in England to present a paper at a conference called Videogame Cultures and the Future of Interactive Entertainment. The conference brought together aabout 25 people from all over the world and from a wide variety of disciplines. It was one of the best conferences I’ve ever attended and I got great feedback on my paper, which was called Social Media and the Performance of Self.
In my fairly recent move from computer science to digital media studies, I’ve become interested in how adults use online play to gratify a variety of needs, particularly their need to express and play with identity. The paper that I wrote explores the fact that Farmville is a hugely popular game on Facebook and that the players of Farmville are largely women in their 40’s. Farmville is a game in which the player owns a virtual farm that she manages. The player plants crops, cares for those crops and harvests them. She has neighbors who visit her farm, sometimes watering her crops for her. She earns money within the game, which she uses to buy more crops or houses or animals. She has control over how her farm is organized and managed. The game has been disparaged as a crappy game–in fact, my co-panelist at the Oxford conference argued that it was a crappy game and explained why. And yet, it is the most popular game on Facebook. It is hugely popular. So in my paper, I argue that it is because the demographic that plays this game is gratifying needs that are different than the typical “gamer” needs. Typical gamers are looking to gratify their need for diversion (escape from reality, satisfaction of curiosity, and so on) when they play games. The typical Facebook user, on the other hand, is using Facebook for gratifying their need to maintain relationships. And so I argue in my paper, using the work of Erving Goffman, that the fact that a player can customize her farm, her online space, means that she is performing a “self” for her audience. She is presenting this “self” to her audience, the neighbors of her farm who are in actuality her friends, and this helps her to maintain and cultivate her relationships with those friends.
As I said, while at the conference, I had a bit of a debate with one of my co-panelists about the nature of Farmville as a game. She (and her graduate student) argued that it is a terrible game because it doesn’t really allow the player to be “social” but instead is a “viral” game. I understood her point but disagreed with her conclusion. I think it is true that the game is a crappy game if you are looking at games with a traditional lens, that is, with the needs of traditional gamers in mind. But the whole point of my work is to argue that this perspective is too narrow, that people use media (including games) to gratify a variety of needs and to ignore the fact that this game is indeed gratifying the needs of millions of users is to miss an important point. It was a great debate.
So I was surprised to see the debate is being carried out elsewhere as well. Jesper Juul organized a debate about social games at NYU recently. Ian Bogost, one of my favorite game theorists, argued against social games like Farmville, saying that they present no challenge to the player but instead require the player to do nothing more than click on something at regular intervals. Bogost has gone so far as to create a Facebook game that he calls Cow Clicker. You own a cow. You click on your cow and get “mooney” as a reward. That’s it. That’s the entire game. Bogost says that this game is social commentary, that it boils Facebook games down to their essence.
As much as I admire Bogost’s work in games, I think he’s missed the point here. Who says that THIS is the essence of Facebook games like Farmville? A big part of Farmville is about creating and organizing your farm. Why isn’t THAT the essence of the game? I think the reason is because current game analyses focus on certain aspects of the game (clicks that result in tangible rewards within the game, in this case) and not other aspects of the game (designing and organizing one’s farm, in this case). Current game analyses focus on the things that interest traditional gamers.
I think there is room in game studies for valuing a variety of game types. I’m not arguing that Farmville is a good game for traditional gamers. Clearly, it is not. But it is clearly tapping into something for the millions of non-traditional players who play this game every day. We should try to figure out what that something is instead of insisting that only games that gratify the right type of needs count as good games.