Archive for September, 2010

Real World Dreaming in A Virtual World Game

by Karen

Whole Farm


This is one of two posts about my love-hate experience with Farmville.com. Here, I share how my Farmville design pays tribute to a co-op based farming and crafting educational center that I would like to build. The actual Farmville experience is somewhat tangential for this post. The Farmville context is here primarily because being otherwise engaged in distracting activities like playing a brainless game occupies the part of my mind that is in overdrive and gives me a little dreaming space. So, with no more delay, here is a little trip into the vision of one player.

Farmville is off the charts in “cute”, but it doesn’t translate well into the real world (or try). So, my imagineering includes things that are what they seem, but also things that are not so much real world features and what they mean to me is not apparent without the back story. For example: I have a green leprechaun garden gnome in each corner of the farm, a lighthearted acknowledgment to myself that I will need pots of gold for start-up cash. Some features represent key parts of my plan while others are just a bit of available whimsy.

I’ll share my co-op by beginning in the north at the top corner, continuing around the farm clockwise, and then finishing in the center. The general store and co-op in the southeast are the central theme of my vision and they contain the core features, so, if you are the “skip straight to desert” type, be sure to look there.

North

In the north corner there is a castle with three hot-air balloons. The balloons are placed closely together as they would be for an evening glow at a balloon festival. These balloons together with a castle remind me of Malcolm Forbes’s more famous pursuits. But, surprisingly, they are not among those things placed on my farm in whimsy. Renaissance Festivals and Hot-Air Balloon Festivals both present magnet for revenue and education with components that could be carried year ’round in activities as varied as costuming, crafting, cooking, sports, physics demonstrations, history lessons and creative writing inspiration. I have the background to pull off either type of festival successfully (preferably both and about 6 months apart) and to carry the themes through to bring the lessons and the business component. These events could realistically bring tourist dollars to the co-op area and also support to the educational portions of the co-op.


Moving East

Along the northeast perimeter of the farm there is a forest. I like to idealize this forest as a primary forest with pristine riparian zones and areas for recreation, education and conservation. If this type forest does not exist near my co-op location, we may instead visit Public Lands or commercial forests on field trips, in books or on websites where we can teach and learn about the differences between different types of private, public and commercial forests, what makes each type of forest important or unique and why they all need to exist. Often, even the people managing one of these types of forest knows little or nothing about the others. That understanding is, however, important to good management, communication, community planning, strong business interests and sustainability, even understanding the evening news.

The two schoolhouses beside the forest represent balance and two-way learning, educators as students and students as educators. Many non-profit organizations fail to help a community because they view a problem from the outside and preach solutions that worked in a different setting, culture or context, but they fail to adapt to the unique aspects of a particular situation or to listen to the people they are supposed to be helping. I have seen many surprising examples in the documentation of organizations who’s names you know. There have been improvements in recent years and many of the more complex issues in his type of work are now making it into news media, bringing about a more widespread familiarity with relevant complexities, but there is also a greater profusion of material that is churned out by people fed on opinion, sensationalism and fallacy. While better information is available, the water is murkier and in many way we must work even harder than ever to find the pearls and stay on target.

To handle these issues, this program will be about adaptation and two-way communication. We will look to see how other programs achieve success and where they have failed and if they hold a relevant lesson for us. There is a new age in these programs. Some organizations are applying business skills and careful analysis to finding the best ways to create benefits and independence rather than dependency. Finding the promise and the success will be difficult, but it is more achievable than ever before.

In the school as well as throughout the program, everything and everyone will multi-task. For example: The bicycles outside the schools are great for transportation or recreation. There are the more common modern bicycles as well as the old fashioned penny farthings that add extra interest and fun. When compared to each other, these bicycles can also be used to teach a lesson on gearing and mechanical advantage, or a history lesson on when and how the two different styles developed. The bicycles in this area fit into the plan in other ways. There could be rentals, cycling events to promote healthy outdoor activities, a program that repairs and redistributes donated bicycles. Perhaps I might even fulfill another dream through this program, a distance charity bike ride to Patch Adams’ Gesundheit Institute in West Virginia.


The stable is my “lemonade stand”. By that I mean that it represents an opportunity to make the best of things. I do not expect my co-op to actually have stables, but life is about unexpected opportunities and balancing focus with openness. The stable is here to remind me not to get too carried away in my vision to be able to see. In some ways this is the central point of my theme. There is a firm structure and a business plan that show up primarily in the co-op, but the stables really represent the mission statement. If life presents the co-op with stables and someway to manage them in a manner that benefits the program, there should be stables. If something else works, we need only to be able to see and say yes, to follow through an act on opportunity.

In the east corner there are barns. In Farmville the barns are used to store all of the farm loot that you accumulate through play. As an aside, Farmville can be seen as a “green” choice because it gives us a place to use that compulsive, seemingly evolutionary desire to collect stuff, trophies or status, to satisfy that need to keep up with the neighbors, without the accompanying accumulation of real world material goods.

The barn is another building that may or may not exist at my co-op. For now let’s say that one barn is for farm use and equipment, the second is multipurpose. In the fall there may be dances, hay rides or other traditional activities. The storage building beside the barns represents a drop off point for a Freecycle.org type program. Freecycle.org is dedicated to keeping useful things out of landfills. They use Yahoo!Groups to connect people with things that they don’t need to people who could use those things. The program is not designed for people who are selling, rather for those who are giving things away so that the purchase price is never what causes a thing to go in the landfill that might otherwise be used for a new purpose or by a new person. Sometimes those things are big ticket items, but more often they are small, sometimes even broken. Often garage sale left overs make it on, I’ve even seen people put something as small as coupons or as nice as expensive event tickets on Freecycle. There is a sense of paying it forward and sometimes givers even offer to mail paper items. With Freecycle people respond to emails and can meet in a central location, but usually pick things up at the owner’s home. In a small community with low population density a Freecycle group is not likely to already be in place. Since I’d be starting from scratch, I think a program of my own design with a central drop off point might create stronger benefits for this type of area in privacy and total miles driven by participants. I’ve recently heard of a tent in New York that is open 24 hours a day and based on the same principle. There is no need to provide security for the tent because everything is free and the tent is open 24 hours a day. Whether or not 24 hour access might be wise in the coop area would involve many considerations currently unknown.

Moving south, as we approach the general store (my representation of the co-op); there are a well, a pump, and a water barrel all together, here to acknowledge the importance of water. All of the water on Earth has been recycled through natural earth filters time and again. How we use water and how we conserve and care for it, whether or not we allow it to clean itself before reuse, whether or not we use water from aquifers faster than natural processes can refill it, all will dictate our future for many generations to come. Somewhere on my co-op there will be a large mural depicting a local river with a quote that closes one of my favorite books, A River Runs Through It “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”

And now for my co-op!

The general store and the fruit, flower and farmer’s market stands all represent the co-op portion of my plan. It is the core of the project and will contain farmers market items as well as a craft items. My co-operative is partly modeled after CASEM, a co-op that I visited and studied in Monteverde, Costa Rica, and it will be partly modeled on others. I would like to offer a micro-loan program for participants similar to the model of Grameen Bank. The Rwanda Project is a specific example of how micro-loans are working in foreign countries. I see the micro-loans as a means for participants who could not otherwise purchase supplies for crafting to get a start with the hand up rather than hand out philosophy.

The co-op will offer programs for adults as well as children and we will have leaders who can follow as well as lead. It will have low level goals like teaching a skill or learning facts and it will have high level goals like improving the fundamental quality of life for those who participate.

My co-op will differ from CASEM in that it will provide facilities for crafting in addition to sales space. We will provide for a wide variety craft activities from needle and paper arts to pottery, candle making, design, painting, sewing, paper mache’ and possibly woodworking, weaving or doll making. If someone donates equipment of any kind we will see what we can do with it. One can earn the use of the facilities by working in the co-op for a certain number of hours, by paying, or with a combination of both, what ever fits their need. I see these facilities in rooms across the back of the building with space to market co-op goods in front and cafe’ space in between. Goods from the co-op will also be offered via the Internet, possibly through a vendor like Etsy, possibly through a self-run program, possibly both. Teaching or learning business and financial skills will be an important part of the program from balancing of personal budgets to actual cost-benefit analysis to scheduling and motivation. I plan to build synergy. Volunteers who teach or work may also benefit by attending classes to learn other skills or trades, or they may simply volunteer.

I see this as located in a rural area, supplementing the incomes of stay at home parents or others who would like to earn more. However, the co-op also needs to be located in a area where there is access to brick and mortar customers as well as the Internet customers, near an interstate between rest stops where travelers might wish to stop or near a vacation spot are potential locations. It could also be on an urban edge and help to preserve a family farm or critical habitat. It will have several features to attract customers and visitors. These may include a dog walk-rest station for travelers with pets; a store/eatery, possibly a bakery (people are much more likely to buy a cup of coffee or a trinket for a good cause than to donate, so, I will invite people to support the program in the most comfortable ways possible),

I see a HAM station for education, communication and emergency preparedness (I would love it if the HAM station were in a scale replica of a blue police box, maybe even bigger inside than out. The Dr Who allegory would be great and the real world history and culture that also apply are pretty cool too). We may have an Internet cafe’ with secure internet access, a borrowers bookcase, maybe a download spot for audio books. The co-op will offer things like frozen yogurt, Dole Whips (You ought not to have to go to the Magic Kingdom or Hawaii to get one of those!) or Great Harvest Bread, whatever franchises research indicates to best justified for the location. A co-op branded line of value added foods might offer the best long-term potential, canned in glass Mason jars with a recycling program. The basic goal would be to provide value added goods and services that will draw people to spend a few minutes and a few dollars to support the co-op, and in turn support the community. I want people to drop in for creature comforts, but to leave with something more, and to get that extra something that makes them want to linger, then come to back over and over.

The interior design of the building will use layers of visual interest that teach, amuse, and inspire, perhaps on a rotating basis. People who stop in for a cup of coffee or a light meal will notice something new on each visit. The building may be LEEDS certified construction or renovation, potentially built as a project with a local trade school, or with recent graduates. The emphasis will be on using local labor to feed the local economy. Decor will be part retro-historic, part shabby chic, part local flavor and it will come together to involve the community in as many ways as possible. For instance, I wouldn’t just hire local talent to paint a mural, but also get local talent to teach and create more local talent while producing the mural. Perhaps an artist-teacher could work with a 4-H group, a group of scouts or a group from a school or church teaching the children how to paint. A mural might be in a classroom that would also be available for meetings afterward so that the new artists could enjoy their own work with pride on a regular basis. I would like my co-op to provide a community gathering spot, both in the Internet cafe’ and for other things, perhaps a book club, game night, a Dave Ramsey program, trivia night or what ever else is positive and takes root. My building will have a courtyard with a green wall and a staircase leading to the green roof above.

Many of the building furnishings will come from auctions, thrift stores and donations. If there is an existing building like the silo behind the general store or the light house that could be re-purposed with style, it would be incorporated into the plan. Local memorabilia large and small will add character. The parking lot might use porous pavers laid out with a local historic map design and there will be shade trees for cooler summer parking. A location at a crossroads to other local attractions would be perfect. Adding to the number of local attractions will increase pull to the area. The co-op will offer books, collectibles and art that reflect what is unique about the location.

Next is another feature that bears explanation, the crop circle. Less whimsy than it appears, it is inspired by a woman I heard about on the radio. She plants her front yard with wheat every year. When it is ready she invites all of the neighborhood children to make bread, teaching all of the processes from start to finish. I envision this lesson done on a larger scale than most front yards in conjunction with local schools and the side lessons could be varied as, cooking, home economics, self-sufficiency, the moral of the Little Red Hen, soil conservation, geography, landscape planning or why wheat grows best in the breadbasket of the U.S., even a lesson on where different foods come from historically. Whatever fits the needs of students has potential. Putting a crop circle or a maze in the wheat field could add extra fun for the kids, extra motivation for visitors to stop and see what is happening, maybe lead to additional lessons, but the big picture is in the seeds to bread lesson.

South

Monteverde Inspiration


While the farming portion of the co-op will focus on vegetables, the dairy and pig farms pictured side by side represent concepts I learned in agro-ecology as illustrated by the Monteverde Cheese Factory and the pig farm to which it donates by-products (whey). This pig farm has a wonderful design that has several levels of recycling to maximize the utility of inputs and reduce waste products to near zero. It is the multiple layers of efficiency and waste free design that I wish to carry through to my farm rather than the pigs and cattle. I will carry inspired planning, economy, recycling and minimal waste through in every feature of my design, from farm produce to arts and crafts produced to the furnishings of the buildings.

Beside the dairy are the hen house and green houses. This area moves into tour, tell and touch areas that would be attractive to youth education programs. The south corner is a petting zoo. If I have a petting zoo, mine will not look like the traditional concept. It will be spread around in separate enclosures rather than located in a single spot and will have very traditional animals that you would have seen on farms fifty and a hundred years ago, heirloom or heritage animals. The idea will be to come closer to naturalized enclosures. There might be a variety of chicken breeds, perhaps chickens of the rainbow with a big rainbow worked into the enclosure and coop designs.

West

Moving west, we find bees in the middle of a field. Beekeeping can provide honey, beeswax and beeswax crafts for sale as well as an opportunity to teach the importance of pollination and pollinators, the variety of pollinators and the struggles that beekeepers and farmers alike are now facing. The lesson would carry through to also talk about dispersers.

Dinner on the Grounds

Continuing west there are two long tables. This is a place for a dinner as a celebration of local and organic foods, connecting people to each other and to their food sources. We may invite the folks from Out Standing in a Field to put on a first class shindig for a special occasion, or we could go the more traditional route with a more lowbrow feast, fantastic all the same. I remember a painting my mother did “Dinner on the Grounds” of the Sunday picnic on the country church grounds as she remembered it from her childhood. This outdoors celebration in connection with our roots and our sustenance is a old as the hills, but the reconnection sometimes requires an event, a happening, to bring people together and back to the hills. Geography of food is a possible lesson for the educational version of this event, history is another and arts still another. On the other hand, it could be a good occasion for an outdoor movie showing or a concert, again, whatever takes flight.

Continuing west we run into the wind farm. These are modern smart grid windmills that can power the co-op, charge cars, or sell power back to the grid. The cars can plug into the co-op building and serve as battery back-up when not in use. If wind is scarce and water is plentiful, the power source would be water. Either might have solar supplements. Pieces of smart grid technology are already in use in many markets, but a small sample of the most complete system possible at my co-op would show a fuller picture and help to spread the design. It would be nice if co-op and especially features like the pottery kilns and the kitchen were self sufficient in on-site wind, water or solar power.

The area from the west corner leading back up to the north represents a recreational area. The forest and the Japanese Zen garden are for walking, enjoying the outdoors, meditating, learning about other cultures or simply appreciating the day. They will be part of the draw for visitors. Aside from being among the most beautiful of gardens, a Japanese garden might provide a basis for foreign exchange students to participate in internships. The Japanese theme is dear to my heart, but there could be a different theme to suit what ever may come. I would attempt to treat the relationship between local and global much the same as the Tennessee Aquarium. While not the largest or showiest, I believe the Tennessee Aquarium is one of the best I have ever visited because it has excellent displays that are primarily local, but it also places what is local in a global context for a richer understanding and greater appreciation of setting.

Central Area

Four trails lead toward the center where we have what Farmville calls the Botanical Garden. It represents the primary greenhouse to me. I actually envision this as attached to the co-op building. I would like for it to have a selection of plants chosen for local knowledge, health, clean indoor air, environmental awareness and of course marketability. I see these plants as fitting into three broad groups. One group will be unique types of fruits. There are a some varieties of fruit where only one selection of that variety is common or known in the continental US, but others exist. Kiwi and papaya are examples. If I can show one or more uncommon varieties in the green house it will give visitors one more reason to stop in. It might also provide a basis for co-op branded products and possibly present the potential for a different type of student internship. A second group would be indigenous plants like orchids and other unexpected plant varieties that seem exotic to help people realize that there are amazing indigenous species in their own back yard so to speak, to learn the advantages of planting native species and to appreciate the biological heritage of the area. A third grouping of plants could be those that are known to improve indoor air quality. I hope that the greenhouse will be an area that is of significant enough interest to stand alone as an attraction.

Somewhere between the greenhouse and the social space I plan to have a green (plant) wall and perhaps the co-op will have a green roof.

Co-op Central


And, finally, dead center is the farmer, me. That’s where I pop in to my Farmville farm when I log on and my dog Red runs in to greet me. I am surrounded by benches and plants because my virtual world neighbors can fertilize my crops faster if I am “contained” by objects, otherwise they must wait for my farmer character to walk everywhere they click. I have contained myself with things that are pleasant and I have placed doves on an olive branch nearby. Inside with me there is an open space. Every time I get the chance, I adopt an ugly duckling to put it in the spot beside me. Over time the bird realizes that it is,in fact, a beautiful swan. A sign pops up to tell me that the bird is ready. I click the transform button and move it over to join the other swans in the lake and the spot opens up again. I hope to sit beside many ducklings and watch as they transform themselves and learn to appreciate who they are and teach me what they know. This is a great center for my farm. After all, transformation is the whole point, isn’t it?

I have left a lot of questions unanswered. Location for instance. Many people think romantically about non-profit work and want to go abroad to exotic locations. That is a good thing, but charity begins at home and you never need to look very far away for an opportunity to make a difference. The right mix of conditions could exist in many locations. I sometimes imagine it near where I grew up in south Alabama or other places in the southeast because these are areas I know well. My actual location could be anywhere the co-op is needed, supported and feasible.

How realistic is my dream? I know that it will work and it can produce the expected results. It needs someone like me with diverse talent, education who has energy and the potential to help people. In the minus column, it will require a lot of start up funding, a small amount by many standards, but a large amount to me. My toughest feat will be in competing for those start-up dollars with large non-profits and their even larger fund-raising machines in a stressed economy. The stressed economy makes the project both more important and harder to fund at the same time. According to a Guideposts white paper I just received, non-profits are down 25% while at the same time I see more and more emphasis on fund raising activities in articles, drives and job postings.

My strong points will be that this plan is unique in how it fits together. It should work to relieve economic and other social woes. It works with people not for them. It will become self-supporting so that charitable funding would decrease over time while the project would be permanent. These are all strong advantages. It would be extraordinary if the sun were to rise on a real world benefit, just as it sets on a virtual world distraction.

Who wants to help me with building a co-op using what ever works? If you don’t know the right person, why don’t you pass this along and see if any of your friends do?

Facebook, Farming and the Future

By Karen

I avoided Facebook (FB) for years. I have to admit that I saw it as a narcissistic black hole that could suck you in and remove you from deeper, more natural relationships. Ouch! Yes, that’s how it looked to me. Then I read “What Would Google Do?” by Jeff Jarvis, something else that I chose reluctantly. I didn’t like the boldness in the title play on words. Google is awesomely powerful. Still, I thought the allegory bold and arrogant. But, when I saw the book at the public library, the level of risk in giving it the benefit of the doubt dropped by the cover price, so I checked it out.

Once I began to read, I found the book difficult to put down. In fact, I didn’t put it down until I was finished. I’m still not as fond of the title as the author is, but I am glad that didn’t stop me. The book was so well written that I re-read certain passages simply to appreciate how well they were crafted, not something I expected in a book centered around a technology company. More than that, there were many good points. In fact, many would consider that an understatement. Mr. Jarvis puts tremendous faith in a bright future built by youth and innovation and he talked about FB. He said that people were re-connecting through FB in relationships that would have otherwise been lost. I have spent a lot of time living in different places and that really spoke to me, so I gave it a try.

I found Mr. Jarvis to be completely correct. FB has been a hoot with expected and unexpected experiences and distractions. The happy surprise was that I did, in fact, reconnect with people from the hometown of my youth and from other places along the way. Many of my friends from times past were out there and connected. I saw photos, both old and new, of people I hadn’t seen in years. Just seeing what they look like now took a little of the disconnect out of reunions missed. I was contacted by siblings of friends that I never expected to hear from. Whether they stayed where I knew them or left as I did, there was a community of people with whom I shared an upbringing or a part of a life and they were accessible on non-geographic terms. I was invited to events that I would have otherwise missed. I even got a fuller picture of people in my real world relationships as their posts conveyed opinions, beliefs and humor that never would have come up in the contexts of our real world relationships…So, there are some people I actually know better through our FB relationship. This is, for the most part, something I appreciate.

It wasn’t long before one of my childhood friends got me into Farmville.com by Zynga, the unexpected distraction. I’ve been thinking a lot about farming in the real world lately, whether or not there is a way to make it work for me and my circumstances in both non-profit and for profit contexts. So, while I was fiercely defending my time by blocking every other game and application, I let Farmville into my world and it sucked me in. I’ve been playing for fun, but also studying it curiously as the virtual game that finally got me after having passed up so many others that were in many ways more sophisticated. I’ve been looking at how it accomplished that feat for me and many millions of others. The design is fascinating, if not so unique, from social, marketing, economics and touchy-feely points of view.

One product that both FB and Farmville are selling, of course, is eyes. Our eyes, and they are selling them to advertisers. Whether or not you think that you pay much attention to the ads, advertisers do and they are willing to pay. That makes marketing a primary focus for these businesses because it is the fuel that feeds them. But, it only pays well if they are a top site with a lot of eyes. Marketing moves deeper into psychology with every day that passes. Advertisers must work harder to get the attention of subjects who do not want to give it, and psychology is the tool that works best. From this perspective, Farmville has a little bit of everything going on and they are doing it well enough to make it to Time Magazine’s list of 50 worst inventions. The reason I say that they are doing it well and in the same breath quoting a source that has named it a “worst invention ever” is one and the same, it’s mindless, but addictive nature.

For a detailed description of play check here or any number of other places. The abbreviated version is that you play by clicking and when you click you earn cool stuff. The coolest stuff can be accumulated very slowly by playing and moving through levels of the game, by spending actual real money or it can be acquired through the marketing campaigns of affiliate companies. So, getting cool stuff, a bigger farm, better toys, or keeping up with the Joneses in this virtual world is a trade off between accumulations of real world time and real world money. You can pay to play with your time or with your money. People will part with what is least valuable to them. That’s another ouch for me, I’ve purposefully limited myself to giving the game only my time.

Neighbors are a feature of the game that is facilitated through FB. Neighbors are FB friends who are also playing the game and agree through invitation to be a neighbor in Farmville. They exchange free gifts, share rewards, perform clicky chores and do other things that help the farmer to get ahead. The best and worst parts of Farmville are enabled by neighbors. They are the glue that holds the game together as well as the means of perpetuating the game through FB. Some privileges are reserved for players who have a certain number of neighbors and the more neighbors you have, the easier it is to get ahead (a built in incentive to rope your friend into your addiction). Why do I call it an addiction? Because it encorporates the features that lead to addiction. Neighbors post rewards. There are a limited number of rewards, so if you click you may get one, you may not. Intermittent rewards are the most addictive form of behavior modification and it would be hard to convince me that the most addictive feature that could be built into a game ended up there by accident. One neighbor complained about poor performance in a post on FB. (This often happens, especially when they roll out new features which always seem to have bugs and people loose rewards.) A relative a responded to the complaint with a post recommending the unhappy player quit the game because it was “the devil”. My friends and family have made similar remarks.

So, it was with eyes wide open (and growing wider all the time) that I set about giving Farmville the clicks and eyes they needed to promote their venture. At first I attempted a little bit of realism for my virtual world. I gave the animals plenty of room to roam and tried as best I could to lay things out as they would be on a real farm with consideration for real world constructs. At one time I had all my cows in a large pasture that was sparsely treed, just as I learned when I studied agro-ecology in Costa Rica. A small sense of connection is what got me me here in the first place and remembering my summer farm study program and the Costa Rican setting where I took the course was fun. For more on that part of my Farmville experience and a more uplifting read, check here.

The other connection that kept me in the game, was the people I was playing with. It is important to stay connected to some people. For far away people who have been in your life long term, there is little new to share on a daily or weekly basis, but you still want a connection. One way that people feel their connections is through carrying out small day to day tasks. Farmville is a format for daily interactions that is not geographically anchored and has no real risk of failure. It is a small unimportant connection, but, small unimportant connections are what we use to weave our lives and build bigger things.

There were other connections too. When you are in this forced push to build your connections and increase your neighbors, there are places you can go to find other Farmville players who also want neighbors. For a first time FB user, connecting to strangers was a little scary, but, I did connect, based on whether I liked a cartoon that had been chosen for a profile picture, a quote that was listed or even a cool sounding name. I don’t say much to these neighbors, but I’ve grown to like them, even though we only have the game and a few posts between us.

Real world stuff, emotions and baggage can work it’s way into Farmville. I was playing in February when Valentine’s Day rolled around and it was a real trip… back to grade school, that is. I saw a neighbor’s comment “Hey, it’s just a game” and my antennae twitched. Sure enough, there were new gifts for neighbors to give and a new feature. The Valentines box. Valentines were accumulated and could be traded in for stuff, and there was a RANKING system. The Valentine mail box had a button to click to see where you ranked in comparison with neighbors, but it was unavoidable even if you wanted to focus elsewhere. When you shared Valentines with neighbors there was an auto generated message announcing your rank, for instance ” ________ has collected 227 Valentines and currently ranks 13 out of 100 amongst their neighbors!” making your apparent popularity (more likely activity level) as public as it was way back when. What a trip! That’s when I noticed that some people had more Farmville neighbors than I had total friends, some with funny made up sounding names. The imposed competition via trip to grade school must have worked very well for our designers at Zynga. It was followed by similar features for St. Patrick’s Day Gold and Spring Eggs, then a June Wedding. The wedding has extra layers of complication (yes there’s a joke in there somewhere). You must get each of four ingredients (and the gift-ability of these four ingredients rotates) to trade in for favors, which are then traded in for cool stuff. What this said to me was that they are experimenting with how many clicks and how much time we are willing to spend seeking intermittent rewards. They do a lot of experimenting. The experimenting is even showing up in behavioral research.

Any way, when players grow tired of how many clicks are required to complete a certain task, there will be adjustments. Sometimes they improve the experience, sometimes they improve the revenues. One of the more frustrating features is that it is cumbersome to choose not to participate as I did in this complicated wedding round because neighbors do participate. At the very least you have to clear the gifts out of your inbox. This is usually when good neighbors reciprocate, but that is more complicated when not reciprocating exactly. People end up managing a lot of clicks that don’t produce a reward, or even a chance of a reward, what a tangled web.

Clicks and time are, of course, measurable indicators of the popularity and traffic a website enjoys and the amount of visibility advertisers are achieving when they advertise on that site, therefore clicks translate fairly quickly into money. Knowing this as I do makes me less tolerant of design features that seem to be click machines. It moves me to feel like a hamster in a cage or a rat in a maze. It is one of three big downs for this game. The second is that the features are often broken. Even the rewards that are supposed to be certain are intermittent and have what I hope is an unintended level of intermittent delivery. Far too often you loose a reward earned or get to see a screen with an adorable cow and a quote “Oops, all the bits got lost” or you get knocked off a group activity and your crops do not count for anyone who is participating in the activity. The third down is that the game attracts all of the same scammers that other popular Internet applications do, all trying to work their way in with a promise of something for nothing. I have to check many posts to see that they are actually from Zynga (Farmville) while at the same time being fully aware of the irony in checking to make sure you are clicking on a link you trust, when that “trusted” someone was quoted saying he did “Every horrible thing in the book just to get revenues” when giving advice to start up entrepreneurs. In this clip he goes on to talk about this horrible tool bar that even he couldn’t get rid of once downloaded…that same toolbar that I kept receiving reward offers to download. Click, click, no thank you. And, there is another irony. The scams are built on short cuts. I find it highly amusing that some people want to take big short cuts in a game that one would presume is being played for fun. Human nature is ingrained though, and it makes us predictable targets.

I end with the negatives, because they have all but ended my play. There are new and more complicated activities that increase interaction between players. The result is that I opened my FB page one day and had to page back three times before I came to a non-farmville post. I don’t even have many active neighbors! I was already blocking my own posts from those who don’t play out of consideration. Now I am blocking Farmville posts to me. It’s the one game I play and I’m blocking it. It’s hard to get those clicky rewards when you block the posts that they arrive in. Many of the people who were playing when I started have since quit… and some of the newer features are more aggressive pop up windows that try to get me to bring people into the game or back to it. These features cause more lost rewards or repeated work. They have recently stepped up efforts to bring people back. “Help out your neighbor, do this”. Most often these messages are only generated for low activity players, but it takes effort to tell. I had increased my play recently to get features in my fields to represent my vision so I could illustrate the other Farmville article I’m writing; but in the end, if you feel like a sap or get irritated while you are in the process of checking out and relaxing, it kind of defeats the purpose.

Some of these issues bring me full circle to my concerns about Jeff Jarvis’ book, the inspiration that brought me here in the first place. Mr. Jarvis has a tremendous faith in the future, in youth and in innovation. Some of it is well placed, but with youth, often comes arrogance and myopia. For some, money and power come easily and early in life. When it does it can distort perception and values. I really respect choices like those of Craig Newmark of Craigslist.com. He’s been heavily criticized though, for sticking to his winning business model because it did not maximize profits to squeeze out every last drop of blood from customers. Rather, it merely made him and his employees wealthy. On the other hand I look at some of the knee jerk responses of young technology billionaires that look to me like the professional equivalent of “so there!” (insert your favorite example). These kinds of decisions do not fill me with confidence in the future as ruled by youth. People, as a general rule, may not know everything there is to know about the tools and processes that they use, but they do usually figure it out when they are being disrespected.

There is a solution though. As our business models and applications are increasingly utilizing the power of social networks, we as a society also have increasing power if we choose to use it. I have heard the solution I suggest expressed very eloquently by two sources outside the technology sector. One source was a celebrity and the other personal. The celebrity was Will Smith. When asked something about “finding” the perfect mate, he started talking about not expecting to find perfection fully formed for the taking. I don’t remember his exact words, but his point was that perfection was something to strive for and build together rather than something to find and possess. My admiration for the Fresh Prince grew three sizes that day.

The personal source was responding to my comments about finding the right church. He was Jewish, so his response was actually about his Synagogue. He basically said that his roots were planted, that he was there when the last three Rabbi’s came and he and would be there to help the next Rabbi in building his synagogue with his community of worshipers to suit their needs. Point taken. This is a group project, this world we live in. Longevity and perseverance are virtues that have a lot to offer. The numeric value of “old” is getting higher and there are more people taking part throughout the range of ages. The world will be what we make of it, all of us together.