Daughters of the (online) soil

Daughters of the (online) soil

A virtual game of pastoral pursuits has caught the imagination of an entire generation of urban youth, especially women. Called Farmville, this online application powered through Facebook gives a user her own piece of land to tend to.

Quite simply, you plant seeds, harvest fruits and vegetables and sell them for online coins. But for Ruchira Suri, it’s a matter of life and droop.  “I don’t want my crops to wither, so I spend an average of four hours every day looking after my farm. I know it sounds crazy, but there’s a lot of work to do on it,” says the 33-year-old.
As with a real farm, there are animals to be reared, trees to be harvested and land that can expand as you play more. “I have expanded my farm to 400 tiles, and it’s no easy task. I have over 100 animals including cows, horses, sheep and penguins. I’ve lost count of the number of trees and I’ve mastered sowing nearly every crop,” says the Pune-based homemaker, proudly adding that it’s a matter of days before she attains the magic number of 70, which is the highest level in Farmville. There are 80 million like Suri, 60 per cent of them women, according to Zynga, the company that launched Farmville last June. Bill Mooney, Vice President of Zynga in San Fransisco, says: “Of all Farmville users, 30 million play the game every single day.”

Virtual farms replace the real thing
The numbers speak of not just Farmville’s popularity but perhaps an underlying yearning, maybe even fascination, for the rustic life that evades the city-bred. And, for women, a sense of ownership combined with gratification derived from nurturing a self-styled farm, makes it particularly addictive. Says Carine Myers (35), “I do take pride in how my farm looks because I am aware that my friends are able to look at it.” The Toronto-based insurance broker tries to work Farmville into her daily schedule so that she neglects neither her family nor her farm. “It is very important to me that my crops don’t wither, so sometimes I finish harvesting before I do the dishes. I even ask my nine-year-old son to harvest for me; he loves playing the game too,” she says, adding that she does occasionally spend that extra hour on her farm after her children go to bed.
Suri, however, has taken Farmville to a different place in her life. “I am really obsessed with my farm, so I would never want my crops to wither,” she says, adding, “I usually sow crops that give me enough margin for harvesting so that my other chores and Farmville do not overlap. But in case there is an issue, I do take care that my farm is not affected and ask my husband, also an active Farmville player, to complete the job for me.”

When fascination turns into addiction
The move to attract women to the game was purposeful, and the format, strategic. “Before Zynga launched Farmville, our games tended to appeal more to males — like Zynga Poker, Mafia Wars, Street Racing. We wanted to create a game that would appeal to everyone — including women. We made the game  light and fun, with simple yet appealing graphics that would resonate well with women,” says Mooney. “At the heart of the game, there’s also a nurturing component that we hoped women would appreciate — plant your seeds, take care of your crops and harvest them when ripe. If you didn’t take care of them, they wither,” he adds.

Fans gush...
Appreciate they did, as women across continents outnumber the men who play Farmville. As Suri points out, “I have 85 neighbours to help, plus receive and give bonuses as well as gifts. All this apart from the daily work of harvesting, ploughing and sowing. It gives me a great degree of pleasure to expand, design and do business to make money and reach higher levels.”

Not all women, however, have been bitten by the farming bug. Toronto-based Carolyn Bahk says she joined but didn’t stay. “I accepted the request to be someone’s neighbour on Farmville just out of politeness. But I had heard it could get really addictive, like if you don’t feed your cows, they explode?” says the 25-year-old, only half-joking. “I have enough things to worry about than the fact that my crops will die if I don’t water them,” she adds.

There are nearly 500 different groups on Facebook designed to ‘Hate Farmville’, with over 100,000 members. “It’s not that I hate people who play the game... just don’t leave updates on my wall about how many horses you fed, or which ribbon you were awarded. I don’t play the game so I’m not interested in feeding your chickens,” says Shalini Gupta (32) from Delhi, who changed her settings to hide all Farmville updates.  
The clash doesn’t stop Zynga from launching new products and moves to woo women. “We listen very closely to what our players want. In terms of creating items that would appeal more to women, I have to say that all of our pink items — pink tractors and pink cows — have done extremely well,” observes Mooney. If there were ever a magical world with brown cows that give chocolate milk, golden hens that lay golden eggs, and ugly ducklings that get transformed into swans, it’s online!

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