Back to the Virtual Farm

21 Jul, 2011

Back to the Virtual Farm

Late last year, the webcomic xkcd updated its tongue-in-cheek map of online communities, first published in 2007. Compared to the original version, the new map had some striking features—most clearly the rise of Facebook, but also, not to be outdone, the massive expansion of the Chinese QQ service. Even more notable are those titans’ most prominent provinces: for Facebook, the Zynga game FarmVille; for QQ, Five Minutes' Happy Farm.

According to AppData, the number of active FarmVille accounts peaked in March of 2010, at around 85 million, though it has since declined. Not only do FarmVille players constitute anywhere from 15-20% of Facebook’s overall user base of approximately 400 million, but the numbers also suggest that Americans are heading back to the farm in droves… even if it’s a virtual one.

Meanwhile, as reported by the Environmental Protection Agency, of the 285+ million people currently living in the United States, less than 1% of those people claim farming as an occupation, with only about 960,000 listing farming as their principal occupation. Concerns regarding the diminishing ranks of American farmers abound, as well as stories of small farms driven to bankruptcy or neglect by youthful flight to urban centers; consolidated agribusiness; the high price of the latest technological innovations in machinery, pesticide control, and irrigation; drought and aquifer depletion; legal battles over patented seed stock; and even the unrefined palates of at-home consumers.

These ironies and paradoxes of virtual farming serve as one component of my overarching work on ecocritical approaches to game studies. Some of this work was recently recognized at the Ninth Biennial Conference of the Association for Study of Literature and the Environment (ASLE), receiving the award for Best Graduate Student Paper and anticipated publication in Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment (ISLE).