A Farmville addict in India is likely to be a 50-year-old woman. Yamini Deenadayalan finds out what draws this generation to virtual apples and corn
GILLIAN KAMATH, 50, is a farmer. She tends to strawberries in between cleaning her cupboards in her Bengaluru flat. She takes a hot air balloon to her farm in the English countryside between other chores. She comes back from parties at midnight and checks on her crops. Kamath has no green thumb. Everything she touches dies. Except on Farmville, where she is one of the highest ranked Indians with a score of 106, a score that less than 10 percent of the world’s 47 million Farmville players and India’s 1.5 million players have. In Farmville, Kamath is an agro-billionaire.
Last year, Zynga, the company that created Farmville, Fishville and India’s newest addiction, Cityville, organised a meet-up of gamers in Bengaluru. The 125-odd people who turned up included a 70-year-old scientist and couples who resolved not to fight in the interest of their virtual cows. The average Farmville gamer is like Kamath, a middle-aged woman. While the rest of the industry makes strategic games that rely on strong reflexes, games like Farmville are popular among middleaged people. Zynga’s Midas touch is in making games simple, fun, social and easy for a 40-year-old. The ‘social’ is a key aspect. Kamath spent the most time on Farmville when her children had grown up and moved away. When her husband, who works in the merchant navy, returns, her farming day shrinks.
On the other hand, Bengaluru-based Nandini Manjunath, 49, started playing Farmville when she was bedridden two years ago. She began to spend four hours a day harvesting ‘crops’. Her family approved of her switch from games like Scrabble and Literati that involved chatting with strangers. “My husband never liked me exposing myself. With Farmville, you don’t chat, so people who have a suspicious mentality can say nothing about [what] you [are doing online],” says Manjunath who has 80 ‘neighbours’ — single moms in suburban US, Bengaluru teenagers and Chennai housewives. All united by the mandatory purple over- alls of Farmville ladies. Manjunath went to the Zynga meet-up and loved the sense of community it offered.
Manjunath’s nieces and nephews ask her to tend to their farms when they are in college. She has little in common with her 19-year-old son’s friends, but they are her ‘farm neighbours’. Many mothers keep in touch with their kids abroad through transactions in Farmville.
The virtual game is a bit simpler than real life. You can hit the pause button. Someone can gift you a ring to ‘unwither’ your crops. It can be as expensive as life if you pay real money to buy all the virtual tools Farmville offers. Most Indian users have resisted the temptation. Zynga has now introduced retail cards priced at Rs 100 in supermarkets hoping to lure Indians into buying virtual points. Farmville can be as transient as life too. In a day, your friends list can shrink from 1,049 to 1,001 if you don’t give enough gifts or play enough.
FOR MANY Farmville ladies this is a real world: they talk of how Zynga has a ‘corrupt’ system that makes it easier for some players to receive gifts, and how they want to buy the Combined Truck to do many jobs at once. No gaming story is complete without the statutory horror of addiction. True, some Farmville folks plan their lives around the game, play through holidays and sometimes stay home playing for days. As Manjunath says about a couple she met, “They said they didn’t need to go out on weekends as long as they have Farmville.”
Many women on Farmville are looking for “clean, innocent fun”, as Kamath puts it. The violent blood-spilling video games don’t appeal to them. Madhu, 49, checks her Farmville account every half an hour. After a day at her stressful airline job, Farmville is pure therapy, she says. Perhaps, for other women the real world is gory enough.
Yamini Deendayalan is a Features Correspondent with Tehelka.