ST. LOUIS – Even while calling Chicago home, Laura Hawkins Grimes is a country bumpkin. Her scenic rural spread has three dairy farms, two ponds and a log cabin, all skirted by a white picket fence as scarecrows stand sentry over her blackberries.
And the best part is the 40-year-old sex therapist never has to leave her computer to tend it.
She’s one of tens of millions of occupants of FarmVille, a near-utopian, wildly popular online fantasy game where folks rush to another neighbor’s aid, ribbons readily come as rewards, plants don’t get diseased and there’s never a calamitous frost, flood or drought.
Since its launch last summer, the cartoonish simulation game seeming to meld “Leave it to Beaver” and “Green Acres” has become a Facebook phenomenon, luring in urbanites like Grimes and real farmers while gently nudging people to think more about where their food comes from.
“It’s kind of what you don’t see every day,” Grimes said of FarmVille by Zynga, a San Francisco-based developer of games widely played at online hangouts such as Facebook. “I have to say, living in Chicago, what appeals to me about FarmVille is it’s not urban.”
FarmVille – with more than 72 million monthly users worldwide, the most talked-about application in Facebook status updates – heads a growing stable of simulated agriculture that also includes SlashKey’s Farm Town on Facebook and PlayMesh’s recently launched iFarm for the iPhone.
Purposely simplistic, FarmVille lets players build and trick out their farms, starting with a tiny parcel they till and seed with a range of crops including berries, eggplant, wheat, soybeans, artichokes and pumpkins. Players can add pigs, cows and chickens and accouterments such as barns, chicken coops, windmills and greenhouses.
As on real farms, attentiveness in FarmVille is vital. Players who diligently tend to their crops see their farms flourish and their bank balances balloon. Those late with their harvests may see their crops – and their investment – shrivel and die.
Neighbors get rewarded with points and gold for scaring away pests, fertilizing or feeding chickens on another player’s spread.
“One thing we feel we got right is it has extremely broad appeal,” said Bill Mooney, Zynga’s vice president and general manager. “Everybody likes farming, whether you’re a gardener, whether you grew up on a farm or your grandparents did. It’s literally something everyone can relate with.”
Even actual farmers are digging it. In his central Illinois farmhouse near Windsor, 31-year-old bachelor Darin Doehring started playing months ago with the game he credits with helping him wait out sogginess that hampered harvesting of his 2,000 acres of real corn and soybeans.
“There were more times this past fall I was doing my crops more on there (FarmVille), than I was in the field because of the rain and mud outside. I enjoy it,” Doehring said, noting that he wished the fantasy game posed more challenges mimicking real-life ones farmers face, including weather events.
Mooney of Zynga says that isn’t likely: “We don’t want it to be a punishing experience. We want this to be a positive.”