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Elizabeth McVay Greene Headshot

Making FarmVille Real

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It's refreshing to hear Dave Thier talk about the struggles he had as a farmer on FarmVille. I hesitate to say it, but I think his experience -- the attraction, the addiction, the desertion, actually bodes well for farms and farmers. Apparently more than 80 million people want to get involved with the farm (albeit only at arm's length), but, man, it's a hard life even on FarmVille. Most of us aren't cut out for the real thing, which makes it all the more important for us to give due respect and dollars to those who are.

When I first heard about FarmVille, I found a teeny-tiny bit of hope in millions of people pretending to farm. Maybe it would mean a resurgent interest in the realities, challenges, and glories of farming. For long I've thought that farming was just about the swellest thing you could do. Were others, perhaps, beginning to agree?

To some extent, they were. Just as those millions on FarmVille were playing the virtual farmer, millions of people were entering into a real-life version of that game. They called it Community Supported Agriculture and spent $1.2 billion buying their food directly from farmers in 2007 (up 50% from just five years earlier). I'm relieved to say that, even in 2010, virtual gamers didn't spend that much on all social gaming platforms combined.

But I think there are some significant lessons to be learned from FarmVille's popularity. The way people have responded to the game suggests they want to be part of something bigger, an on-going process that yields something colorful, flavorful, valuable. CSA subscriptions and farmers' market purchases deliver a real-world version of that experience but in a wholly lo-fi way, and as a result, miss out on the addictive potential that the gaming industry has tapped into. What's more, the real-world farm game doesn't forgo the burnout and desertion that Thier describes of his FarmVille experience: CSA farms have an average member retention rate of just 65% nationally.

FarmVille's user numbers and the increase in the popularity of CSAs and farmers' markets lead me to believe that people want to be involved in food and farms, but only up to a point and only if it gives them a subtle power trip. The thought of turning everyone loose on their own six acres and betting on who can subsist is terrifying; that would be way too much adrenaline. However, I do think there's a way to get the eating person involved in making decisions about what is produced for them, but for real, not for fake. And not in the way that makes you the annoying food evangelist who's always praising the virtues of bok choy.

Plovgh puts farms and people together at a virtual farmstand. We hope that they buy and sell together, plant some crops together, follow the ups and downs of their harvest together. Plovgh is about the thrill of being part of the farm but without the kookiness of FarmVille because, um, Plovgh lets you spend real money on real crops and real farms. But don't worry, you don't have to leave your console or forsake your iPhone. We're in there.

This article also appears at www.plovgh.com.

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