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Five years on, millions still dig 'FarmVille'

"FarmVille" had more than 80 million active players at its peak in 2010, according to AppData.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • "FarmVille" players still growing gardens, raising livestock on a virtual scale
  • The social game became Facebook's No. 1 app in just six weeks
  • It had 80 million-plus players before a sharp drop
  • But millions remain players, saying game has forged real relationships

(CNN) -- It started out as a simple concept. Let people virtually grow gardens, raise farm animals and become farmers. It soon became a social media and gaming phenomenon.

"FarmVille" celebrates its fifth anniversary this summer. Millions of players continue not only to harvest on a virtual landscape but also establish real-life relationships and support causes even as the game has plummeted from its unlikely peak at the top of the gaming world.

Once virtually impossible to avoid on the pages of Facebook, "FarmVille" goes against gaming's standards. Devoid of intense competition, it's a farming simulation game in which players plant crops, raise livestock and generally go about the business of living off the land.

In its first six weeks in 2009, "FarmVille" grew to more than 10 million players and became the most popular game on Facebook. By the next year, its player base passed the 80 million mark, according to information collected by AppData. By 2012, the game remained the site's seventh most popular game.

Charles London, senior creative director for "FarmVille2," said his team realizes that today's players are looking for a moment of peace and serenity in their gaming. He said he's thrilled how people are connecting through "FarmVille."

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"Their lives are increasingly fragmented. They're overly 'technologied.' And they're separated from their community," London said. "In 'FarmVille,' they can get away from that. They can have a fantasy of a sweet, quiet, serene farm, and they can play with other players who really care about each other."

Despite criticism about the mindless nature of the game (Time magazine rated it one of the 50 worst inventions in 2010), 370 million virtual crops are harvested every day in "FarmVille" and "FarmVille 2," indicating players' dedication and involvement.

As people moved to playing games on mobile phones, "FarmVille" fell to 84th place in game rankings this year before rebounding lately to 73rd, according to AppData.

But the millions who have stuck with it and its sequels, "FarmVille 2" and "FarmVille 2: Country Escape," say these games have not only been fun to play but also give them a chance to connect in meaningful ways with others.

Sonya Reynolds, 34, of Morris Township, New Jersey, said the game helped her reconnect with a childhood friend who soon became her husband.

"We could help out on each other's farms and also be able to catch up with the past many years," Reynolds said. "Since playing the game, I have built a chicken coop with Phil, my husband, and bought hens that I've 'owned' in 'Farmville 2.' "

According to a survey from "Farmville" maker Zynga, 80% of players say they've connected with people they otherwise wouldn't have through the game, and 34% play it with a significant other. Other "farmers" have stories about how the game has become an educational tool for children.

Melissa Cunningham of Kingsland, Texas, said she started playing because it reminded her of her grandmother's farm. But she discovered the game could help her son with mathematics.

"Since playing 'FarmVille 2,' my son's math skills have drastically increased -- his grades improving from Cs to A-/B+," she said. "I love that he's learning through a game he enjoys without thinking of it as 'homework.' "

London said his development team continually hears from players about what features they like or what they want to see in the future. He said the team wants to create features meaningful to players, including the ability to form virtual families.

Players can now create their own virtual sweetheart, have a date, fall in love and get married in "My Family Farm" for "FarmVille 2." In the span of two weeks, Zynga said 752,000 players went on a "first date" and 280,000 made a marriage proposal to their in-game significant other.

"What I love most about 'My Family Farm' is it's so close to my life story as (my husband) Dean and I were childhood best friends," said Lynda Jordan of Atascadero, California. "It's like watching us all over again! It sounds funny for a game to change my life, but it really has."

London said, "We're not in the business of explicitly getting people to fall in love. We are in the business of getting people to meet each other through play."

The game and its players are also socially aware of causes and needs in real-life communities. In December, players raised $1 million for Feeding America through a special game expansion called Holiday Lights, according to Zynga. Players across the "FarmVille" franchise have raised almost $8 million for charity in five years, it said.

London said he's impressed by the social interactions taking place through the "FarmVille" games.

"Human beings are innately social creatures," London said. "For us to continue to broaden the appeal of games is to make sure that people can continue to do those things that are meaningful to them -- socialize and meet or compete or collaborate."

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