Pretty much anybody who has been on Facebook long enough, which these days is almost everybody, has at some point received a request to adopt a cow. Such is the runaway popularity of FarmVille, the flagship title of game-maker Zynga, which together with the company’s fourteen other simple little Facebook apps has managed to attract tens of millions of active U.S. users, among 230 million worldwide. On December 16, the company hopes to raise $925 million in an IPO that would value it at a heady $7 billion. Such is the reward for producing what might be the perfect diversions for post-crash America.
For nonplayers, the appeal of Zynga’s products is hard to fathom. Everything that might identify them as games is missing: There are no cinematic graphics, no adrenaline rushes, no skill required, no … fun. Instead, there’s a lot of mouse-clicking. In FarmVille, for example, you click to plant some crops and buy some cows. Then you wait for the software to reward that effort by making the plants grow and the cows produce milk, from which you can extract virtual currency that can be used to plant more crops and buy more cows and maybe acquire some virtual décor. Then you complete that process again, slowly expanding your humble homestead into a sprawling estate. The setup is essentially the same in CityVille, where the task is building a metropolis out of a small town. The games ask you to pull your friends in by pestering them for the materials you need to complete your projects. But mostly the action, such as it were, is the same: Click, wait, repeat. (An exception is Words With Friends, the Zynga title just made famous by Alec Baldwin, where it goes: Tap, tap, YELL AT FLIGHT ATTENDANT.)
Zynga’s games aren’t really games at all—they’re jobs. Easy, straightforward, consistently rewarding jobs, where toil translates directly to upward mobility, without the uncertainty that comes with today’s real workplaces. You put in the time knowing it will be worth it and spend your hard-earned returns without fear of getting caught short by a double dip. FarmVille, the release that fueled Zynga’s rise, came out in the summer of 2009, when a lot of Americans were finding the reward for their diligent labor was a severance notice and a mortgage default. Its timing was felicitous.
Like the real world, Zynga’s products offer shortcuts to those willing to pay for them: You can click-click-click to milk those cows, or you can give the company about $1—actual money, from your actual bank account—and retain a pixelated farmhand to do it faster. That money adds up: Zynga could earn $1 billion this year partly thanks to such transactions. But it also comes from less than 5 percent of all players. Though more surely could afford to do so, the vast majority of Zynga devotees choose to plug ahead in their virtual occupations without electing to use the pay option. When unemployment is stuck above 8 percent, work is its own reward.