Before properly starting his essay about Farmville, A. J. Patrick Liszkiewicz expends five paragraphs, plus an ominous epigraph from lefty historian Howard Zinn, raising the stakes. Now, I don’t disagree with him when he says that “we cannot simply dismiss video games and Facebook as mere ‘wastes of time.’ Instead, we are obligated to educate ourselves about them, and to try to understand what they mean, and what it means that we use them.” I am surprised, actually, that he imagines there are still people who need to be told this — or, at least, who need five paragraphs’ worth of hard persuasion. Everybody I talk to about videogames already takes them as seriously as Liszkiewicz would have us believe we should. Maybe I’m pulling a Pauline Kael here, shocked, shocked, shocked that anybody voted for Nixon, or whatever, because all my friends are just like me; maybe there’s a vast silent majority who have yet to become convinced that looking at and thinking about pop culture, videogames included, can be a good way to uncover interesting things about society as a whole. I doubt it, at this late stage. But maybe.
That said, I do understand the need to justify talking about Farmville in particular (though that’s not what Liszkiewicz does in his first five — he doesn’t mention the game by name until paragraph six). Farmville is a hard phenomenon to take seriously. “That game is about as much fun,” one of my friends told me the other day, “as a fucking Pet Rock.” Liszkiewicz eventually gets around to saying exactly the same thing, albeit with more academic rigor (he takes us through all the theoretical elements of “gameplay” and explains how and why Facebook Farmville fails at each). My own personal experience with the game was pure boredom as well — for the one day that I played. I haven’t found a single game designer, game critic/blogger, or hardcore gamer who has anything nice to say about the game. More specifically, all of these people — people who think about gaming a lot — will tell you that the game is simply no fun. They will emphatically tell you this (and I will too). They will tell you this over and over. But there are more than 80 million players all the same, and I find it very difficult to believe that all of those people are burning up their spare time, and even actual cash, on an activity that they are not, somehow, some way, enjoying. Or, to put it another way: when gaming-industry talking heads and actual game players disagree about whether something is fun or not, the players are always right. There is no such thing as a player who obsessively plays a game that he or she does not enjoy playing. It just doesn’t happen, failing some other motivation (for example: our dayjobs are such games, but we are paid for them). Game designers and thinkers who fail to figure out what that means — what kind of fun is being had in Farmville — are in danger of being as historically wrong as the chuckleheads who laughed at PONG and SPACE WAR in the late seventies.