When the Mafia Wars and Farmville games first rolled out on Facebook, I didn’t participate. In fact, I actively blocked all of those posts and updates from my stream. Now that Google + has rolled out games in a separate stream, I decided to see why people get so addicted to these games. As I played, I understood the addiction and the temptation to spend real money on virtual stuff.

Monsters and Farms?
I chose the game Monster World, which looks pretty similar to Farmville. I plant, harvest, and sell crops to earn coins, which I then use to hire helpers, decorate the farm, and buy more plots. Each level up affords new opportunities to expand or interesting new crops to plant. That part is fun, and addictive. It’s easy to spend an hour clicking to harvest and watch the points pile up.

In addition to offering a market where you can sell, the game also sends a robot buyer that generally offers more coins per crop, but he only buys certain things and sets a time limit.

You can earn additional points by completing tasks, like building a crib. Tools for the crib are found by harvesting, by asking a friend to send you one, or by buying them with real money.

You Want Me to Spend Real Money?
The game has two forms of currency: coins and cash. You earn coins, you buy Monster Cash with real money. Some of the items I could buy were only available with Monster Cash. So I clicked the link to see what it was about. $80 Monster Dollars cost $11.50 real dollars. For that $11.50, I can buy a large virtual fountain, that will earn me 70 “happiness points” and 105 star points. The star points help me level up, which unlocks additional crops or stuff I can buy. Happiness points earn me the right to plow more plots.

But, really, why do I need to spend $11.50 to buy fake decorations that will earn me the ability to plant fake crops from which I will earn fake coins? I don’t see any option to cash out and make real money from this game.

The task to build a baby crib includes a crying monster baby (not a sound, just an image.) If I don’t want to wait to find the tools I need, I can buy them for just $32 Monster Dollars. If $40 Monster Dollars cost $5.75, I would have to spend $5 real dollars to build a fake crib for a fake baby.

When I saw that baby cry, my heart started to race. What would happen if I didn’t get the crib built quickly enough? Would the baby go away? Would I lose points? Should I spend the money to buy the tools?

I’m too frugal to actually give in to the temptation, but I could see how the game created a false sense of urgency that would prompt me to spend real money to fix whatever issue had developed.

Instead I’ll Just Spend Real Time
At one point, my worker’s went on strike because I’d plowed more plots than they were willing to work. I had to buy decorations to earn happiness points. Decorations bought with Monster coins earn fewer happiness points, so instead you spend more time. One available crop is ready for harvest in one minute. That crop produces two plants. Those plants sell for two coins each. When I saw my plots blocked off, and the time ticking down on a potential buyer, I did a quick calculation. If I spent an hour planting all 20 of my available plots with those crops, I could grow 2400 plants, which would sell for 4800 coins.

But let’s think about that. Let’s say I get paid $20 an hour. I would essentially be spending $20 to earn 4800 fake coins. Why would I waste my time that way?

Yet people do it, every day. A woman shook her baby to death because he interrupted her Farmville game with his crying. Now that’s an extreme, but I’ve also seen friends posting endless status updates on Facebook about their Farmville accomplishments. They spent hours playing the game.

So What Do We Get from these Games?
What do we derive from these games that makes us willing to waste time and potentially spend real money on virtual stuff? I think it’s two things: 1. the false sense of urgency that comes from a waiting buyer or striking worker, and 2. a sense of accomplishment. You’ve harvested your crops and earned points and your friends can come see what you did. (I don’t have any friends playing and I’m ignoring the game’s plea to invite them.)

But really, if you think about it, what have you accomplished? When I post on Facebook about my latest gardening success, I’m talking about a real success. Something I planted with real hands and tended with real effort. All I’m doing in Monster World is clicking a mouse. Clicking a mouse is not an accomplishment. My cat can click a mouse. A one-year-old can click a mouse.

Ultimately, the time spent on Farmville type games is no greater accomplishment than watching TV. So, next time you’re tempted to spend real money on one of these games, go see if there’s something else you’d rather be doing. If you want to do something for a sense of accomplishment, maybe it’s time to buy a real plant.

 

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