Really imaginary vegetables!
Wow. I am amazed by how online game maker Zynga has made one popular little web app out of Farmville. What is so amazing about a video game? They have managed to rope people into spending roughly two million actual dollars a day on imaginaryvegetables and farm equipment. I wish more small organic farmers were doing that well each year! Along with other online venues like Second Life, they have helped the “virtual goods” market surge past 1 billion dollars a year. I think of it as a sort of post-modern answer to the Dutch Tulip Craze of the 17th century.
I am fascinated by this phenomenon. That is more than 10,000 times the annual budget of the educational nonprofit at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, where I live and work!
In thinking about what could drive this I came up with three different explanations, which I thought I would share to strike up conversation.
The Buddha is said to have said:
A man established in virtue, discerning, developing discernment & mind, a monk ardent, astute: he can untangle this tangle.
What is “this tangle?” For the Buddha it was the mind, and he taught a system for working through the false attributions, attachments and aversions it tends toward in an untrained state. The key to the untanglment process is mindfulness. Simply being present with loving attention. On the Buddhist view, we have traded in the nourishing actual vegetables for virtual ones because we have failed to train our minds.
The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard noted that as we moved from direct agricultural and artisanal production through the assembly line of industrialization to the current informational economy, we have become increasingly divorced from production. The imaginary has so often become “more real” than the original, as with a young child who has a fresh organic watermelon for the first time and notes that it does not taste like a watermelon. Why? Because it doesn’t taste like the lollypop from the bank.
Marx made a similar observation when he noted that over human history we have gone from direct barter, e.g. “I’ll give you some kale for some socks” to letting money intervene. Now, we have to a point where more than 90% of transactions involve no money at all, but are strictly financial. So, in this explanation, the (virtual) road to Farmville was paved by hedge Funds and Epcot.
Gift Economy Perspective:
The French sociologist and anthropologist Marcel Mauss didn’t buy the line of standard economists that people tried to maximize individual gain in every exchange. We are social creatures, and, to put it bluntly, the guy who shows up at the potluck with nothing and eats all the cookies is an asshole. When Farmvile users hop on Facebook, they are reminded that their neighbors have sent gifts, posted bonuses on their walls, and otherwise lent a virtual helping hand. They feel a sense of obligation to reciprocate. On this view, Farmville is feeding a need for gift based reciprocity not fed by the market.
Is Farmville the end of the world?:
No, its not. I myself am sometimes guilty of reading about meditation and exercise more than I actually exercise and meditate. I think some degree of interacting with the symbolic over the actual can be a healthy form of play and relaxation. However, I am concerned about the amount of displacement toward the virtual I am seeing in our culture, and believe that is contributes to the ecological crisis hugely.
What I try to do instead:
Pay loving attention, be grounded in my values and perspective, strive to give and receive only what truly matters, and eat and grow actual vegetables.
Let me know in the comments what you think is driving the explosion in the imaginary vegetables market, and what the causes and implications are.
Brian Toomey is a co-owner of sustainablog’s Green Choices eco product comparison engine, and a resident of the Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage. When he’s not in front of his computer (which isn’t often), he practices meditation, researches Asian theology, and shoots hoops with other Rabbits…