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Farmtown. OMG Do I Feel Old!

One of my responsibilities this summer is working with faculty and students from the RIT Golisano College of Computer Science on developing a computer simulation (hereinafter “game”) that, theoretically at least, could be used for instructional purposes within the Saunders College of Business (SCB). We also hope that the game will help spread the word about the contemporary work being done in SCB. My colleague, Dr. Steven Gold of the SCB Economics Department, is also working on the game.

The development team decided to design the game as a simulation of managing a small family owned retail clothing store. Players would be responsible for buying and displaying merchandise, hiring staff, setting prices, investing in advertising, and doing all the other day-to-day activities that the owner of a small business must do (including paying the bills every month).

The Golisano team suggested that our initial target device for the game should be Facebook. To be honest I am not that into social networking. I check on my Facebook page occasionally, but I have trouble just keeping up with emails and responding to texts. Further honesty – I didn’t know there were games being played on Facebook. The team patiently explained to me what Facebook games are all about.

“Interesting”, I thought, “I better learn more about games and social networking in general and Facebook games specifically.” I discovered that Lynda, one of the women who helps take care of my wife, is a wiz-bang Farmtown and Farmville player on Facebook. She plays multiple times a day – often for two hours plus – and apparently on weekend she really gets into it. I asked her for a quick demo. Apparently there’s no such thing as a quick demo of Farmtown or Farmville when you are talking to a dedicated game player.

Fascinating! We spent more time doing Farmtown than Farmville because Farmtown is more business- like and more relevant to the game we are designing. The design of Farmtown is extraordinary. The way the game leverage the social networking connections within Facebook is brilliant. While Lynda was showing me one of her farms (she has four) she mentioned that a friend from Australia was in her field harvesting crops. Both Lynda and her Australian friend earn more in-game currency when work is done in this socially connected way compared to Lynda harvesting the crops herself. There are other great ideas in the game: gifting, favors done by friends (raking a lawn after a storm, for example), a commons area where gamers looking for work are hired by gamers seeking workers.

The best part of the design is how seductive the game is. Players can not lose. The more they play the better they do. The more friends they make (thus involving more people globally in the game and in Facebook itself) the more in-game money they make, the bigger their farm (or town), and the more friends they need to help work the farm. The game constantly rewards its players with positive feedback and the symbols of success (bigger farm, more buildings, more in-game money).

I asked Lynda to come to RIT and demonstrate how she plays Farmtown for the game development team and for Dr. Ashok Rao, SCB Dean. The audience was even more fascinated than I was – primarily because they know a lot more about simulations and about on-line games than I do. Lynda’s demo changed our thinking about our game.

So, we are now attempting to design a clothing retail store game that is equally educational and entertaining, along the lines of Farmtown. We are brainstorming ideas about how to integrate social networking into our game. If anyone has any ideas, please let me know. In the meantime, stay tuned. You can follow the progress of our game development on this blog.

Thanks to Lynda for making my summer much more interesting! Terrific games on Facebook? Who knew? Certainly not this old guy. It is fun to learn new stuff.

One other thing: The Wall Street Journal reported this week that over 60 million people play Farmville globally. There’s a huge money-making opportunity here somewhere. Probably even an opportunity for game players to collaborate globally to solve pressing social or economic problems.

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