In early 2009, when Facebook was still nascent in its efforts to swallow as much of the internet as possible, online games were not yet the behemoth they would become.
Then, that June, came FarmVille. If you weren’t among the tens of millions of people tending a cartoon patch of land on Facebook each day, piling up an endless stream of cutesy collectibles, you were still getting copious nags and nudges from your friends asking for help. The game either pulled Facebook users into an obsession or persistently reminded them that they were missing out on one.
The Flash-based game created by Zynga, designed to be played within Facebook, is shutting down on Thursday — yes, there were people still playing it — though its sequels that can be played through mobile apps will survive. But the original FarmVille lives on in the behaviors it instilled in everyday internet users and the growth-hacking techniques it perfected, now baked into virtually every site, service and app vying for your attention.
At its peak, the game had 32 million daily active users and nearly 85 million players over all. It helped transform Facebook from a place you went to check in on updates — mostly in text form — from friends and family into a time-eating destination itself.
“We thought of it as this new dimension in your social, not just a way to get games to people,” said Mark Pincus, who was chief executive of Zynga at the time and is now chairman of its board of directors. “I thought: ‘People are just hanging out on these social networks like Facebook, and I want to give them something to do together.’”
That was accomplished partly by drawing players into loops that were hard to pull themselves from. If you didn’t check in every day, your crops would wither and die; some players would set alarms so they wouldn’t forget. If you needed help, you could spend real money or send requests to your Facebook friends — a source of annoyance for nonplayers who were besieged with notifications and updates in their news feeds.
Ian Bogost, a game designer and professor at Georgia Tech, said the behaviors FarmVille normalized had made it a pace car for the internet economy of the 2010s.
He did not mean that as praise.
The game encouraged people to draw in friends as resources to both themselves and the service they were using, Mr. Bogost said. It gamified attention and encouraged interaction loops in a way that is now being imitated by everything from Instagram to QAnon, he said.
“The internet itself is this bazaar of obsessive worlds where the goal is to bring you back to it in order to do the thing it offers, in order to get your attention and serve ads against it or otherwise derive value from that activity,” he said.
While other games had tried many of the same tactics — Mafia Wars was Zynga’s top hit at the time — FarmVille was the first to become a mainstream phenomenon. Mr. Pincus said that he frequently used to have dinner with Mark Zuckerberg, a co-founder of Facebook, and that in early 2009 he had been given advance notice that the platform would soon allow games to post to a user’s news feed. He said Mr. Zuckerberg told him that Zynga should flood the zone with new games and that Facebook would sort out the ones that resonated.
Though farming was far from a hot genre of games at the time, Mr. Pincus saw it as a relaxing activity that would appeal to a broad audience, especially among adults and women who had never spent hundreds of dollars on a console like the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 or Nintendo Wii. It would be a preview of the soon-to-explode market for mobile games, with casual gamers shifting away from desktop as smartphones took hold.
The gaming industry was always chilly to FarmVille, despite its success. A Zynga executive was booed as he accepted an award at the Game Developers Conference in 2010, and Mr. Pincus said he had had trouble recruiting developers, who thought their peers wouldn’t respect them for working on the game.
In 2010, Time magazine named FarmVille one of “The 50 Worst Inventions,” acknowledging how irresistible it was but calling it “barely a game.”
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Dec. 23, 2020, 8:59 a.m. ET
To many, the game will be remembered more for its presence in people’s news feeds than for the game itself. Facebook was well aware of the complaints.
After hearing from nonplayers that the game was spammy, Facebook restricted how much games could post to news feeds and send notifications. Facebook now aims to send fewer notifications only when they’re more likely to make an impact, said Vivek Sharma, a Facebook vice president and head of gaming.
He credited FarmVille for much of the rise of social gaming and said the “saga” over excessive notifications had taught Facebook some important lessons.
“I think people started to figure out some deeper behavioral things that needed to be tweaked in order for those applications to be self-sustaining and healthy,” he said. “And I think part of that is this idea that actually people do have a limit, and that limit changes over time.”
Even if people were annoyed by the notifications, there’s little doubt that they worked. Scott Koenigsberg, a director of product at Zynga, noted that the requests had been sent by players opting in to send them.
“Everybody saw a ‘lonely cow’ notification at some point or another, but those were all being shared by their friends who were playing the game,” he said.
Mia Consalvo, a professor in game studies and design at Concordia University in Canada, was among those who saw FarmVille constantly in front of her.
“When you log into Facebook, it’s like, ‘Oh, 12 of my friends need help,’” she said.
She questioned how social the game actually was, arguing that it didn’t create deep or sustained interactions.
“The game itself isn’t promoting a conversation between you and your friends, or encouraging you to spend time together within the game space,” she said. “It’s really just a mechanic of clicking a button.”
But those who went back every day said it had kept them in touch with friends and acquaintances, giving them something to talk about.
Maurie Sherman, 42, a radio producer in Toronto, said that he and a receptionist had played together and that he had gone to her desk daily to chat about it. “She would tell me about the pink cow she got,” he said.
He enjoyed it as an escape, a virtual stress ball and a soothing activity that would let his mind wander. He said he had spent more than $1,000 — that’s real money — over the years to improve his farm or to save time.
And he was absolutely guilty of sending the notifications, he said — but they always succeeded in getting him the help he wanted.
“There are people who would mute you or unfriend you just because they were tired of hearing that you needed help with your cows,” he said.
Jaime Tracy, 59, of Lancaster, Pa., said she had been “one of those annoying people” who made frequent requests for help until her friends and relatives had told her to knock it off.
But she loved the game, which she saw as a form of meditation, and played for more than five years. With her children grown and out of the house, “I had nothing else to do,” she said.
“You could just turn your mind off and plant some carrots,” she said.