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Life on the Frontier….Ville

Posted by Bart

The gauntlet was lowered at the Homo Ludens conference a few weeks ago. I couldn’t help the niggling feeling I got as Mia Consalvo talked about her work on ‘social games’. I had dallied with Farmville and I was a total knee-jerk, I could see nothing of scholarly worth in pursuing the topic. I already think game studies is coming perilously close to selling out to the highest bidder and I sensed that taking facebook games seriously would really mean succumbing to cynical economically driven faddism.  Putting my mouth where my money is I agreed to a roundtable proposal on social games with Mia and TL Taylor for the ACA meeting in the Spring.

Now I can rant on with the best of them but I figured I’d better try and take it seriously lest I am stripped of my ludological credentials and so I have dived in.  I have now spent a goodly sum of time in FrontierVille,  Ravenwood Fair, and Castle Age and only a few moments in dozens of other games.  By process of elimination and boredom I ended up sticking with FrontierVille and I am thoroughly engrossed in getting a thanksgiving dinner quest done and spamming my facebook friends.

After a quick facebook chat with Will and the need to procrastinate this afternoon it is time for some opening thoughts.

I see how this is going…  there is a distinctly MMO pattern to getting into the game.  I have to say the first few levels are dead boring.  As I tried to figure out what to do I was clearing land and planting crops and raising animals but I would run out of energy and have to wait real time to do some more…  there was almost no satisfaction in my early visits to frontierville.

Then the quests started popping up and I was doing them but only to a point — eventually you get stuck. I am at level 19 and of the 6 or 7 quests I have 6 of them require me to collect loads of junk from facebook friends.  Its taking days to build my toll booth, upgrade my store, get my horseshoe pit done, etc…

When I am working at home I have resorted to spamming requests for crap every hour on the hour (nearly).  Today I discovered that I can actually visit the walls of my frontierville friends and sort of “kill steal” their crap (at least it feels like kill stealing).  I can’t make sense of the messaging mechanics — some requests go through my newsfeed (but do only frontierville playing friends see it?), some are direct messages, some display on the wishlist in the game  —

Not even grinding WoW in the most tedious of zones is this depressing.  At least in MMOs it is easy enough to grind on one’s own — what Frontierville has innovated is forced group grinding. No raiding, PUGs or boss fights… its just endless group grinding.  Its grinding as an collaborative end and not a means to anything that I can see.

I understand the cynicism and manipulation built into this design now — how can one not help feel the frustration of not having the horseshoes to finish these flippin’ quests?  Those with lower willpower and the habit of online shopping can pay a few bucks to put themselves out of misery and basically buy themselves out.  Its weird — only if you accept the frustration are you actually “playing” Frontierville IMO but of course the business model is one where one is manipulated into paying and not playing at all.  Its not even like buying a high level char in WoW — since the Char is arguably a means to end in that instance (someone wants to play the high level game and doesn’t want grind to get there).

I dunno — I have found walk-throughs and guides for leveling in Frontierville so at least something makes sense in terms of game culture  but honestly I don’t see this as player-centric design… and Ravenwood Fair – Please don’t get me started.

Yeah yeah – I haven’t stuck it out long enough yet.  I will admit that I am strangely enjoying trying to find ways to play the grind.  I have learned to rotate my crops depending on my own schedule at the computer (lord forgive me if they make frontierville for the ipad)… if I am writing boring stuff then I plant pumpkins (ready in one hour) or maybe even clover if its administrivia (5 mins turnaround). Actually its too bad, Tomatoes are ready in 15 mins which is not quite enough time to mark a student paper though maybe that could be a new goal of mine… to mark a paper in the time it takes a tomato to ripen in frontierville!  There’s gamification for ya.

Ah but seriously – I have sussed crop rotation, I use my collections wisely, time when I level up for max time/exp efficiency, and I am now even using my sheep and cows to keep the grass and weeds down so I can spend more time chopping trees.  I stopped wasting energy on clobbering bears in the forest and I am enjoying deploying my little house on the prairie (I wouldn’t mind some kids but the quest chain seems tedious to me 🙂

Even more, I am enjoying looking at the facebook pages of my frontierville friends while I scour for quest junk on their walls. I sort of feel like a have some new dimension of relationship with Mia and TL and now with a few others I haven’t even met.   I am actually dying to get into a Frontierville guild though – with 10 people responding right away to requests I think I could pack away those quests. I have been frantically adding friends of friends to my facebook list in the hopes that they might be more serious players who can give me stuff. A good strategy is to check people’s walls for frontierville posts and then friend those folks (after you kill steal them of course 🙂

The one thing I will not do is try to friend completely new people just because I need more Frontierville neighbours — I tried friend finder and I actually stopped short… it doesn’t seem right or appropriate somehow and I’d like to know why.

So where does this leave me… I’ll keep playing. I am intrigued by both the representation of routine and boredom in Frontierville as well as its experience as a game mechanic and the way it dovetails with everyday life.  More than any other game I have played (except for some ipad games) I find myself playing in Frontierville in the found or manufactured interstices of my day.  I check in the morning and before bed and on and off through my day (if I am at home) — its a nice break from just looking at email and my rss feeds.  Reading stuff on everyday resistance while designing one of these faecbook games would seem like an idea whose time has come fer sure.

I am still not sure about the place of this stuff in game studies though… the approach to play lying behind this is much too cynical in my view and even though players appropriate the game as they like this is the first time in a while i’ve felt the need to go brush up on my Marxist media studies.

The niggling feeling is still not gone but I sure hope I get my thanksgiving quest done before the timer runs out or I will be well and truly pissed off.