Two deaths you may have missed last week – for the simple reason that you have better things to do with your time than monitoring the tech industry. One was the end of FarmVille, a simplistic, time-wasting online game that consumed the attention of millions of Facebook users over the years; the other was the much-delayed execution of Flash, the animation tool that powered countless games and assorted website tricks for two decades, but which will no longer be supported by most web browsers or by its maker, Adobe.
As it happens, both deaths are related, because one application used the other, but both were ubiquitous for different reasons. The FarmVille story is about human nature and the dynamics of addiction, social media and surveillance capitalism, whereas Flash is really just about tech and the evolution of the web.
FarmVille was an agriculture-simulation game created by the San Francisco developer Zynga. It was launched on Facebook in 2009 and for two years was the most popular game on the site. At its peak in 2010, it had 34.5 million daily active users. Ponder that number for a moment while we contemplate what was involved in playing the game.
You started with a virtual farm and a fixed amount of the virtual currency, Farm Coins, which you could add to by harvesting crops or visiting your neighbours. Your virtual farming career involved ploughing land, planting seeds and harvesting. If you were not diligent your crops would wither and die after a given time, depending on how long it took to grow each one. In that dire eventuality, redemption was available by buying Farm Cash (using your own real money) to obtain an “unwither” to revive the crops or to pay for a biplane to spray them with “instant grow”. (I am not making this up.)
The intriguing thing is that at one time more than 34 million sentient beings were doing this stuff every day. “We thought of it as this new dimension in your social, not just a way to get games to people,” Mark Pincus, the original chief executive of Zynga, told the New York Times. “I thought, ‘People are just hanging out on these social networks like Facebook and I want to give them something to do together.’”
If you’re a psychologist (or in marketing) the features of this virtual farming are immediately obvious. The idea is to draw people into cycles from which it is difficult to escape. If you didn’t check your farm every day, then your crops would wither and die. If you needed help, you could buy easy fixes with Farm Cash or ask for help from your friends. And given that all this meant “user engagement” – the holy grail of surveillance capitalism – you can see why Facebook loved FarmVille.
So did a lot of other entrepreneurs, who spotted the ingenuity of the Zynga developers in exploiting human predilections and borrowed their ideas. It also attracted the attention of astute perceptive observers such as Ian Bogost, a professor at Georgia Tech, who saw that the behaviour FarmVille encouraged made it “a pace car for the internet economy of the 2010s”. Bogost, a distinguished game developer as well as an academic, created a lovely satirical game, Cow Clicker, to make his point. The goal of the game was to earn “clicks” by clicking on a sprite of a cow every six hours. The addition of friends’ cows to the player’s pasture allowed the user to also receive “clicks” whenever his or her cow was clicked. A premium currency known as “Mooney” allowed the user to purchase different cow designs and skip the six-hour gap between clicks.
But all good (and bad) things come to an end. FarmVille was based on Flash and since Flash was for the chop, its time had come. In any event, the app had done its job: to make Zynga and Facebook tons of money. Pincus, now the chairman of Zynga, published a nice Twitter thread to mark its passing.
Flash’s fate was sealed by Steve Jobs many years ago (in 2010 to be precise) when he announced that Apple would no longer approve its use on iOS devices because of the software’s security vulnerabilities. So it’s effectively been on death row for a decade.
It had started in 2000 as an ingenious hack for overcoming some of the shortcomings of HTML and for a long time provided a convenient way of doing lively web pages and playing video content. When YouTube was founded in 2005, for example, it used Flash Player as a way of displaying compressed video content on the web. But the arrival of HTML5 in 2014 confirmed Jobs’s death sentence. And now all that remains are its obituaries.
In a way, though, while Flash turned out to have been a dead end, FarmVille can be seen as a harbinger of what was to come. In its heyday, it was despised by the gaming industry, focused as it was on expensive, specialised gaming consoles and DVD franchises. Pincus saw FarmVille as a relaxing activity that would appeal to a general audience, especially adults and women who would never have spent serious money on a PlayStation or an Xbox 360 and yet might enjoy playing a game. Now that most gaming seems to be moving online, you could say that he saw the future before the industry did.
What I’ve been reading
Economics With a Moral Compass is a terrific transcript of a conversation between two Nobel laureates (Amartya Sen and Angus Deaton) on the moral dimensions of economic theory. It’s very long, but worth it.
Monopoly Versus Democracy: How to End a Gilded Age is a sobering essay in Foreign Affairs by Zephyr Teachout on lessons from earlier progressive movements.
The Master and the Prodigy. Bill Janeway’s review essay on biographies of John Maynard Keynes and Frank Ramsey.