No one saw it coming, but with 100 million accounts, Facebook game FarmVille is massive. Bigger than Twitter (with only 75 million-ish accounts) it dwarfs last year's biggest game, Modern Warfare 2. I think FarmVille is terrible on two counts: First of just being a rubbish game and second of preying on our worst social instincts.
Of course, you can play FarmVille for free on any computer, which significantly lowers the bar for entry compared to a console game. But the really odd thing for gamers is why anyone would play FarmVille at all. After all, this browser game has simple, ugly graphics, requires no skill, and is essentially made of just the boring part of games. The boring part, at least in my opinion, is grind.
Grind is where a game makes you do lots of dull work, so you can 'level up' and do something cool. In FarmVille, there is nothing cool to do, just grind and the promise of more things to plant. Its attraction seems to be psychological, based around our desire to get more stuff, and socially to have more than your (other Facebook) friends.
Dull grind isn't unusual in gaming, nor are social factors. It's true that Xbox achievements can push you to play more so you compare better to other people online, but they can also be used by developers to help you get more out of a game. The dull grind in games is arguably just teaching you and preparing you for more challenging stuff later on.
In 'traditional' games there is more to do than mindless grind. Whereas I really can't think of any games I've played which are more insipid and sickening than Mafia Wars. With no narrative, no action and no engagement beyond a drive for ever higher numbers these games really reduce players to dumb automatons. The sheer number of users should make these games much more worrying than controversial games like Grand Theft Auto or Modern Warfare, both games which require thought, skill and intelligent engagement from players. All things that are totally absent from these Facebook spamming games.
If you want to be the best at Space Invaders, you'll need practice, hand-eye coordination and some inherent skill. With Mafia Wars and FarmVille you just need patience and time. They make lots of money, certainly, but it's not money that would have been spent on 'traditional' gaming, so it can't be seen as lost revenue. I've never met someone who plays PC or console games who also plays these 'casual' Facebook games. I hope developers don't look at these games as a threat, or something to copy!
People are free to play these terrible excuses for entertainment if they wish, but I think it's a shame as there are much richer ways of 'wasting your time'. Reducing games to social high scores is a sad state of affairs. For a nightmarish vision of where this might take us, watch Jesse Schell's DICE presentation where he predicts points and achievements being expanded throughout life - points from everything from brushing your teeth to turning up to work on time, and no doubt linked to Facebook, so your friends can see what a good person you are.
[Jesse Schell's presentation via RockPaperShotgun]