2 Apr 2013

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's pixels

It all began so innocently. 

Download HayDay from the app store Ethan said. 

It's free he said

I'm playing it and we can trade stuff! he said.

With so much going for it and half an hour before he went to bed I downloaded it, launched it and began to play.

The premise, similar to most sim games around now, is simple: 
1. Start with almost nothing (A small overgrown farm)
2. Get introduced to the gameplay by an ally who coaches you in the basic strategies of the game (in this case a scarecrow)
3. Get given responsibility (6 small squares of fertile land and a chicken coup) 
4. Receive frequent small rewards which increase your power very quickly but in incrementally tiny ways
5. Da-Dah! There's an evening of your life gone and Ethan should have been in bed an hour ago.

Oh. Dear. Me. This game is evil. It is sneakily designed to suck hours and hours of your life away. Forget Facebook / Twitter / Blogging. They have nothing on this. Spare time? That's a thing of the past. Event management? Screw that for a career- you are a FARMER now.

The responsibilities are just staggering. I'm not sure I'm emotionally ready for them. These chickens are dependant on me. They need me to feed them and collect eggs from them regularly or they may starve or become egg-bound and die.

And then I level up and get a cow field and the stakes are even higher. I'm a dairy farmer now as well (I've only been at this 10 minutes and harket me!) The cows are a bit needy as well though. They also require feeding. And milking. But then I am rewarded with milk as well as eggs, and the customers and coins pile in even faster so I level up and acquire a dairy. Now I can make cream and cheese and sell that as well as the milk and the eggs, so I get even more orders and more coins. 

Without hardly trying I level up again and get a bakery. Now I can produce loafs and corn bread and sell them as well as the eggs and milk and cream and cheese and the customers still keep calling. 

Each hen lays an egg 20 minutes after feeding: guaranteed. 

The cows are ready for milking an hour after feeding: guaranteed. 

And each time I sow seed on a tiny square of fertile soil, the land produces twice what was planted. I don't need to buy anything anymore. I'm living the good life and am totally self sufficient. God bless you mother nature!

The game makers have an additional strategy that comes into play about now.

6. Networking. 
We can visit each others farms. It's totally interactive. Trade and commerce be alive and well in these here parts. I've already been to Ethan's farm cause he showed me how to befriend people in the first place. His farm's a lot like mine, but he's arranged his dairy and his silo differently. He's also placed his fertile land in big long strips (I've done squares) but that's great. He's organising his space. Maybe that will spill over into real life one day and his room will become a bit tidier? He's really making his farm his own. Its sweet actually...

Another one of my friends is no one I know in real life but a computer generated regular customer of mine who owns a neighbouring farm. He is on level 50 (I'm on level 4). Maybe I should go and visit his farm? He's been over to me loads of times already, so it only seems neighbourly. 

But what's THIS? My loyal customer's level 50 farm has acres and acres of flat green land with none of the forest or rubble or swamp land that I am plagued with. And it is stuffed full of livestock and farmer gadgetry. He has two feed mills. And two fields of cows. And three chicken coups! He has pigs and goats and horses and a dog. His dairy and bakery are surrounded by about 10 other bits of industrial machinery that I had no idea existed a minute ago. (I wonder what they do??) His barn is bigger than mine, his Silo is taller than mine and the whole farm is so pretty. There are apple trees, cherry trees and row upon row of raspberry bushes, decorative shrubs and white picket fencing. Butterflies are hovering round pots and pots of neat orange and red flowers and there's a swinging garden bench next to a fountain overlooking the jetty at the edge of the fields. It's the most beautiful farm ever...

I want butterflies. A fountain and a bench wouldn't go amiss either (if I ever get the chance to sit down). And most of all I want my land to be free of swamps and rubble and all the other junk I was left to sort out. My neighbours farm is amazing and mine is rubbish. My little farm is struggling like most other other farms in this country because of the stupid EU and...  Arghhhhh is that the time? My poor cows will be lolling around in discomfort with udders a-swollen wondering where I've gone...

I mosey on back to my tiny level 4 farm to get on with milking and egg collecting and feeding and harvesting, idly wondering why my level 50 neighbour comes over to my farm to BUY eggs when he has 3 times as many chickens as me? Maybe he's just helping me out- we stick together and help our own, we farmers. Or maybe his chickens are post-menopausal and no longer lay eggs 20 minutes after feeding? Or maybe he just comes over to gloat and is actually plotting a take-over?

I survey my kingdom and sigh as I take in the sight of the overgrown wasteland behind my farmhouse. I need more TNT and shovels... Elusive items that appear only occasionally on harvesting, or in the newspaper. Items that can be bought with gaming diamonds which can be slowly earned by the laborious task of farming... or (for the impatient / richer farmer) purchased at the App store for anything between £1.49 and £69.99. 

That IS mental, right? Paying for pixels, figments of the game makers imagination, with actual real proper pounds sterling and pence. 

I am tempted though. 

Wow. Digital materialism.

The desire for more can be a tricky thing. 

I get sucked in just as much as the next person. Although strangely not in the traditional big house / nice car / exotic holiday kind of way. 

We may wander round Ikea for an hour and a half and only actually purchase 4 mugs and a bath mat, but I will have spent a small fortune on storage solutions in my head

I buy a bit too much food (which is highly ironic given my lack of enthusiasm for cooking anything) then end up wasting more than I like to admit. 

And I want pretty pixels for my fake farm.

When the kids were little and we needed one, I also had a bit of a thing for buggies. In 8 years and 3 children we got through a Mothercare travel system, a Bertini steerable stroller, a Phil & Ted's double buggy, 2 Maclaren XTs and a cheap £35 buggy from Argos which eventually collapsed with a child still in it. I can still talk animatedly and knowledgeably about the benefits of pneumatic tyres (lined with kevlar or slime) over hard plastic wheels and argue persuasively that it's always preferable to buy a 2nd hand Maclaren than a brand new £35 buggy from anywhere. Please don't get me started though. Keith's just glad he no longer looses me in the nursery aisle in ToysRus.

Where does this restless need for better and more come from? And how to resist? Cambridge theologian Harry Williams, has a theory:

It's natural for us to always want more- more love more money, more prestige, more everything... But our wanting more in fact goes deeper than anything our earthly environment can supply, and we misunderstand if we imagine we can be appeased by what this limited world can give us. For our desire is literally insatiable, which means it belongs to the order of infinity. Our wanting more is the way in which we clumsily express our intuition that we were made for what is endless and without bounds, that is, for God. (Consumer Detox, pg 98)

Isn't it weird that time, energy and wealth are expended every day on accumulating stuff that can't ever be owned in the real world? Striving towards the big house / nice car / exotic holiday is actually just as ridiculous as spending £69.99 on HayDay gaming diamonds. 

The transferrable value for any one of them is zilch. 

They offer NOTHING beyond the realm for which they were created. 

In the short term though- the the pretty pixels are cheaper.