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Katerina Gnafaki (3703347) Course: Game studies Programme: New Media and Digital Culture Teacher: Dr. David Nieborg University of Utrecht
The game genre of social games has currently experienced an exponential growth among its users. The social game FarmVille, one of the most popular games on Facebook platform, enjoys more than 83 million monthly active users. Gamers via the Facebook platform make use of the social game application FarmVille and participate in the production and consumption of new type of media content. The tools and technologies integrated in the social game FarmVille enable gamers to deploy these technologies and establish a more active role in the media production. At the same time, a range of FarmVille subcultures promote FarmVille appropriation and encourage the flow of ideas, images, videos, and narratives across multiple media channels. This paper aims to show how FarmVille fans take advantage of the FarmVille design and participate in user-created practices, such as FarmVille pixel art, in order to express themselves and exhibit their artistic potential. It is argued in this paper that FarmVille pixel art is not only afforded by the platform design of FarmVille but also encouraged by its design. The interface’s low technological barrier to entry (e.g. its freemium model) and its audio, visual and social features invite users to generate such creative artworks. Key words: FarmVille, social games, fan culture, self-expression, user-created content, explicit participation
Table of contents
Introduction ........................................................................................................................................4 Farmville as a case study .................................................................................................................5 Conceptualizing Participatory Culture: explicit participation..............................................6 Embracing explicit participation in the social game FarmVille............................................8 Altering the Rules of the Game: FarmVille Pixel Art ................................................................9 Conclusion ........................................................................................................................................ 10 Literature.......................................................................................................................................... 12
n the contemporary technologically dominated era, the advent of Web 2.0 has led to a more collaborative and dynamic form of expression. While with the emergence of web
1.0 the emphasis was on access, current technological advances have shifted this emphasis to participation, self-expression and collective action. This participation has also been celebrated in modern gaming where the agency of user-generated content has influenced the construction and production of game content. This modern trend of appropriation has empowered enthusiastic users and fans to become active participants, thus establishing the ground for amateur culture to thrive.
The many forms of appropriation of corporate media texts have been widely discussed in the popular discourse. Slash fiction and satiric Star Wars films made by fans constitute instances of fan communities that develop different ways for framing original media content. In the game discourse, such instances of content appropriation have mostly been directed towards modding or hacking (e.g. Raessens 2006; Sotamaa 2010; Kόcklich 2005), mainly practices characterized by deliberate and conscious appropriation of products that represent cases of ‘explicit participation’ (Schäfer 2011). However, it is argued in this paper that explicit participation in the game studies realm does not adhere only to modding or hacking. Web platforms, such as Facebook, facilitate the production and distribution of user-created content as well as collaborative artistic practices and form spaces of explicit participation and self-expression. Users, via the Facebook platform, make use of the social game application FarmVille and participate in the production and consumption of new type of media content. The tools and technologies integrated in the social game FarmVille enable consumers to deploy these technologies and establish a more active role in the media production.
In light of the above observations, the aim of this article is to show how FarmVille fans take advantage of the FarmVille design and participate in user-created practices, such as FarmVille pixel art, in order to express themselves and exhibit their artistic potential. 1 It is
FarmVille pixel art is a term used to describe the creation of artworks using decoration items featured on the FarmVille market. Since most of the decorations that are used are hay bales, FarmVille artwork can also be called as Hay Bale Art, or FarmVille Art all of which refer to the same practice
argued in this paper that user-created practices are not only afforded by the platform design of FarmVille, but also encouraged by its design. The interface’s low technological barrier to entry (e.g. its freemium model) and its audio, visual and social features invite users to generate such creative artworks.
In order to tackle this issue, the paper will begin with the introduction of the case study of FarmVille to get a clear view of its gameplay. Chapter three will employ the notion of explicit participation introduced by the new media scholar Mirko Tobias Schäfer (2011). In addition, I turn to the media scholar Henri Jenkins to explore the practices of fan culture in the realm of participatory culture, especially revealed in the form of ‘artistic selfexpressions’ (Jenkins 2003; 2006). Chapter four illustrates the adoption of explicit participation in FarmVille and brings forward the role of the software platform in facilitating user-created content. Finally, chapter five dives deeper into the act of appropriation in FarmVille. By drawing on the new media scholar Axel Bruns (2007), I aim to argue how, by altering the rules of FarmVille, gamers can act both as users and producers of media content. Rather than adhering to one established approach, this paper uses aspects from different approaches.
Farmville as a case study
When the Facebook platform launched over in 2004, gaming quickly became one of the most popular category of applications on the site. In the Facebook-based gaming scene, Zynga, a US-based social network game-developer-company, has recently gained a leading position. As of May 2011, Zynga's games on Facebook have nearly 250 million monthly active users (AppData 2011). In February 2010, the social game FarmVille peaked with over 83 million monthly active users only eight months after its launch in June 2009, making it one of the most widely distributed video games ever recorded (Mack 2010).
FarmVille is a free, browser-based farming social network game. The design of the game facilitates its access through one’s Facebook account. The player first creates a customizable avatar and begins with a fixed amount of ‘farm coins’ which constitutes the primary currency in the game. Leveling up is based on repeatedly executed tasks, such as buying
items, constructing buildings, taking care of the animals or plowing land. When the player manages to obtain a certain amount of experience points he levels up and certain items become available which he can buy in order to enhance his farm. These items can either be purchased by farm coins or ‘farm cash’, mainly cash that is obtained when leveling up or succeed in completing missions and quests. FarmVille gamers interact asynchronously by assisting their ‘neighbours’ to daily tasks or by exchanging gifts.
Conceptualizing Participatory Culture: explicit participation
“According to a recent study from the Pew Internet & American Life project (Lenhardt and Madden, 2005), more than one-half of all teens have created media content, and roughly one third of teens who use the Internet have shared content they produced”. (Jenkins 2006, 3)2
Advancements in digital technology afford and encourage spaces of participation and collective action. As the new media scholar Henry Jenkins suggests, participatory culture shifts the focus from “individual expression to community involvement” (Jenkins 2006, 4). In light of the Actor Network Theory, the features of the Web 2.0 platform are designed to afford certain processes and interactions and, consequently, pre-inscribe various skills and competences of its human users to perform roles and actions (Latour 1992). For instance, Facebook as well as many other social networking sites pre-inscribe technical competencies (e.g. Internet and browser access), hardware and software (e.g. graphic card, processor, and speakers), different levels of player performance and even epistemological ones such as creativity self-expression or keen interest in games. Since the web has become a common content-generated medium with low barriers to entry, participatory culture is emerging and responds to this by allowing average users to “archive, annotate, appropriate, and recirculate” media content in influential new ways ( Jenkins 2006, 8). The ‘architecture of participation’, as Tim O’Reilly founder and CEO of O'Reilly Media, Inc. dubbed, suggests that
This is not to adopt the utopian notion of Henri Jenkins regarding the powerful impact of participatory culture. This quote is to show the rapid development of fan cultures and their involvement in practices of user-created content and self-expression.
we are moving from a world where few produce and many consume, towards one where everyone is taking an active approach to the culture that is produced (O’Reilly 2005). Media scholar Pierre Lévy designates this process as ‘collective intelligence’ characterizing likeminded users who exploit the potential of networked communication and gather online to share and participate in common practices (Lévy 2000). In such a world that Lévy describes, fan culture communities “accumulate, archive and construct” (Schäfer 2011, 46) media content and add their own interpretations in the production and appropriation of it. As Schäfer comments, by appropriation we mean the use, modification, reuse, and further development of the artifacts, often in “ways unforeseen by the designers” (idem, 20).
However, as Schäfer tellingly observes, participatory culture unfolds heterogeneously between users, communities, mindsets, and social contexts, therefore it should be specified to infer either to explicit or implicit participation. Although implicit participation “does not necessarily require a conscious activity of cultural production”, explicit participation is “driven by motivation, either intrinsic or extrinsic” (Schäfer 2011, 51). For instance, explicit participation entails user’s decision to participate when agreeing to share his or her files with other participants. Fan culture, blogging, posting, creating, and appropriating media content can also serve as an explicit participatory practice. According to media scholar Henry Jenkins, participatory culture is reflected in various forms: expressions, affiliations, collaborative problem-solving, and circulations. The “expressions” category involves the production of creative content such as modding, fan video-making, and mash-ups. For the purpose of this study, “expressions” as form of participatory culture are explored.
In the case study of this article, FarmVille artwork constitutes a distinctive instance of fan creativity through self-expression and provides a new lens through which to explore fan productions on social games; a subject which is still under-researched. The following parts of this article reveal how the explicit participation in the social game FarmVille, enabled by the software design of the game, strengthens users’ attitude towards creative expression that is reflected in the production of FarmVille pixel art.
Embracing explicit participation in the social game FarmVille
Social games are based on social platforms. They use the social network site communication channels of their players to spread themselves among the players’ social networks, and they “tie the players’ networks directly into the gameplay” (Deterding 2010, 3). Social games, like any other genre of games, entail their own fan culture. Fan practices in social games, such as the FarmVille pixel art, constitute a different and recently introduced form of game appropriation that is stimulated by participation, self-expression and collective action. The design of FarmVille gives agency to the players to refashion game content. Social gamers can modify and reproduce original game elements and create personalized and alternative game spaces.
According to Schäfer’s categorization of participatory culture into explicit and implicit, such action as creating FarmVille artwork can be identified as an explicit participatory activity. It is explicit participation that encourages and enables the idea that players can create agency through the production of self-made game content. The relatively low barriers to artistic expression as well as the emergence of various FarmVille fan websites with a strong support for creating and sharing one’s actions have invited fans to explicitly participate in the production of user-created content. Fans from all over the world gather online and engage into FarmVille discussions, exchange tips and tricks, meet each other in FarmVille events and, recently, FarmVille appropriations such as FarmVille pixel art. As journalist and social games producer Neil Vidyarthi remarks, FarmVille offers a platform “by which people can express their creativity and individuality to their friends in their social graph” (Vidyarthi 2010). Fans are enthusiastically getting involved in FarmVille artwork and, through the use of Do-It-Yourself video tutorials and fan websites, they recreate their favorite characters of the popular discourse and share them on social networking sites and fan websites. Therefore, videogames are not the only subject matter covered in FarmVille. South Park, the Simpsons (see picture in the front page), Mona Lisa, SpongeBob Squarepants, Heath Ledger's Joker and even Santa Claus are some of the characters that have been recreated by FarmVille fans.
Altering the Rules of the Game: FarmVille Pixel Art
It is not always feasible for FarmVille users to enhance their farm and create an ‘artistic land’. The grid of the game is limited due to its size and progress in the game seems to take over a lot of space. Users that decide to get involved in art creations have to consume this space which in turn deprives them from leveling up and earning more farm cash. In this sense, users sacrifice the opportunity from leveling up, gain more experience and, consequently, farm cash to the creation of an aesthetically pleasing farm land.
Undoubtedly, the act of buying decorations in order to adorn users’ FarmVille plot is a feature that seems to have drawn much gamer attention. Decorations can be purchased in the game’s ‘market’ in exchange for farm coins or farm cash, but it can also be acquired via FarmVille free gifts. Decorations vary from buildings and fences to hay bales, small pounds, flags and signs or cookery items. The FarmVille design affords also the acquirement of special and limited edition items, often related to a particular theme, such as Mother Day theme, Halloween, Valentine’s Day or season’s theme. An interesting characteristic that FarmVille recently introduced is the launch of Hay Bale Art Decorating Contest which is run weekly or bi-weekly on the website and forum of Zynga. FarmVille players can make use of the hay bale decorations that can be obtained from the market and, by using their imagination and creativity, they can bring forward their creative prowess. The reward for such creative efforts is the opportunity offered to users to showcase their artful farm and get recognition by being featured ‘Farm of the Week’ and have their farms displayed on the official FarmVille fan page as well as receive 100 farm cash. 3
The design of hay bales (being small and square) facilitates their use as pixels to create the artwork. In addition, the vast array of hay bale colors available on the market can serve as a color palette for the FarmVille artists to choose from. FarmVille artwork has drawn much
This kind of motivation strategy employed by Zynga has received much criticism. For example, the game designer and programmer Jonathan Blow in his interview for Gamasutra criticized FarmVille for being designed to create an atmosphere of requiring an unprecedented commitment to the game, and encouraging users to exploit their friends’. In fact, many winners of these contests seem to have an extensive amount of FarmVille neighbors so that they can receive more gifts on a daily basis. FarmVille users who do not have this advantage are forced in a way to buy Farmville Cash in order to be able to decorate their land. In the line of Zynga games, these contests are subjected to commercialism and suggest gamers to buy FarmVille cash in order to win the contests.
attention and gradually invited great participation. FarmVille fans all over the world pool their knowledge around FarmVille artwork in order to help other fans develop their creative potential. Fans, by sharing their knowledge collectively, expand the productive capacity of FarmVille community and enable other fans to act upon a broader range of expertise. As Pierre Lévy tellingly observes, within a community “no one knows everything, everyone knows something, all knowledge resides in humanity” (Lévy 2000, 20).
Another interesting aspect regarding FarmVille artworks is the potential of fans from mere users and consumers of a commodity to eventually become participants of cultural production. The new media scholar Axel Brun’s concept of ‘produsage’ describe such activities where all participants, at different stages of online cultural production, can act as users and producers (Bruns 2008). In line with the scholar’s view FarmVille fan websites and generally FarmVille communities where fans engage into FarmVille artworks can be called as ‘produsage communities’; communities where fans produce, recreate, and use artifact-activities, commonly known as “user-led content creation” (Bruns 2008,3). In such communities, FarmVille fans engage in the extension of the existing content of the game and express themselves through the creation of astonishing pixel artwork. As the game journalist Damian Connolly remarks on Gamasutra, the pixel art of FarmVille shows that “given simple tools and free reign, users can really imprint their personality onto the game space” (Connolly 2010). The journalist emphasizes the aspect of self-expression that is inherent in Facebook games in which users are able to produce and recreate media content and showcase their creativity to friends and other fans.
Recently, social network sites have emerged as a significant platform for the rise of the game genre of social games which has realized a vast growth among millions of users. FarmVille fans, via the Facebook platform, make use of the social game application FarmVille and participate in the production of user-created content, such as FarmVille pixel art. In addition, the existence of numerous fan blogs and websites facilitate users in the production process by offering them tutorials and the opportunity to interact with each other and share tips and tricks regarding the creation of such artworks. These interactions, as argued, are
not only afforded by the platform design of FarmVille, but also encouraged by its design. The interface’s freemiun access, its audio, visual and social features invite FarmVille fans to exceed the bounds of merely play and express themselves by becoming active participants of creative practices. Due to the limited scope of the article, I focused on the use of the FarmVille platform as a tool for participation and self-expression. Turning to future research opportunities I suggest an analysis of FarmVille as part of the monetary business model of Zynga, the design of which encourages FarmVille users to participate in artwork contests. These types of contests require a substantial amount of FarmVille cash which, in order for users to acquire, they may need to buy from one of the payment options online or by purchasing Zynga pre-paid cards.
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