Building Happiness: Lessons I Learned through Facebook Games

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cc by Marc van der Chijs

I’m in the middle of plowing up all my fields and tying up all my loose ends, and saying goodbye to my pigs and sheep and chickens. I (re) started playing several Facebook games three weeks ago, as a bit of a happiness experiment (and, let’s face it, because I wanted to have an excuse). Experiment over, I am now in the process of tidying up my farm, my city, my frontier village, and my medieval fair. My English time garden will remain open. This post will tell you why.

Once upon a time, I played Facebook games (mostly Farmville, YoVille, Restaurant City, Mafia Wars, and Vampire Wars, back then) pretty regularly, for about a year. I got to the point where I had so much gold in Mafia Wars and Vampire Wars that I could buy anything – unless it was a ‘pay real money’ item. I had a nice farm going in Farmville, and an attractive, midsized restaurant in Restaurant City. YoVille I never did get the hang of, so I was still living in an underdecorated apartment (even virtually, I don’t do housework, apparently).
I gave them all up a couple of years ago because they were eating into my time too much. It was part of one of my semi-regular ‘stuff purges’ where I eliminate items and activities from my life that aren’t bringing enough joy in. I honestly don’t know what sparked the decision. It was a long time ago and I’ve lived a lot of life in the interim.

In early May, I decided it was time to revisit my decision to not play Facebook games. After all, I’m working from home, on my own computer. I need to take little ‘mental health breaks’ throughout the day. What could be the harm? Hmmm. I unblocked all the games I had blocked (to stop all the spammy messages), warned all my Facebook friends I was starting back up (and told any who asked how to block said spammy messages), and picked a few games to play.

I picked up on all the ones I used to play except YoVille (what was the point – I sucked at it the first time around), and added Frontierville, CityVille, Ravenwood Fair, and Gardens of Time. I also experimented with Zombie Lane. First, a quick rundown of the premises of each of the games, in case you’ve either been living under a rock or deliberately avoiding the games.

Farmville is the most popular game on Facebook. Until Angry Birds came it, I would have been positive it’s the most popular game in the world. Now I’m not so sure. The goal of Farmville is to make your farm bigger and bigger, plowing more land, raising more animals, planting more crops – the usual. The social aspect, like the other ‘Ville’ games and Ravenwood Fair, comes from helping out your ‘neighbors’ (other Facebook friends who also play the game).

Frontierville and Cityville are similar (both made by Zynga, as well) except that you are building a frontier town or modern city, respectively. Ravenwood Faire is on a similar premise, but made by another game company, as is Zombie Lane.

Vampire Wars and Mafia Wars are games where the goal is to complete ‘missions’, fight ‘battles’ and steal ‘property’ from other players. The bigger your group of friends, the more powerful you become. Like I said, when my gold got in the billions, it got kind of repetitive – so this time around I only kept playing them for a week.

I used to get a real kick out of playing Restaurant City – mostly because whoever I was most angry at that week got assigned the role of dishwasher – this time around, though, I didn’t find it fun at all. It went the same way as Mafia and Vampire Wars pretty quickly.

Screencap from Gardens of Time

That leaves Gardens of Time to talk about. Remember those hidden objects pictures from Highlights for Children? It’s like that, except for grownups, and you use your ‘reputation’ to build formal English Gardens for visitors to stroll through. My goal is to have mine as big as the gardens at Versailles (yes, I know. Not English)

Anyhow, in a couple hours now, when I can finally plow my last crop in, I will be done playing all of them except Gardens of Time. I found out some interesting things about myself and about these games from these experiments:

  • I found myself scheduling my day to ensure I would have internet access when my Farmville/Cityville/Frontierville crops were ready to harvest.
  • I took it personally when my crops wilted, and the one time I paid money to play, it was to buy ‘unwither’ to heal the crops – I actually felt guilty that I had ‘let them down’
  • Oddly, since animal toons didn’t visibly suffer if not ‘fed’, I had no such guilt over them.
  • The constant in-game harangues in all of the Facebook games to ‘share with’ or ‘invite’ or ‘ask’ my Facebook friends to participate in some way drove me crazy – and yet ‘shared’ and ‘invited’ and ‘asked’ anyhow, because that was the only way to accomplish some in game goals.
  • I came to both resent and envy those who could just spend ‘real money’ to achieve their in-game goals. And decided that the game makers were brilliant. They must be making a killing on micro-transactions.
  • After a couple of weeks, I realized that I wasn’t having actual fun with any of the games except Gardens of Time. The intrinsic rewards for the rest were meaningless (there was no skill involved, or little enough to not matter), and the extrinsic awards didn’t make up for that.
  • Because Games of Time is actually built around a skills-based game (timed picture search or picture match) I found it entertaining in its own right and not just because I wanted the rewards. It became my ‘go-to’ at bedtime and first thing in the morning.
  • As I started analyzing my experiences with this post in mind, and mentally tabulating the emotions I associated with the games, I found that they were overwhelmingly negative. These included emotions like: frustration, envy, guilt, and boredom. The only positive emotion I consistently achieved, and not nearly enough to be a sufficient reward, was ‘satisfaction’ (as in ‘Aha! I did it!)

Overall, it came down to this: I didn’t get very much enjoyment from it, it was time consuming, and a large percentage of the thoughts I had about the experience were negative. Does that mean I think you’re a goober if you enjoy the games? Not at all.

The games are based on the same psychological principle as gambling – a behavioral modification known as operant conditioning, on a variable reinforcement ratio schedule – which means some portion of the time you will get a particular reward, and another portion of the time you won’t (and you won’t know ahead of time which one is which). It keeps us pushing that button, because underneath it all, operant conditioning works. That’s why it is used so much in human activity, in everything from gambling to advertising to domestic violence (think of the tricks an abuser uses to keep a victim compliant).

The thing is, I have a weird reaction to variable ratio conditioning, ever since leaving an abusive relationship in my twenties. I find them utterly uncompelling. When I go to ‘the boats’, it’s almost always for cheap food, and if I do play the slots, I play with two cups. One has my allocated spending in it, the other my winnings. When my spending cup is empty, regardless of what is in my winning cups, it’s time to go. I gamble to be polite to those I’m with, not out of any sense of pleasure.

And this all leads to a happiness discussion. Stop and ask yourself – what daily habits do I have – ones that aren’t critical to my well-being, of course – that don’t bring me any joy or pleasure and don’t benefit me in any material way. Of course, exercise might be, for some people, not particularly pleasurable, but it has material benefits. What about a routine where I contact a particular person that is not particularly supportive of me? What about responding to chain letters or emails? What about Facebook games or other games? What about partipation in a forum that I no longer feel close to? What about a specific TV show?

What would happen if I just stopped? How would I feel? What would I use that time for instead? If there is a game, or ritual, or habit in your life that does nothing for you, get rid of it. But to push the metaphor – keep the Gardens of Time. Keep the games or rituals or habits that have a reward that truly brightens your day. That’s what life is about, after all.

  • Zynga Unloads 11 Underperforming Games Including PetVille, Mafia Wars 2 (
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