Facebook's FarmVille has millions playing the field

Few people want to start a farm in real life, but since June more than 60 million have planted virtual acreage on a Facebook site called FarmVille.

Meet soybean specialist Manisha Pandit from Louisville, Colo., who won't let her 11-year-old daughter have a Facebook page but calls her over to the keyboard every once in a while to help plant and harvest FarmVille plots.

Or animal lover Diana Sisson of Topeka, Kan., who is so addicted to FarmVille she'll occasionally give new meaning to Facebook by falling asleep with her head on her laptop. Sisson gets mesmerized watching the antics of the cute squirrels her sister sent her as a FarmVille "gift."

Half the population appears addicted to FarmVille, while the other half has never heard of the free game. From tweens to teenagers to octogenarians, gamemaker Zynga claims 22 million users visit their FarmVille plots at least daily.

They invite Facebook friends to be farm "neighbors" who can help fertilize land or chase away marauding foxes; they can even use real money to buy virtual farm money to enhance their acreage - that's how Zynga cashes in.

"My girlfriend started a month ago, and we get so excited when they send out new gifts," said Sisson, a retired postal worker.

"I got my 81-year-old uncle in New Jersey on FarmVille now. My hairstylist, it turns out she's on it too. The guy on the radio today was talking about his 'farm.' I'm beginning to think everybody has a farm."

Internet speculation is rife whether Zynga will soon release medical marijuana as a new cash crop, alongside barley and pattypan squash.

Gaming crazes have swept America since Atari served up Pong in the 1970s.

"Call of Duty 2: Modern Warfare" took in a record $310 million on its release day Nov. 10, according to maker Activision.

Game experts and players say FarmVille may have staying power, though, because of the wide range of players it attracts.

More women love it because they are building something and connecting with neighbors, rather than blowing up continents, said Roger Feldkamp, recent president of the University of Denver gaming club and a student of video design.

Budding landlords can acquire extra FarmVille acreage. Decorators rearrange their maple groves. Grandmothers ask nephews whether eggplant makes more money than wheat. "Crops" mature in two hours or up to a couple of days, ensuring gaming addicts will check back in to "harvest."

Game experts coined the term "humane gaming," said Denver University professor Scott Leutenegger, who says FarmVille edges toward that category with its emphasis on cooperation, strategy and creation rather than destruction.

The next market is a social step further, Leutenegger argues. Sites such as Games for Change are popularizing issue-oriented challenges.

PeaceMaker tackles the Palestinian-Israeli conflict based on extensive research, while Darfur is Dying uses gaming to call attention to 2.5 million war refugees.

"In my opinion, without hype, we're at the dawn of a significant cultural phenomenon. The question is whether games will be used for good, not so good or both," Leutenegger said.

Or whether they'll just be annoying.

Sisson wouldn't leave the house when she had cookies "baking" in a FarmVille sister site, YoVille. Her husband bought her a laptop with a wireless card so she could serve up meals and redecorate the bar while on the road to see grandchildren.

Sisson and other users draw the line at spending real money to buy gold coins or mansions in FarmVille.

"I might as well run up to the casino and throw $20 in a slot machine," she said. "How do I explain to my husband that I spent $500 on furniture that only exists in a video game?"

Feldkamp, though, calls that a generational gap in gaming. Younger users see all entertainment money as fungible - you either pay for a copy of "Scrabble" upfront, or you start in a free virtual game and spend money along the way to enhance the experience.

"It's no different than renting a movie," he said.

FarmVille sometimes wears out its down-home welcome with users by accommodating too many marketing scams, Pandit said.

Zynga says it is working more aggressively to filter scams. Meanwhile, Not Playing FarmVille has more than 1.6 million Facebook fans.

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