I've never played Farmville. Despite being an unabashed technophile, I haven't really played computer games for a long time. I remember a pre-teen family vacation to Yosemite where the undeniable highlight was neither waterfalls nor bears, but a visit to Sierra Online, a little office in the middle of nowhere from which sprang such amazing things as Space Quest, King's Quest, and (ahem) Leisure Suit Larry. I thought that the magic of computer games had captured my heart, but in retrospect it was simply the magic of computers. Years later I turned down a job building a snowboarding simulator for the x-box so that I could work with a bunch of Linux geeks on software for the British government. My 12 year old self still despises me.
But games are big, and I feel like I am missing out on something by not playing them. World of Warcraft, Counterstrike, Civilization - am I missing something? It wasn't until a recent trip to the Philippines that I realized just how huge Farmville is. I have friends on Facebook who play it, but I blocked all updates from it long ago, so it is out of sight and out of mind. Until I went to the Philippines. There I found Farmville a lot harder to block, because it kept invading real life.
Everywhere I went people were playing Farmville. The look on their faces implied that they were using the hotel reservation system, or catching up on email at the coffee shop, or writing a paper on impact assessment. But the moo of a cow or the snort of a pig gave them away. A subtle stroll behind their screen confirmed it.
I was doing an informal assessment of computer experience in health care workers at the rural health clinics where our project was going to be piloted. The answers were pretty consistent. "We don't have any experience with computers." Followed by contemplation, perhaps a giggle, and then, "except for playing games".
We continue to underestimate how rapidly people adopt technology. Remember when you first joined facebook? Back then did you ever imagine that your mom might friend you? Did you ever imagine it would take just a few months? A few years ago I showed my Malawian housekeeper how google worked. Now she's on facebook.
This isn't the first time we've underestimated ourselves. Remember cellphones? People who can't read and earn less than $1 a day tend to have phones in Malawi, especially if they live in the urban areas. Nobody expected Africa to become connected so quickly.
We need to stop underestimating people. Don't expect Africans to be content with boring old SMS and voice for long. Smartphones, droids and even iphones are much higher up Maslow's hierarchy of needs than we realize, especially if nobody around owns a computers, your schools suck, and the government controls the radio and newspaper. Africans have leapfrogged over landlines. They are now leaping over laptops.
(Desperate housewives, lonely on their isolated farms, also surprised the world by being the early adopters of the strange world of cranks and dials and operators that made up the original telephones of the 19th century)
Back to my Filipino friends who "don't know how to use computers", but do know how to play computer games (it was Farmville that they were playing). While Google is organizing the world's information, Facebook is organizing the world's relationships. It sounds like a silly mission statement at first. Yet consider the universal pursuit of friendship, love and community. If they can pull it off, then we will have taken another step forward in the evolution of our species. If Facebook can enable that which virtually defines us as humans then I think we are going to be seeing a lot more Farmville being played.
Some strange headlines are beginning to form themselves:
Web Farm Dot Oh - the Next Internet Bubble
Facebocracy: Filipinos Ratify World's First Facebook Based Constitution
One last thing about Facebook and the Philippines. The Philippines is the text messaging capital of the world. They send 1.6 billion SMSs every day and their population is just 80 million. No one sends more SMSs than the Filipinos. As in Africa, smartphones are being rapidly adopted. But people don't have a lot of money to spend on unlimited data plans like the ones forced upon us here in the US. So you might expect a blackberry like option - where you can get unlimited email access on your smartphone. Isn't that the logical upgrade for the SMS crazed Filipinos? SMS migrates to email? Nope, that wasn't an option that the cellphone providers were offering. But for 20 pesos a day (about 50 cents) you can get unlimited access to Facebook.