Down on MyFarm: gamification goes rural

May 26th, 2011 by

microtask_gamification_myfarmPicture the pioneers of gamification. Trend-leaders, people who are prepared to really “get their hands dirty” promoting online engagement. Who do you see? A fast-talking baby-faced Princeton drop-out? A well-groomed San Francisco game-developer? A good old-fashioned geek’s geek? Or how about a middle-aged English farmer? Okay, the clue is in the title. Farmer Richard Morris is the proud manager of 1200 acres of prime agricultural land, and the unlikely overseer of real-life gaming venture: MyFarm.

Back to the land
In the US, FarmVille players now apparently outnumber real famers 60:1 (that’s one of those statistics that goes round the blogosphere so fast it must be true). Encouraged by the sudden popularity of virtual agriculture, the owners of the Wimpole Estate, Cambridgeshire, UK have decided to let the web 2.0 generation have a go for real.

The idea behind MyFarm is simple: invite an online crowd of 10,000 users to run a real farm for a year. Organizers hope the project will “reconnect people with where their food comes from.” Members of the MyFarm community will discuss and vote on every aspect of farming life: what to grow, what to breed, what to buy. Whatever the crowd decides, as long as it’s legal, Farmer Morris (who seems surprisingly relaxed about taking orders from a bunch of online amateurs) will put it into practice.

To avoid disaster help things along, the MyFarm site is fully equipped with web-cams, informative blogs and (of course) discussion forums. So far 1280 people have signed up to the site and are hotly debating issues like wildlife management, crop rotation and how many magic beans a rare-breed organic cow is worth. The first official farming vote (Sow or No!) is scheduled for today, May 26th.

Milking the trend?
Inevitably, the media has been quick to label MyFarm a real life FarmVille. To me, the environmentalist/ educational/ do-gooder ethos behind MyFarm actually has more in common with green gamification projects like Practically Green and Recycle Bank.

There are, however, a few key differences that make MyFarm interesting. Practically Green, Recycle Bank and numerous other projects all use game mechanics primarily to alter/improve individual user behavior. The focus is on rewarding “good” personal actions: recycle more, drive less, run more. In contrast MyFarm is all about users making collective decisions which have a direct impact on the outside world (if only a small rural corner of the outside world).

From a strictly game-development point of view, MyFarm’s features are pretty rustic. No scoreboards, no clear narrative progression, no “juicy feedback”. The project also breaks one of the golden rules of gamification: players should always progress and never completely fail. In MyFarm, total failure is a very real possibility. There might be a drought, the soybeans might not sell, the site might get hijacked by vegetarians who vote to set all the animals free.

So, is “playing” with the real world worth the risk? Can plain reality actually be fun? Farmer Morris and his crowd seem to think so. Time, as always, will be the best judge of their success.