Farm Waves
Scott Webel / Museum of Ephemerata

Free Farm Game

A virtual landscape in Free Farm Game

A farm homestead grows among the wireless waves that cross our backyard garden patch.1 Good thing chickens and tomatoes don’t develop Wifi sensitivity. I became a Free Farm Game user several years after forming a gardening habit. If only my backyard could be as fecund and profitable as a single tile of my virtual farm.

“Sick of city life? Tired of those childish and unchallenging farm games?” Make your own farm for free! This back-to-the-land permutation of Monopoly has an international audience with servers in the UK, France, Asia, and two in the US. A line of avatars shows some of the seven thousand Facebook users who like Free Farm Game. Sounds of farm animals, pattering rain, or wind compose shifting refrains that greet users on login.

Despite its anti-urban tagline and aesthetics of rural nostalgia, this virtual landscape adopts the same abstract Cartesian grid employed by modern cities. Urban farmers fond of square foot gardening feel right at home. Wilderness barely creeps into the landscape’s edges, with a river for fishing in the bottom left corner, a forest for hunting in the top right, and useless wasteland to the west. Otherwise, every land tile has its price. Once purchased, chop down trees, then till the land or add a workshop, an animal pen, or some other structure. You can’t escape your grid and visit another farm. The only place all the homesteads and their multiplayers overlap is in missions and competitions you can play with each other, co-ops users can form, and ultimately, in the market where everything is sold, with each market isolated to its particular server.

Real-life farmers, garden enthusiasts, and people who couldn’t grow a weed all play the game. In the English-language discussion forum, one member’s signature advertises the logo for the UK’s United Farmers Cooperative, which brings together local farmers for bulk purchases and operates stores where members can sell goods. You can form co-ops in the game, too – a subtle education, perhaps, in non-corporate capitalism and “social enterprises” that stimulate local economies and communities.2 Raise chickens, pigs, bees, etc., grow grain for their feed, and make your own bread or alcoholic beverages. The Free Farm Game world resembles that envisioned by the Transition movement, whose members long for a peak-oil planet of relocalized economies where people can make a living with old-time skills.

Farming mural

Mural illustrating interest in local agriculture

In the US, the game’s popularity thrives amidst waves of sometimes urgent interest in local and organic food and urban sustainability. It taps American’s longstanding pastoral imaginary and a certain bloodthirsty response to pests and wild animals. Everything must be killed to protect the farm. Skunks wander into my territory and a warning pops up: “You will have to hunt them to get rid of them before they damage your farm!” In this quaint little world of “totalitarian agriculture,”3 nature manifests as interlocking anthropocentric resources vs. threats that should be exterminated. Everything (even skunk tails) becomes a product rated on a seven star scale, with the coveted 7* rating catching seven times more on the market than 1* products. Even 7* manure is better. Labor power is similarly standardized and quantified; farmers and hired hands start their week (a single day of real time) with a thousand endurance points, and each farm task subtracts a set number of points. You can eat to regain some endurance, and chores require fewer points over time as farmers learn and become more efficient workers. Surprisingly, transporting goods to market does not take up any endurance.

Every morning over coffee I tend my farm. It takes around five minutes, adding up to over thirty wasted hours a year. Sneak it into your workday as a secret treat. The game requires users to check in every day or their farm will perish. Like another job, even on vacation. You can “hibernate” your farm using “Special Farm Points” (purchased for real currency), but hibernation causes its own problems. On the forum, the user Wigginsmum worries, “I have to hibernate my farm next week for 6 real weeks while I recover from surgery. Am I right in thinking taxes/salaries/bills won’t fall due during that time? … I’ve never hibernated my farm before … I’m going to get withdrawal symptoms…” GingerMan chimes in, writing in a delirious state of fevered imagination after eleven days of no game play:

My withdrawal symptoms … have been sort of energizing; you start panting like a dog every morning more and more. Thiswise, it’s grand if you live a lone [sic] … I have cherry trees now with trunks like some drug czar’s jungle protection… Where will it end? I can see stables and hired hands, and I can see workshops and aquariums. Hell. I can see a strip-club even.4

Although strip-clubs (much less any kind of erotic markets) are not on Free Farm Game’s menu, its virtual landscape fulfills desires for a rural world that can be endlessly exploited and urbanized under a sky devoid of catastrophes. The game’s climate is entirely flat, rolling through four seasons while blissfully lacking hurricanes and tornadoes, floods, droughts and wildfires, or relentless snowstorms – a heavenly climate model compared to those roiling on the servers of global climate change scientists. No earthquakes and tsunamis, just marauding skunks.

Likewise, the game fleshes out an utmost smooth space of utopian green capitalism. Organic farming is the only way to grow 7* produce and make the most money. In addition to teleporting goods to market, you can sell everything at a set price, all at once – no false economies of subsidized crops in this dreamy endless-growth economy. Its virtual currency is a one-way street that allows users to spend real money on “Special Farm Points” (SFP). “With these points you can obtain cash for your farm, pause the game, skip taxes or bills, get special meals for your farmers and other bonuses,” but you cannot convert your farm cash into SFP and back into USD. Among all the multiplayer games online, only Second Life has developed its own legitimate currency, the Linden Dollar, with about 7 million USD of L$ in circulation. Because Second Life players can own their intellectual property and real estate (server space), the economy is continually growing.5 Unlike Ithaca dollars and other self-proclaimed micro-currencies, the virtual economy of L$ has the advantage of printing and minting no actual currency and risking no forgery.


The author’s “real world” backyard

Ridiculously, sometimes I long to live in the game world, forgetting how unproductive it is to compare “the real world” to virtual ones when they are all interwoven and interweaved. The Farm Game world makes the exhausting intensity and specialized knowledge of full-bodied farm labor so easy – click click click. Here, I milk cows and make butter, a good capitalist who can actually make some money. I have two employees. Meanwhile, I need to clean out our backyard chicken coop and compost the gray and white knots of poop on hay where the hen lays eggs. Tomatoes and figs need picking before birds peck them. It takes about an hour a day to water, another drought summer in Austin, Texas. The yard and Farm Game both require my repetitious labor and desire to exist, everyday responsibilities where lives are at stake. Likewise, I require them, experiencing withdrawal symptoms in their absence. They flourish in the sensory register of everyday habits and daydreams, registers adjusting to waves of ecological concern.

Image Credits:

1. Author’s screen capture of Free Farm Game.
2. Image courtesy of the author.
3. Image courtesy of the author.

Please feel free to comment.

  1. This short essay is part of a larger online writing project, “The City of Living Garbage,” a guidebook to my backyard, nicknamed Ephemerata Gardens. []
  2. Nadia Johanisova, Living in the Cracks: A Look at Rural Social Enterprises in Britain and the Czech Republic, Dublin: The Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability (2005), 20-24. Johanisova and others define social enterprises as businesses that operate in markets not so much to generate profits as to meet social and environmental goals. They often blur into informal economies by developing mutually beneficial relationships that “are long-term, complex and based more on friendship and reciprocity than on written covenants” (36), and often place “emphasis on local resources and local production for local consumption, local money flows and employment, [and] local environmental sustainability” (130) []
  3. Daniel Quinn, The Story of B, New York: Bantam Books (1997), 83-96. []
  4. “Question about hybernation,” Free Farm Game forum,, accessed June 29, 2010. []
  5. Daniel Terdiman, The Entrepreneurs Guide to Second Life: Making Money in the Metaverse, Indianapolis: Wiley Publishing (2007), 7. []


  • Scott,

    Hey – this is a fascinating piece! Never heard of the game, so thanks for bringing it to light.

  • Paul Gansky / FLOW Co-Managing Editor

    Great stuff, Scott. My brother recently visited Detroit, so farms have been on the mind quite a bit lately…it’s amazing how well the general sensibility and myths about the urban farming movement there segues with the point you make about the game’s Cartesian, four-corners-square design and lack of bad weather, widespread pestilence, drought, erratic growing, etc., which neatly cuts out some of the real gritty work that goes into farming.

    It seems that in Detroit, there is a chance for projection, and a space waiting to be reclaimed, allowing for dreams of refashioning oneself into a rugged, self-sustaining individualist…or at least that’s how so many corporate refugees appear to treat a city that has been in decline for decades, overshadowing the population that has been reeling from the effects of deindustrialization. I’m wondering if there is some connection to be made here between a kind of work that is so heavily abstracted from most of our daily lives, and the popularity of this game at a time when farming is suddenly cropping up in places where it appeared eradicated.

    Also, do you notice many trends in terms of occupations of the people that play Farm Waves, or how and if they have used the game as a primer for the experience of creating their own backyard plot or getting into a community garden?

  • Totally interesting piece here – thanks for sharing. What do you think of the experience of this game vs. the recent rise in blogging about farming?

  • A new and interesting direction for FLOW, one that expands the range of the journal as a whole. And the Museum of Ephemerata is a must-see! That the keeper of the real garden behind this lived-in cabinet of curiosities also tends to the fields of Farm Waves reveals the importance of fantasy, inside and out.

  • Thanks, all, for your comments.

    Will – Blogging about farming seems to tap the same ecological concerns about food security and self-sufficiency at play in Free Farm Game, but through endlessly detailed accounts of the techniques, strategies, affections, and frustrations involved in getting things to grow. The game makes it all so easy and predictable. Farm bloggers tend to be dealing with small urban gardens, which goes against the game’s strong binary between the urban and rural, as well as the potentially industrial scale of the virtual farms. The game’s tiled landscape, viewed from a bird’s-eye view vantage point, invites a sense of control and omniscience, whereas the farm bloggers seem to be fascinated with the agential powers of plants, pollinators, and soil microorganisms over which gardeners have no real control. They also focus on local adaptation to their particular climate zones, which the game obviously flattens. And some of the blogs position urban farming in an interesting time frame of societal and economic collapse: for example, there’s a Survival Podcast (“if times get tough”) and Surviving the Middle Class Crash. Here, gardening shifts from middle class pleasure/recreation to the serious register of provisioning the family or community.

    Paul – I haven’t talked with other Farm Game users, so don’t know their occupations. I found out about the game when a fellow anthropology graduate student tended her farm in the shared computer lab. When I asked if she gardened, she described herself as a “city-girl” with no green thumb. I can see people settling for virtual farming and not getting into gardening, or being earnest gardeners but enjoying the perfect little world of Farm Game. I am also curious in how much money people spend on the “Free” Farm Game.

    Regarding Detroit, the “space waiting to be reclaimed” comes out of the city’s history of white flight and disinvestment; it is in no way the open space of a virtual landscape, but instead one layered by histories of land use filled with environmental and social traces (like industrial contaminants in soil, houses transformed by artists and arsons, etc.). While a lot of urban gardening/restoration projects could be critiqued along the usual lines of gentrification cycles (which is a “paranoid critique” in Eve Sedgwick’s terms – see for example Norma Coates article), social enterprises like the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network use gardening as a reparative practice to address inequities in accessing healthy/local/sustainable food. Like the survivalist bloggers mentioned above, they push organic and local foods out of the usual purview of being new green capitalist (white) privileges and reframe them as a matter of everyday “food sovereignty” achievable through self-determination and community labor. This dovetails with African centered education in Detroit public schools – collective learning that goes beyond critique to claim and elaborate new identities and histories beyond the dominant public sphere.

    The role of the virtual in all of this not only involves how information and techniques gleaned online materially shape far-flung landscape patches through labor practices, but also how collectively imagined futures are channeled into affective forces that in turn begin to change urban land use patterns and social relations. For example, the middle class crash, or adverse weather like droughts and flooding that endanger agriculture, are future events that people are responding to (or preparing for) through social enterprises and individual consumption/production habits. Fantasies of catastrophic futures seem to be altering the way we see/feel/use ordinary urban resources like front lawns and tap water. As always I approach the “fantasy” or “imaginary” or “virtual” as comprised of material practices and agential objects/things set in landscapes and atmospheres.

  • God artikel du har lavet, jeg prøver selv at skrive løs om computer spil, men er løbet lidt tør for ideer, så vil kigge nettet igennem, fortsæt med de gode artikler, vil helt klart kigge forbi igen senere.

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