I will argue that the value of in-game objects is created by structuring the player’s time in the specific way which utilizes the their perception of game as labor.
And now let’s see how value is created.
The methodology: economical theory.
Starting from Marx, we’ve been discussing the specific quality of labor time and its connection to labor. And these discussions became more productive when symbolic and social capital came to stage.
And the best explanation of the logic of casual farming games can be found in the anthropologic observations of Bourdieu.
In the chapter "Social capital" of "The Logic of Practice", Bourdieu focuses on phenomena of social economy that contradict "cold" rational logic of capital proposed by Marx. Apart from his well-known economy of gifts, he also analyzes temporal structures of agricultural practices in Berber villages. According to his observations, rituals of waiting and strict working schedules may create symbolic meaning and social values in the pre-industrial society. Generally, Bourdieu sees this 'time-lag' or 'delay' between actions as crucial for structuring meaningful social practices. In such practices, social and symbolic capital is created. How does it explain the success of casual farming games?
This is the farm of my favorite in-game neighbor, Mahammed. Can you see how much time and money have been put into this farming estate? Can we see it as “accumulated labor”? There’s indeed a lot of labor accumulated here!
What kind of labor does Mahammed do?
The usual game tasks involve growing and processing certain amounts of crops, processing and selling them to obtain and further upgrade different means of production. The player also has to complete more complicated quests to level up. Leveling up indicates progression in the game and unlocks new rewards. It is impossible to lose in a game, but, if the player doesn’t accept quests and rarely levels up, the game soon becomes too slow and boring: “The only negative consequence of playing poorly is that leveling up will take more time" - see Gruning’s similar observations of FarmVille 2.
Is it as simple as cow clicking? Actually, it’s a very complicated algorithm, rigidly structured in time.
If we put the story and its graphic representation aside, we can describe a farming game by length and rhythm of time periods between clicks on a vast variety of codependent game objects. The player follows the prescribed algorithm of clicks to gain rewards which may also help him or her make faster progress in the game, thus closing the game loop. If we put this, rather monotonous activity back into the context of visual representation, it clearly represents labor - work on the farm - and the very pleasure of the game is to be involved in such labor of ritualized clicking.
We can assume that, in farming games, work on the farm is represented not only visually, but also procedurally.
Crop Growth Time in Royal Story (based on the game interface accessed on 20.09.2016 from an account registered in Belarus). Most used crops’ growth time is less than 8 hours, which suggests visiting the game multiple times a day.
Many critics claim that farming games have no challenge. Actually, there is a challenge of following a very complicated schedule. This challenge presents itself after a considerable time spent in a game, sometimes up to several months. Also, this challenge is constructed and tweaked by the developer, sometimes even in real time.
Is it a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ challenge? We are not talking about it today. My personal opinion is that scheduling can help, or may harm, just in the same way as various time, activity and health trackers work. It actually helped me a lot, but this is my personal opinion, I’m not ready to argue for that.
A free-to-play game, a casual farming game, is a game as a service, and in many aspects, it is a game between the player and the developer. And it is the game of negotiation. We can find practical grounding to this approach to game design in Oscar Clark’s “Games As A Service” as well as in numerous articles and talks on free-to-play design.
The developer constructs engagement by offering an endless chain of rewards of gradually increasing in-game value, thoroughly calculated and balanced to fully control the player's progression. Following the story of the game, the player seeks pleasure in anticipating more interesting and valuable rewards upon completion of bigger and more complicated tasks. Based on game data analytics, the developer may also adjust the timing of quests in a way that keeps them relatively difficult and the player engaged, but not annoyed by the tight schedule.
As an example, we can take a closer look at the "King Kong Puzzle" that was running in the game in February, 2016. This quest ran during Chinese New Year and was loosely associated with its celebration (the developer’s principal development office is in Beijing). It consisted of four stages. The first stage demanded 125 cups of Hazelnut Coffee, 75 bowls of Glue Pudding (sticky rice, a traditional meal served on Chinese New Year) and 75 glasses of Margarita cocktail. To prepare all these products, the player needed 125 crops of coffee beans, 125 hazelnuts peeled by a squirrel, 200 bags of sugar, 300 bags of oat flour, 90 lime fruits, 90 fruits from the Rainbow Tree and 90 drops of frozen dew. The growth time of coffee beans is 30 seconds, frozen dew has to be collected every 4 hours, all fruits require 6 hours to ripe, and oats need 10 hours to grow. There is also processing time for cups of coffee, peeled hazelnuts and cocktails. In sake of simplicity we don't count this time here, as well as in-game currency expenses and energy limitations for crop collection and processing. Simply put, this stage requires at least 100 hours of clicking and waiting from players, depending on how many means of production they own. Also, the schedule demands returning to the game at least every 6 hours. This stage is followed by three more stages, and in the end the player wins a very rare animal - a gorilla. The developers were only giving 18 days to players to complete the quest, which was just enough for a dedicated player on a higher level of the game. If the player sacrificed his or her sleep and/or paid real money to speed up tasks, he or she could win two gorillas in the end. This reward has high value both in terms of time and resources and as an object of social status.
For what kind of commodities do players pay real money in a free game?
The value of in-game objects is displayed in soft currencies, and the hard currency is required to purchase objects of status and to speed up tasks.
The most frequent offer to spend real money in the game is the offer to finish production earlier than the prescribed time.
The value of products in the in-game economy is derived from working time and often embodied in 'soft' currencies. To the contrary, the prices in hard currency are demand-based. So, there is time-based capital accumulation for non-paying players and demand-based pricing economy for paying players.
Full control over game economy is achieved by separating it from the global, real-world digital economy, where players can be paid for their in-game actions or artifacts.
While the economy of a MMO RPG game is subject to inflations and crises which developers often manage post factum, the economy of a free-to-play game is much like the state-regulated economy of a socialist state. There is clearly a lot of labor, which is perceived as 'fair' by players, but this labor never turns into material capital that might have value outside of the game. The only entity that can profit from this labor is the developer (“the coding authority”), who owns the game and everything in it (another reason why it is free), and the game is designed to work on his or her benefit. On the other hand, unlike many socialist states in the past, players are free to leave the game at any time if they get bored or if they sense ‘unfairness’ in its design. Mass ‘emigration’ of players would be considered both a design and a commercial failure for the developer of a free-to-play game.
The value of products in the in-game economy is derived from working time and often embodied in 'soft' currencies. The prices in hard currency are set by the real-world market and demand-based. Luxury items and extra time are normally sold for ‘hard’ currencies.
This important 'gap' between in-game and real-world economies could make an interesting case for debates on surplus value in real world economies.
Non-paying players live in socialism, and paying players live in capitalism ?
And now, let’s discuss playbor!
In the context of the real world, all work on a farm is free and unpaid, and there is no way to exchange any of its results for any real-world value. These results have neither use nor exchange value outside of the game’s “diegetic space”, so, from the economic perspective, this is not work. If we use Galloway's terminology, growing crops in a farming game is 'laborious play', not labor.
The reflection on playing as non-leisure: Антон Чехов. Детвора.
The Meaning of Time in Casual Farming Games
The Meaning of Time in
Casual Farming Games
European Humanities University
Visual Culture & Creative Industries
Two Viewpoints on Casual
1. Silly people kill time by clicking cows.
(…And they are not even gamers!..)
(…And they are being exploited by greedy and
2. Dedicated players exchange their time for the value they
recognize, as an alternative to spending this time on even
less rewarding (digital) labor.
(…And many of them enjoy it a lot.)
Time vs. Labor vs. Value
Marx: time →labor →value
Lukacs: time →labor→space
“History and Class Consciousness” (1923)
Bourdieu: time →cultural meaning →symbolic value
“The Logic of Practice” (1980)
“Capital is accumulated labor”
“Forms of Capital” (1986)
Player vs. Developer
• Has the right to leave
the game at any
• Judges ‘fairness’ of the
• Chooses between
paying and ‘earning’
• Gains social capital by
working and/or paying
• Constructs engagement
• Controls the progress of
• “Sparks desire”
• Capitalizes on the
gamer’s social capital
• Is doomed by the need
for “endless content”
Games as a Service:
• The player buys
• The player could just pay
someone else to play for
• The player buys “objects
• The player could do
without these objects (but
they are so desirable!..)
• MMO RPGs: open
• There is space for free
• Auction-based (or
• Frequent crises that are
• “Digital sweatshops”
• Free-to-play games:
• Platform limitations: the
player can only buy from
• All prices are set by the
developer, and they are
• Controlled inflation to
monetize the game
• Lesser financial risks on
• The player's time is discrete and quantified, and the
process of its fragmentation turns the player's time into
• There is time-based capital accumulation for non-paying
players and demand-based pricing economy for paying
• “Soft” and “hard’ currencies are an instrument of
estrangement of the player’s labor in favor of the
Play vs. Labor:
Has There Ever Been Any
(Do we still trust Huizinga?)
Feel free to ask me how to exploit
people and take their money :)