Business Today

Farm scam?

Why is a virtual farming game all the rage? And is it really free?

Kushan Mitra        Print Edition: December 13, 2009

In a long line of productivity diminishing games, FarmVille, a game on Facebook, is quickly reaching the hallowed status of Solitaire and Minesweeper. It may not be there yet, but judging by the frequency with which one's Facebook news feed gets populated with FarmVille updates, it may be the most effective productivity destroyer in a long time.

But what is the reason behind the success of FarmVille? Particularly among a population of urban Indians for whom "farm" means a place to hold a party. To a proper simulation game fan, FarmVille is unimaginative and easy to play. But it is that very ease of play, coupled with the fact that it is free and easily accessible on Facebook, where one can compete with "neighbours", that explains the game's success. Its success can be gauged by the fact that the game's users in India went up in arms to force Zynga, the game developer, to include the Indian flag in the game.

Games are big business. How big? The game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (MW2) grossed $300 million (Rs 1,440 crore) on its first day of sales in the US alone. The record for a Hollywood movie is $158 million (Rs 758 crore) for The Dark Knight. But games like MW2 cost money, in India upwards of Rs 2,500 on the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3, and the consoles themselves at around Rs 20,000 are not cheap. So, free games on the Internet, unsurprisingly, make up the bulk of the market for games in India.

Yet, is FarmVille really free? Not quite. With real cash, and thanks to the wonders of international credit cards, you can spend a lot of money making your farm the biggest and the best in the neighbourhood. It might seem bizarre that people would spend real money to improve a virtual farm, though no one at Zynga is complaining.

But recently, influential technology journalist Michael Arrington blasted both Zynga and Facebook in a post on his TechCrunch blog titled ScamVille, where he pointed out that the companies actually made money by tempting users to sign up for services that they were not aware of, usually premium SMS or "educational" DVDs, through "in-game" advertising. The adverts promise free FarmVille money and lured by the possibility of improving their cowshed or homes, people signed up only to realise that they had done so for a service that they did not want. Zynga made money from the ads and they gave Facebook money by advertising on the site and sharing the ad proceeds. Both Zynga and Facebook have promised to act against the "scam" adverts now.

Indian users have not been a victim of scam adverts on FarmVille yet, but if the alarming rate with which people are conned by e-mails promising free money is any indication, India is a country rich for scammers to exploit. Game developers are hardly altruistic since games cost money to develop and hosting them online costs even more money. Games that promise "free gameplay" usually have a catch or involve a download, which may or may not be kosher.

Free is nice, but is not always safe. Enjoy it while it lasts. Just like you surf the Internet with caution, tread carefully while playing games online as well.

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