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AUDIE CORNISH, host:

A new poll out this week says 20 percent of Americans, that's 56 million people, have played a game on social networks like Facebook in the last three months. Now, most people play for free. But enough of them play with real money for virtual property.

Now these games generated $725 million in revenue last year. Maybe the most popular of these games is called Farmville. We asked a few players for their stories and these aren't what you usually think of as gamers.

Ms. LEIGH FRANSEN: My name is Leigh Fransen. I am from Fort Mill, South Carolina. My grandmother-in-law, she is 83 years old. She wears thick glasses. She has curly gray hair. I think she's about four years widowed now, lives with my mother-in-law. My mother-in-law was recently returning from a trip out of town. As soon as she got home, my grandmother-in-law comes out in the back porch to meet her and she's very upset. She's distraught and she says, well, my dog is in the pound. And my mother-in-law says, what do you mean your dog's in the pound? She thought for a minute she was talking about her Boston terrier. And she says, no, my dog on Farmville.

(Soundbite of dog barking)

My dog has been thrown in the pound.

(Soundbite of music)

You've got to go to the store, and you've got to buy farm dollars for me. The obvious answer was to drive 30 miles to Target, buy the card for $30 and turn around and drive back home that very night so she could get her dog out of the pound.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) I got the farmland blues, I got the farmland blues right now.

Mr. TERRY GARRIDO: Hi, my name is Terry Garrido.

Mr. DON WRIGHT: I'm Don Wright.

Ms. KERRY BARJAY(ph): My name is Kerry Barjay. I live in Birmingham, Alabama.

Mr. WRIGHT: Ostrander, Ohio.

Mr. GARRIDO: Issaquah, Washington with a couple of my kids and a big dog and a garden, and life is great.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. BARJAY: The game make you interact with other...

Mr. WRIGHT: People that I haven't talked to in 35 years.

Ms. BARJAY: From all over the country.

Mr. GARRIDO: Two hundred people that you haven't talked to in 20 plus years, kind of a trip. My girl is 7 years old. She plays a number of the games that I play. We'll be back to back or next to each other on PCs playing these Farmville games, and she has learned a tremendous amount. There's a commerce aspect; a growing time and a harvesting. And we don't spend very much time on it, so it's not like we're spending three hours in front of a computer. But every couple of days, she says, let's check the farm and see what's going on.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. BARJAY: A girl from Egypt that comes to mind. We've talked about politics and it's really interesting because in her real life, she's afraid to talk about politics. But I mean, I've reached mutual respect and understanding with her and learn things from her in ways that, you know, I never would have expected from the game.

Mr. WRIGHT: It's not a tremendous amount of money. I think I'm into them for less than $100 at this point. As time goes on, I'm sure they'll get more of my cash. I don't smoke, so - a lot of people waste their money on cigarettes. But if it's something that brings them pleasure then, you know, who am I to judge?

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) I got the farmland blues right now.

CORNISH: Still, you got to ask, is it odd to spend real money on virtual tomato seeds or a dog in a virtual pound, or is their value no different than a movie ticket or an entertaining book?

Mr. CLIVE THOMPSON (Technology Writer, Wired; New York Times Magazine): Or a diamond, you know? I mean, most of the diamond's value isn't in the diamond. It's what we think of diamonds, right?

CORNISH: That's Clive Thompson. He is a technology writer for Wired and the New York Times magazine.

Mr. THOMPSON: If you spend a lot of time in online games, the awesomeness of your farm, the awesomeness of the rare things you've got is exactly like a diamond because that's where your friends see it.

CORNISH: We should point out that a vast majority of players do not spend real money to play games like Farmville, only about 10 percent do. And I asked Clive Thompson how that works as a business model.

Mr. THOMPSON: If you got millions and millions of people playing, you only need to shave off, you know, 10 percent of those who are going to throw 50 bucks out, you know, a month and suddenly you've got $50 million a month coming in.

CORNISH: How is this different from traditional gaming? You know, there's been the Sims around forever and this sort of massive online player communities where there have been marketplaces of one kind or another. So what is different? What's changing?

Mr. THOMPSON: Well, the reason why this has gone so huge is that Facebook has this massive user base of people that are totally avid and are hooked up with all their friends, and this gives them something to do while they're on Facebook that's also social, because you can actually do better by helping other friends. So they sort of get you on side with making it viral because you sort of strong-arm your friends who aren't playing Farmville into playing Farmville. So it's very - it's very well designed. You get a lot people addicted.

CORNISH: And the idea is to - is it to make yourself better as a player?

Mr. THOMPSON: Well, they're sort of into the logic of games like this. His multiplayer games is, they give you something very simple to do and it can be just sort of a fun way to wile away some time when you're at work, you need 15 minutes just to not think about anything. And this is - this gets your mind off everything else. The same reason people play Tetris and all those different things.

But what makes this different from, you know, just sort of zoning out for 15 minutes of Tetris is that, you know, the more you play, the more experience you accrue, the more gifts you can give to friends. So it starts, sort of building on itself. That's what results in the sort of, you know, 3:00 a.m., oh, my goodness, I've been playing Farmville for seven hours, how did this happen phenomenon that has been around for a long time in virtual world games where people get very addicted to these very simple things that slowly build up your power or your prestige or your money or whatever. And time really slips away.

CORNISH: And this sort of shadow economy that's building in the gaming world. I mean, it's estimated that it's up to a year in the U.S. alone. Is this a serious economic model for the future?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMPSON: Well, you know, a lot of people have wondered about that, ranging from economists to tax authorities. Because you know, think about it from the IRS' point of view. If someone is inside a game, and they build up tens of thousands or millions of gold pieces, and those gold pieces can be sold to someone else for, you know, a couple thousand dollars, haven't they effectively just done something, like a wage-earning activity that ought to be taxed, you know?

And so, the IRS sort of wondered about this stuff. Now, they haven't actually really come down on either side of it very heavily because the stakes aren't yet big enough. But one can imagine a period in the future when enough people are doing things like this that is really worth something in the inside world that, you know, tax authorities start going, you know, we want a piece of this. This is an active discussion amongst economists who follow virtual economies.

CORNISH: That's Clive Thompson, a technology writer for Wired and the New York Times magazine. He joined us from our NPR bureau in New York City.

Clive Thompson, thank you.

Mr. THOMPSON: No problem.

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