Social Games and the Pastoral

When I hear the term “pastoral”, my mind immediately jumps to Vergil’s Georgics or maybe Daphnis and Chloe. It’s a peaceful, idyllic setting where the concerns of politics and the city are far away. The music of shepherds’ lutes and birds’ chatter fills the air while a soft breeze carries the scent of wildflowers from the nearby meadow. The sun reflects off the glass surface of the lake and sheep pasture closeby.

Our modern time may be quite different than it was then but there is still the keen desire to escape the concerns of the “real world”. Our Rome is just as busy, just as stressful, just as demanding as ever it was. Peace is not as distant as it was perhaps, but rarely does it stay long in our souls.

Out of all the many games on the Facebook platform, Farmville alone has claimed numbers reaching above 70 million. It is not a pretty game by any definition I don’t think, nor is it complex. Its mechanics are accessible and its ideas common. In the US where agriculture as a profession has fallen ~70% in the last 140 years, is it no wonder that so many idealize the life of their forebears? Surely, one may think, it was better in those times when one simply hoed, and planted, and watered, and harvested. Tend the animals, weed the crops, prune the vines. No hustling and bustling, just the sweet rhythm of hoe/plant/water.

Most of us realize that life, in fact, wasn’t just a peaceful utopia then. It was hard. I remember reading the Little House on the Prairie books as a child and thinking I would never want to be her. Thank you very much for my computer and A/C , I’d like to keep them. Even so, the thought of no deadlines, no emails, and no facebook sounds just a tad enticing…for a moment.

Metaplace’s My Vineyard I think does an even better job of creating a pastoral setting. Even the music in that game is relaxing. Sadly, it hasn’t had the time or marketing that Farmville has had, and I’m not sure it actually is different enough to be a success, yet it illustrates the same thematic concerns.  Other games have recently also tried to capture this peaceful kind of utopia, but through a desert island.

A desert island is quite similar to the pastoral setting of agriculture. It isn’t actually all peace and pretty. If you were actually alone on a desert island, not getting killed by raptors and perhaps finding some food would be your main concern, not completing a collection of Renaissance paintings. (I here reference Zynga’s Treasure Isle). And yet, suspension of disbelief is no struggle in this game either. Millions again are happy to click around, digging up treasure and decorating their personal island with seashells and baby (vegetarian) jaguars.

It doesn’t really make me happy that Zynga is our culture’s Vergil, but perhaps it’s telling. Actually, I’d more like to compare Zynga to Cicero’s failed attempts at poetry since they are equally as artful.

It’s also somewhat ironic that our window to the ideal is through that very thing we are trying to escape – modern technology. Just as the readers/listeners of Vergil’s Georgics were going to be elites far from the world of shepherds and sheep, so are the people playing Farmville likely quite far from the world of the constant woes of real farmlife.

This ideal is just one of many which games help us to realize, if only temporarily, a wish we have that our modern society and/or lifestyle is unable to fulfill. I also think that many fantasy MMOs play off another such wish, the need and desire for prestige and honor among modern people who live in a world with few opportunities to be heroic. They also provide opportunities to be useful to a community by plying a trade, opportunities to be a social leader, build/decorate dream houses, have a beautiful face, fantastic wardrobes, etc. The pastoral is really just another manifestation of fantasy where people can create something they wish they had in real life – quotidian peace. I sincerely hope the next iteration of the pastoral is closer to Vergil than Cicero’s poetic drivel.

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