The plantin’, the feedin’, the critters, the fingerprints on your computer screen, the Web cheats… Ah, life in Farmville

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There should be a rooster crowing every morning to rouse Denise Mathieu from sleep. There is much work to do, after all, and only the hours between sunrise and sunset to get it done.

Nobody said farming was easy.

“I have to harvest my crops or they’re going to wither,” the 43-year-old Lewiston woman says. “I have to hurry up and plow everything so I can seed. That’s what you do when you get up in the morning. You go check your farm.”

Welcome to Farmville, population around 83 million.

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In the world today are two distinct groups of people. Those who farm and those left with the nagging question: “What the hell is Farmville?”

It is this: a real-time simulation game played online through the social networking Web site Facebook. It’s a virtual world where members maintain their own farms by planting, growing, harvesting and raising livestock. All that back-breaking work confined to the 17-inch acreage of a computer screen.

Good luck ignoring the hardworking folks of Farmville. At last count, 20 percent of Facebook users – a full 1 percent of the world’s population – had a Farmville account.

The game is based around the real world economy. Items like seeds, trees, animals, buildings, decorations, vehicles and land are bought with farm coins, the generic moolah of Farmville. That money is earned by selling crops. A player can also earn farm cash at a rate of $1 per experience level.

Or he can say the heck with it and buy Farmville dough from Zynga, the company behind the game. By forking over $40 with a real-world credit card, a player can get 240 Farmville cash units in his virtual bank. That’s not chump change in this world. But while going that route is not technically cheating, many in Farmville consider it at best, lazy.

Especially those who have earned their loot the hard way.

“I’m rich,” declares C.J. Tolini, a retired jeweler and Mathieu’s mom. “I have $2 million in my account. I can buy anything I want.”

Farmville money, that is. And while non-Farmville rubes might scoff at the idea of make-believe currency, down on the farm, C.J. can buy and sell your sorry butt.

And to think one day, she scoffed at the idea of dabbling in such play. Scoffed, that is, until she found herself with extra hours to kill and a spirit that was restless and antsy.

“I quit smoking. It was awful,” she says. “I’m a housework freak, but there’s only so much you can do.”

So she started planting a little bit. A few raspberries here, a watermelon or two there. She picked up the pace and branched out. The next thing you know, C.J. is a millionaire.  She’s got the virtual mansion and other bling to prove it.

“I work very hard on my farm,” she says. “When I get something done around the house, my reward used to be cigarettes. Now it’s Farmville.”

I’m just going to play for 10 minutes more

Farmville is not a place without controversy. To non-players, it is a frequent nuisance, what with fanatical Farmville residents crowing about their crops — or worse, begging like dogs for goods and services.

Others see dangers that are much like addiction, with the same associated risks. Those risks?

“That large chunks of your life disappear online,” says Professor Richard Heeks, director at the Centre for Development Informatics in the United Kingdom. “If you were going to spend that time instead curing cancer, that’s a big loss. If you were going to spend that time sitting on the couch eating Cheerios from the box, watching re-runs of “Friends,” maybe not such a big loss.”

Heeks has written much about the phenomenon of online gaming, specifically on the issue of gold farming (where game goods are gathered and sold for real-world money) in developing countries. Farmville, Mafia Wars and World of Warcraft are the big ones. And these games are not just for kids anymore.

The demographics of online play, Heeks says, is “more mixed than most people would imagine. Skewed toward the younger and male, gaming overall has a very large number of older and female participants, particularly with the advent of less aggressive and more collaborative games, of which Farmville is an example.”

Chances are good, in other words, that it’s Gramma hogging the computer instead of the surly teenager.

At the Tolini household, C.J. says she does not blow off family functions to play Farmville. She doesn’t skip weddings or funerals to tend her virtual crops. She has her priorities straight. It just takes a little forethought.

“We’re going on vacation soon,” C.J. says. “You have to plan for that. I’m going to plant red wheat because that takes three days to grow.”

There are anecdotes about interactive games tearing families apart. But Tolini has not forgotten about her wonderful and slyly handsome husband, Ron. Even if the weasel isn’t completely sold on Farmville, himself.

“When I get up in the morning, I go to work,” said Ron, a pharmacist. “I have a real job.”

Ron admits that he dabbles in Farmville once in a while. When there is absolutely nothing better to do. But it does astound him some to see perfectly bright and healthy people eschewing outdoor fun in favor of the online thrill of farming.

“I’m firmly convinced,” he says, “that this is some alien plot to keep us all inside.”

Leave the gun, take the cannolis

That threat aside, the crop-tending, barn-raising, seed-burying joys of Farmville seem mild – almost comically so – relative to other real-time games where violence and treachery is the way to the top.

In Mafia Wars, the goal is to build a criminal empire through robbery, thievery or “icing” other players. For some, that is a much greater buzz than dropping seeds into the ground.

“I can’t see myself going in there just to plant a crop,” says 41-year-old Ira Bittues, a Lewiston man who much prefers Mafia Wars, where the work is a different kind of dirty. “One of the jobs I’m on right now is to start a war between two groups.”

In Mafia Wars, players do their criminal deeds in virtual New York with opportunities to travel to places like Moscow, Cuba or Bangkok. One 38-year-old player from Auburn, who goes by his Mafia name, Don Bernard, says he was turned off by some of the assignments he found himself facing.

“I tried it up until I had to buy Africans in Cuba to complete jobs, and I couldn’t get past the moral issues, so I stopped playing,” Bernard says. “But somehow I didn’t have a problem committing fake crimes in New York.”

There are no worries about such ethical conflicts in Farmville, where a soul does an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. C.J. Tolini found something to replace the void left when she gave up those nasty smokes. Some folks might even make friends or learn a little about hard-headed economics in the cash-and-carry world of Farmville.

Where’s the harm in that?

“The stereotype is to worry about the young,” says Heeks, the professor. “But my observation would be that gaming is the social currency of friendship, especially among male teenagers. And the kinds of social and other skills that gaming teaches will be part of our wider lives in the future. I would like to see a greater role for ‘serious games,’ those that have a deeper purpose.”

As for Mathieu, she’d love to stay and talk about this all day long. But who has the time with all that harvesting to do and all those critters that need attention? Denise has got to be on her way before her Farmville pets disown her.

“I just got a dog,” she says. “He’s going to run away if I don’t feed him.”

In addition to paying real money for Farmville cash, there are other shortcuts to pimp out your acreage in record time.

Search the World Wide Web and you will find no end to guides on Farmville cheats. The pages area is filled with various ways to manipulate your crops or other elements of the game to your benefit.

Then there are Farmville bots, programs you can buy that will automatically harvest, plow and seed your farm, collect produce from animals and harvest trees. For a fee, the bot programs will do all the work for you so you don’t have to sit in front of a computer all day.

Which seems kind of ridiculous to the Farmville purists. At best, they say, bots and cheats are outright lazy.

“I mean, come on,” says Joyce Whitehouse, Sabattus mother of a teenage son. “This is supposed to be entertainment.”

According to the unofficial rule of the Farmville code, anything that goes on a farm should be earned with honest work, not a credit card.

“There are things that I’ll look at and I’ll think, hey, that would look good on my farm. Then I’ll see that it has a price tag of $65 and I’ll say forget it. I won’t do anything that costs real money, but I know plenty of people who do,” says Whitehouse.

In addition to marathon planting and harvesting, a Farmviller can earn coin and experience points by helping friends with their farms.

That’s just being old-fashioned neighborly, right there.

“You can go out and fertilize their crops or tend to their chickens for them,” Whitehouse says. “You work your way up.”

Some titles on Amazon:

• Farmville: The Experts Secrets Game and Strategy Guide

• Farmville Tips and Cheats

• The Ultimate Farmville Tips and Tricks Guide

• Facebook Farmville Guide: How to quickly gain Experience, Cash: where to find Software for Farming

• Farmville Secrets: Best Kept Secrets Revealed

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