Falling Into a Happy Aquarium

I am a reluctant Facebook user in the first place. When I started to see notices about cows in Bermuda shorts wandering onto my friends’ farms, I simply could not fathom why it would be fun to have a second job as an owner of an imaginary family farm. Perhaps I’ve known too many real, live bovine. Perhaps I’ve played too many MMOGs where farming is a highly evolved form of torture. At any rate, I was baffled. I’m a game designer by trade, but I could not imagine what was so fun about FarmVille.


But as much as I tried to ignore it, game developers I know and respect were soon being hired to build Facebook games. Everyone wanted to build the next FarmVille. It was huge, I was told. It was revolutionary. It was social. I was suspicious and stubborn. Nothing could make me suffer through FarmVille.

Then one day I saw an ad in Facebook’s side rail that said I could adopt an adorable octopus for my aquarium in a game called Happy Aquarium. Now, not only is that an adorable title for a game, but the art managed to depict a truly charming octopus. That’s not something you can say about many invertebrates. I was intrigued. I did a quick look over my shoulder to make sure no one was looking, and I clicked on the link.

Within minutes, I was hooked (bad pun intended) on this twee little aquarium simulation. The baby fishies were so cute I just wanted to pinch their fat wittle cheeks. And when you “sell” them, they don’t go to a store or another aquarium. Oh, no. You set them free into the ocean. For money. Somehow. I don’t care. I am completely addicted to this Facebook game, I confess.

When I came up for air (see, these puns just get better and better) the game designer in me had to figure out what happened – how could I so enjoy this repellent genre? Was it clever mechanics? No. Great writing? No. Darling art? Maybe a little bit.

See, I have another embarrassing confession to make. I’m one of those people who pays actual money for aquarium-themed screensavers. Even my smartphone currently sports an animated aquarium wallpaper where I can feed the fish with a double-tap. In real life, I’ve killed plenty of water-breathers and I even had plans and supplies (but no time, sadly) to turn an old CRT monitor into a fish tank. I’m a bit of a fin fan.

So this “social game” (I still have no friends in Happy Aquarium) captured my interest because it locked in on something I already enjoyed. Happy Aquarium understood and maintained the heart of what makes aquarium simulations entertaining for those of us afflicted by the curse of enjoying them: The fish were pretty, changed gradually as they grew up, didn’t die from overfeeding, and would lay their own eggs when conditions were right. All the cool stuff from real life, without the penalties for mistakes. I’m not de-populating coral reefs with my hobby; I’m reinvigorating the depleted clownfish numbers. I think the technical term for this is “easy fun.” (Seriously. It’s a technical term. Look it up.)

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I had to admit that Facebook games could be fun. But FarmVille? Really? I plant pretty flowers in my back yard (and forget to water them, so they die), but I have no interest in owning a small farm or playing farm simulations. Tractors do not appeal to me. And yet … a massive audience was enjoying this game and telling the world about it.


I had to bite the bullet and play the game. It was my duty as a game designer.

So I now have a flower and fruit tree farm in FarmVille. And here’s my truly shocking confession – I have quite a bit of fun there. No, I wasn’t brainwashed. Game design principles and human nature provide some perfectly sensible reasons Farmville and other Facebook games work as well as they do.

To realize that, I had to let go of some of my preconceived ideas. For instance, just because MMOGs hadn’t figured out how to make farming fun for me didn’t mean that nobody could. FarmVille managed to make the mechanic of waiting for crops to grow into something more interesting than being held hostage by a boring progress bar. The crops change over time – the art goes from seeds to seedlings to mature plants, and crops like grapes are staked up like a vineyard, rather than being identical to, say, wheat.

FarmVille and other Facebook games use the passage of time and the rhythm of frequent absences and returns (the way people naturally use Facebook already) to reward players who keep track of when they need to harvest crops.

Other rewards throughout the more advanced Facebook games use the classic pull-the-lever-and-see-what-I-won mechanic so popular in slot machines. I like to think of it as the “click-surprise!” mechanic. (That’s my own technical term. Feel free to start using it in game design lectures.) The “mystery box” or “mystery gift” is frequently passed back and forth between friends. I now have a chicken that lays “mystery eggs” in FarmVille. I never know what I’ll get when I open one of these.

In another of my favorite Facebook games, Birdland, I can breed birds and never be entirely sure what the offspring will look like. I’m often pleasantly surprised. They’ve made the unpredictability of genetics into an intriguing (for me) game mechanic.

Other not-so-revolutionary elements make Facebook games fun as well. Another key to making Facebook games fun is surprisingly good AI. In Happy Aquarium, I get a kick out of watching these adorable cartoon fish behave like real fish – schooling, circling, mobbing the food. In FarmVille, my avatar navigates a complicated landscape with ease. This is neither trivial to implement nor unimportant to gameplay. Being annoyed when I’m trying to get my reward kills the fun super fast.

Speaking of artificial intelligence, computers hold a special place in our nightmares. Now, whether or not the robot revolution is really coming, humans love power fantasies. We like displaying our power, experiencing power over other things, and getting more power. We especially love power over mysterious things like technology. Good games let us feel like we’re effecting meaningful change on a computer. We want to be the clever one in the equation. FarmVille does an excellent job of building up the player’s ego and sense of empowerment. It may be called FarmVille, but you can purchase a tiny little Swiss Bank if you have enough cash (in game or otherwise).


FarmVille then lets you display to all your friends how powerful and clever you are. It gives comforting feedback convincing you that you’re the one making the decisions on your little plot of land, making you feel like the robot-monster overlord and king of the world. Awesome.

But if you ask the business development guys, they’ll tell you the genius of these games is in the social aspects. That’s why they’re different, right? They’re web Two Point Oh. Shiny. If they want to sound smart, they throw around terms like “the politics of gifting.” I’m skeptical. The politics of gifting are unpredictably affected by microculture, family tradition, and I don’t know – maybe even birth order. In my opinion, they’re too inconsistent to be a real game mechanic.

However, this doesn’t mean that I think the social connections on Facebook have no impact on how the game is fun. I don’t know how seriously people take “levels” in FarmVille. I’m not nearly as hardcore on that game as some people I know. But I can tell you there was a 4th of July tank decorating contest in Happy Aquarium and fun was had by all. The winner decked out the bottom of her tank with the image of an American flag sketched with red, white and blue coral. The fish were all color-coordinated too. This kind of competition among friends is at the heart of all games. Facebook makes it easy.

There are other kinds of social interaction mediated by Facebook games. Have a cousin you haven’t spoken to in twenty years friend you on Facebook? Gift him a rabbit or a board or a brick or something. It’s a nice gesture, requires no drastic action, and will give you something to talk about at the next family reunion. Works for awkward high-school friendships, too. Much better than Facebook’s original “poke.”

Similarly, a coworker of mine described herself as a responsible friend on Facebook games (as she was trying to convince me to start yet another game addiction). The concept of being a “responsible friend” intrigued me more than TikiFarm did. I had never thought of dividing my friends into responsible ones and irresponsible ones. However, I had appreciated those who came and fertilized my crops and sent them thank you gifts. I just hadn’t had any unpleasant thoughts about friends who don’t help out on my farm. It’s another way to show off, I suppose. Hey look! I’m responsive and considerate! Humans, as a rule, love to show off any positive attribute.


Some Facebook games have taken the satisfaction of being a responsible friend one step further. You can now be a responsible friend of the planet (and show that off too). Currently, you can buy a sea turtle in FishVille and Zynga will make a donation to the Audubon Society to help clean up the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. (Happy Aquarium and Birdland recently finished a similar campaign to donate to the National Wildlife Federation for the same purpose; Facebook games replicate good ideas from competitors at lightning speed.) We feel good about donating to a good cause – and sometimes we enjoy displaying to our friends how awesome we are. Facebook once again makes it easy, letting you post to all your friends about the good deed you’ve done. Combining a relevant social network with an achievement that you can crow about is intoxicating.

Ultimately, there’s one key fun thing FarmVille and other Facebook games have adopted from The Sims – something that makes them truly “social games” in my opinion. A thought-bubble over a character or object shows you what you need to do to change a frowny face to a happy face. And when we manage that particular transformation, we feel all kinds of instinctive satisfaction. Humans love smiles at a subconscious level. Smiles are the inherent reward in successful social interaction – both the result and the instigation of fun in the real world. And in many online social games, including FarmVille, we are constantly rewarded with tiny smiles. The avatars of our friends smile and dance. Little animated dogs smile. Fish smile. Stupid wandering sad lost cows will smile if given a home. Even the act of harvesting crops makes a trilling little laughing sound.

Ultimately, that’s what’s so fun about FarmVille and other Facebook games. They give us all the traditional rewards and incentives, plus new social rewards in otherwise messy social interactions. Through playing social games like FarmVille, we earn animated smiles with just a few well-placed clicks and some patience. And that’s why they’re fun for so many people.

Wendy Despain is a freelance game writer and designer currently serving as temporary Advisor in Residence at Full Sail University. She volunteers on the board of directors for the IGDA and takes contracts adding fun to all kinds of games. Even Facebook games.

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