Saturday, September 4, 2010

Mathematics and Farming

I'm an addict.  I overplay FarmVille.

I admit it.

It's not my fault.  It's theirs.  The mathematicians and psychologists.

Conspiracy theory time?  Not quite.

Several years ago I read, in the NY Times Magazine, an article about slot machines.  At the time I found it fascinating because my job involved a non-mathematical job in a department that was occupied, other than me, by mathematicians.  I mean hard core mathematicians, the type of people who would describe their breakfast at Denny's and say "my plate was 37% pancakes."  These people wouldn't say goodbye at night because, after all, they would see you again tomorrow. (I'm sure the probability was in their favor.)  I think they never quite understood me, the writer and non-mathematician, but I did earn their respect.  The odds were with me.  I made good brownies.

There are a bunch of CPA jokes out there (some interchangeable with engineer jokes) but in reality, these mathematicians were (almost all) nice people, when you dug beneath the math/nerdiness.   There was the man who roasted his own coffee beans and made highly crafted furniture in his workshop on weekends.  There was the woman who was trying to make a go at it as a single mother and first time homeowner.  And there was the man who used to be a night orderly at a local hospital and still knew a lot of the street people who frequented downtown.

So I read with fascination how mathematicians are involved in the creation of slot machines.  Not the old fashioned three cherries type of slot machine, but the newer electronic slot machines who entertain while they take your money. Mathematicians developed these machines, honing them to a finely tuned point of "give people what they want but just enough to keep them playing and, oh by the way, make us a great profit." while people think all mathematicians do is argue over equations that looked like something Einstein wrote on a blackboard.

Later, I would read about massive multiple player games such as World of Warcraft.  Entire families playing together while their real lives fell apart.  No, not for me, I would never get sucked into one of those things.  I was above it all.  That addiction stuff, that spending 16 hours a day online, that was for other people.

Then along came FarmVille.

Obviously, this game was worked on by both mathematicians and psychologists because it sure does work its addictive magic.  The only thing saving humanity from spending 24/7 on online farming is....their glitchiness.  Better pray it remains glitchy.  Do not get lured into this little farming game, sounds like fun,you will interact with your friends and it's only a few minutes a day.  You will interact and interact and interact and interact and one day you will wake up at 3am and realize your wine is sitting ready for sale and oh, your friend out on the West Coast must have just played and if you sign on NOW you have a chance of getting 3 bushels of carrots from her to make Sake with and you maybe will get a brown chicken egg containing maybe fuel and maybe a wonderful prize but if you wait, her other friends will grab it first and besides, her pig just found a truffle on your farm and....

Goodbye sleep.

So why does FarmVille work?  I've given this a great deal of thought (and not at 3am either).  If I feel like it, one day I will write more.  It works on a number of levels and if you like psychology, you will love the insides of FarmVille.

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