Newsweek: You’re Trying Too Hard

Happy Farm

Everyone loves Happy Farm, or one of the many variations of it. But just why is this, a simple game about farming land, so popular in China? Newsweek’s Isaac Stone Fish (awesome name) takes a good question, but in his drive for an interesting answer, takes it about 5 steps too far. Observe:

The game’s success reflects a deep and growing nostalgia for China’s traditional agrarian way of life. Over the last 30 years, 225 million Chinese peasants have flooded the cities in search of better jobs and a higher standard of living. The result has been massive economic growth and the building of skyscrapers and infrastructure at a blistering pace. Cities spring out of nowhere, and social networking games like Happy Farmer have become a tangible reminder of the sense of community that many migrants believe has been lost. Such is the isolation among China’s urban population that in 2008 MTV did an Asia-wide study and discovered that China was the only country in the region where people claimed to have more friends online than off.

OK, the “more-friends-online-than-off” bit does help explain why Happy Farm — a social game played with friends via the internet — is so popular, but “a deep and growing nostalgia for China’s traditional agrarian way of life”? Really? The history is accurate, but I’m not really seeing any smoking-gun evidence of a connection to the game Happy Farm. Let’s see where you’re going with this, Isaac:

The game also taps into concerns among many members of the urban middle class that economic growth has far outpaced the country’s environmental standards. Poor air and food quality are both major concerns, and Happy Farmer reflects a wistfulness for a rural China that at least in the romantic image does not suffer from such problems. Then there are the lingering effects of the Cultural Revolution, during which Chairman Mao banished millions of educated urban youths to farming villages while exalting the lives of the peasantry. Despite the hardships and atrocities of Mao’s rule, many of those who grew up in and survived that era, and lived through China’s transition from Maoism to its complex amalgam of “capitalism with Chinese characteristics,” still occasionally pine for what they perceive to be a much simpler time. Some of their city-dwelling children, now adults with kids of their own, also romanticize this period, when rural peasants were considered the most prestigious class because they embodied Mao’s supposed egalitarianism.

Again, solid history, but are the millions of Chinese playing Happy Farm really doing it because they’re super-nostalgic for the good old days of Mao and working in backyard iron foundries, er, fighting rival Red Guards, um, collective farming? Don’t get me wrong, I know there’s plenty of Mao-era nostalgia. I’ve even been to one of the many restaurants that recreates the atmosphere of the Cultural Revolution by serving you terrible food while faux-Red Guards shout slogans in megaphones and sing terrible, terrible songs while you poke the food in a circle around your plate with chopsticks eat. I just don’t see any real evidence there’s any connection between Mao nostalgia and Happy Farm. After all, aren’t most of the people playing this game too young to have ever experienced farm life, Mao, or being a “sent-down youth”?

I happen to know some rural migrants in a Chinese city who understand the farming life well — they grew up with it. They also play Happy Farm, but based on the things they’ve said to me, it sure as hell isn’t because they want to go back to the farm. It’s just fun.1

OK, yes, some people have taken up gardening, but again, where’s the evidence that has anything to do with nostalgia? Shouldn’t they have actually asked a Chinese person why they play Happy Farm? That seems like a better plan than vague conjecture based on what seems to be mostly hearsay about a rise in urban gardening.

There are no statistics on the size of the game’s spillover effect. But one thing is clear: China’s peasants are migrating to the cities in search of a better life—while a growing urban middle class is looking back toward its roots.

Ah, the good old days!

Yes, but is Happy Farm really a part of that roots-looking? We’re at the end of the article now, and you haven’t shown us any real evidence of the connection between Happy Farm and nostalgia for the rural life, other than the fact that Happy Farm has a farm in it. But Chinese netizens also play World of Warcraft in huge numbers, and Warcraft 3 is even more popular. Does that mean Chinese youth are nostalgic for the days when humans and orcs battled (before their world was invaded by the undead, and then later, I think there were elves or something)?

Look, I’m all for drawing interesting historical connections, and there might even be something to this, but sans any evidence, I’m gonna have to stamp this as a case of “you’re trying too hard”.

Of course, we still haven’t answered the question “why is Happy Farm so popular?”. It could be some deep-rooted historical thing, sure, but how about “it’s a fun, addictive game that you can play with your friends”? I don’t see anyone writing articles about how the game’s popularity in the States is due to American youths’ desire to return to the farms of yesteryear. I appreciate that China has been around a long time, and to some extent everything is interconnected, but I think this one might just be a case of “simple, fun game” and not so much “totally unsubstantiated theory about nostalgia for the rural life”.

Thoughts? Am I totally off-base here or is this another example of people trying to assign deeper significance to every trend that pops up in the Chinese mainstream?

  1. The cleverer among you will have noticed that this is also vague conjecture based on hearsay, but that’s why I’m not writing a Newsweek article based on it, I’m just using it to poke a hole in someone else’s Newsweek article. Plus, at least I actually talked to someone Chinese about why they play Happy Farm. []


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  1. CT

    Yeah, sounds like a pundit needed something to write about, and China’s always a good topic since most American’s know little about the country anyway. My wife played the game for a month or two, then got bored. She was never a farmer. The fun had to do with stealing other people’s crops and livestock, not nostalgia.

    (She was never a thief either, by the way, just in case a journalist concludes she missed her life in crime.)

  2. Given the lack of Fish’s evidence, the certainty he has in his final bit comes off as comical:

    “But one thing is clear: China’s peasants are migrating to the cities in search of a better life—while a growing urban middle class is looking back toward its roots.”


    He spends most of the article connecting different products in China that involve plants and then proceeds to connect them to farmer nostalgia.

    That’s like saying everyone who drives an electric car longs for the days before gasoline vehicles …

    … I just got a great idea for the next blog post!

  3. Great post, Custer!

    I think we can say with a certain degree of confidence that Mr. Stone Fish had a vaguely plausible idea, realised it was a little ridiculous and probably not true, but went with it anyway…kind of like most university essays, really.

    However, I wouldn’t say that to his face…he’s mean-lookin’…

  4. krdr

    If you interested, here’s a video from speech given at this year DICE conference, which deals with success of FB games and psychology behind:

    and here:

    Happy Farm adds one level more. If he want to succeed, gamer should spend lot of time, just to prevent “stealing” of “wheat”.

  5. B-real

    Is this a joke. This game is pop everywhere. I have retarded friends on face book who play this game in their sleep, on their mobile phones, at office at work. I personal don’t understand it but i guess its good fun for wasting time. Its just plain ole good entertainment and stimulation for the idle minds and its free on top of everything else. I think there is no direct link to farmers and their history. For once I can say this is not a Chinese phenomenon.

  6. No, no, no. Fish has hit it on the money. But he missed one key aspect of the game: stealing the fruits of other people’s labor.

    Yes, stealing others’ hard-earned fruits, vegetables and flowers is reminiscent of China’s “Hundred Years of Humiliation” when the West came over and pillaged and raped China for all it was worth.

    By stealing others’ crops in Happy Farm, the Chinese are re-enacting this period, and through their thievery reliving the embarrassment of being poor farmers without a way to defend themselves all over again.

  7. Jones

    I’m from a farming family, and I freaking hate plants. Well, I hate growing and taking care of them, at least. I even hate mowing them down. Burning? Well, I can’t really say I hate that so much, but those are dead plants. There is one that I do particularly enjoy burning in a pipe. I like it so much that I even inhale the smoke.

    This guy was just desperately needing an article, probably with just a few hours until deadline. It’s written in the same style I wrote in high school writing classes. Pure bullshit that, to the untrained eye, would look like I knew what I was talking about with my loosely connected points.

  8. Cowie

    Following this logic, I’m pretty sure all of FarmVille’s 80 million+ users are also hoping to return to a simpler time in China’s history. Boy are they going to be pissed when they finally go to China to return to someone else’s agrarian roots and find out they can’t access Facebook.

  9. Two things I do not understand:

    1. Why does anyone want to “twit” about what they are doing at a given moment? I mean…it can’t wait till you write a blog post? It can’t wait for you to tell the story over drinks?

    2. Why would anyone think a farming simulation is fun? Where is the blood? Where is the BFG? Where is the feeling that one gets after leading your civilization to conquer all others? Therefore, what’s the point?

  10. yeah, you’re right. But it seems like this article was cribbed from something I read on the internet six months ago, maybe more. It’s just an example of people orientalizing things.

  11. Dave

    Wow, maybe I missed it but you didn’t slam Christianity in this article. I’m proud of you :)

    • Uh…what? I think you have me confused with someone else. When did I ever “slam Christianity” in any article?

    • Ah…are you referring to the article I wrote on porn. Because I don’t think that discrediting Christian scientific studies is the same thing as “slamming Christianity”. I have nothing against Christianity, but science conducted by an overtly religious organization with religious goals is problematic because of the connection between religion and faith.