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.
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?
- 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. [↩]