Peak Boring Dystopia:
On the Legacy of FarmVille

“Boring dystopia” is a real Mark Fisher sleeper hit — an “anti-Facebook Facebook group”. In Roisin Kiberd’s evergreen report on the group for Vice, she describes what it was used for:

Members shared pictures of an England rarely seen in the meticulously filtered world of social media: mundane, unlovely images of broken machinery and canned Christmas dinners, tattered shop signs and CCTV cameras watching over decaying streets. A short description served as a prompt: “Neoliberal England is a boring dystopia. Here’s why.”

It captured a culturally flattened England, one filled with human drones herded along by automated voices. It was an in-joke, the antithesis to Facebook’s smarm and kneejerk sentiment, operating from within Facebook itself.

It epitomised the closed-loop of our contemporary moment, using that ultimate time-sinker as a platform for raising consciousness about itself. With delicious irony, Mark summarises the group’s argument to Roisin very succinctly and efficiently: “The point is always made that capitalism is efficient, people say ‘You might not like it, but it works.’ But Britain is not efficient. Instead it’s stuck in a form of frenzied stasis.”

It is a classic Fisher paradox, and arguably his personal brand of accelerationism in action — using the addictive, crowd-sourced clickathon mechanisms of Facebook to undermine Facebook itself (and the technologically-underwhelming world it was helping to establish) from within. This was his form of salvagepunk in practice, and it was insanely successful. Far better than the inanity that passes for memetic praxis on Facebook today…

Fast-forward half a decade and The New York Times recently reported that FarmVille, the Facebook farming simulator, was shutting down after it had previously taken the social network by storm a decade earlier.

Truth be told, I have vague stoned memories of clicking away at FarmVille during my first year at university in 2011, but I’d since completely forgotten it existed until New Year’s Eve 2020, when the article by Daniel Victor went live.

Despite the game’s demise, Victor notes, somewhat insidiously, that “FarmVille lives on in the behaviors it instilled in everyday internet users and the growth-hacking techniques it perfected, now baked into virtually every site, service and app vying for your attention.”

A familiar name appears in Victor’s article: Ian Bogost, original member of the 2000s blogosphere, who says that “the behaviors FarmVille normalized had made it a pace car for the internet economy of the 2010s.” Victor continues:

He did not mean that as praise.

The game encouraged people to draw in friends as resources to both themselves and the service they were using, Mr. Bogost said. It gamified attention and encouraged interaction loops in a way that is now being imitated by everything from Instagram to QAnon, he said.

“The internet itself is this bazaar of obsessive worlds where the goal is to bring you back to it in order to do the thing it offers, in order to get your attention and serve ads against it or otherwise derive value from that activity,” he said.

It’s funny that the article goes on to note that FarmVille taught Facebook some “important lessons”. FarmVille, like many other mobile games of its generation, was notorious for how often it would ping you and your friends, trying to get you back onto the game. But not by “promoting a conversation between you and your friends, or encouraging you to spend time together within the game space … It’s really just a mechanic of clicking a button.”

I seldom use Facebook these days. I usually only go on it after my birthday, when people inevitably leave messages on my ghost profile and I don’t want to look like the sort of prick who just ignores genuine well-wishers. But I am always struck by how, when I do go on, there is always at least a dozen notifications waiting for me. They’re usually not about anything explicitly relevant to me — there is an event upcoming in your area (it’s usually not); your friend posted something (that’s cool, I guess) — but there they are, waiting for a click.

I’ve no doubt this experience is near-universal, among regular and sporadic users alike. Point being: FarmVille may be gone, but what does it matter when Facebook is FarmVille.

I wrote about this already last year, after watching the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, which specifically engages with how these FarmVille tactics are used by the far-right to radicalise your kids. The problem with that documentary for me is that it never mentions the elephant in the room, which is capitalism. It talks about all the bad consequences and why we need to change something but it never once skewers the primary reason why these attention-seeking tactics have been developed in the first place — to advertise; to sell your attention; to make money.

The same issue lingers in the background of the NYT article. The question asked, somewhat fleetingly, is: Are these platforms actually making us more social or are they just selling our attention? Conversely: Are these platforms really boredom-alleviators or are they just selling our boredom by perpetuating it with bottomless timelines and endless notifications? The argument is, perhaps, that they’re trying to do both… But they clearly can’t without consequence.

With FarmVille, the analogy basically writes itself. Facebook isn’t a social network, it is a click farm. In 2020, they don’t need the pretense of a boredom-alleviating farming simulator to function effectively. They can cut out the middle man.

Fisher again, on boredom:

The dreary void of Sundays, the night hours after television stopped broadcasting, even the endless dragging minutes waiting in queues or for public transport: for anyone who has a smartphone, this empty time has now been effectively eliminated. In the intensive, 24/7 environment of capitalist cyberspace, the brain is no longer allowed any time to idle; instead, it is inundated with a seamless flow of low-level stimulus.

Yet boredom was ambivalent; it wasn’t simply a negative feeling that one simply wanted rid of. For punk, the vacancy of boredom was a challenge, an injunction and an opportunity: if we are bored, then it is for us to produce something that will fill up the space. Yet, it is through this demand for participation that capitalism has neutralised boredom. Now, rather than imposing a pacifying spectacle on us, capitalist corporations go out of their way to invite us to interact, to generate our own content, to join the debate. There is now neither an excuse nor an opportunity to be bored.

But if the contemporary form of capitalism has extirpated boredom, it has not vanquished the boring. On the contrary — you could argue that the boring is ubiquitous. For the most part, we’ve given up any expectation of being surprised by culture — and that goes for “experimental” culture as much as popular culture. Whether it is music that sounds like it could have come out twenty, thirty, forty years ago, Hollywood blockbusters that recycle and reboot concepts, characters and tropes that were exhausted long ago, or the tired gestures of so much contemporary art, the boring is everywhere. It is just that no one is bored — because there is no longer any subject capable of being bored. For boredom is a state of absorption — a state of high absorption, in fact, which is why it is such an oppressive feeling. Boredom consumes our being; we feel we will never escape it. But it is just this capacity for absorption that is now under attack, as a result of the constant dispersal of attention, which is integral to capitalist cyberspace. If boredom is a form of empty absorption, then more positive forms of absorption effectively counter it. But it is these forms of absorption which capitalism cannot deliver. Instead of absorbing us, it distracts from the boring.

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