SIN OF THE MONTH—
As everyone knows, the Internet can be a tremendous waste of time. So when my friend Rachel sent me an invitation via Facebook to play a game called “Gardens of Time,” I clicked on Ignore.
Rachel sent me a follow-up email saying that Gardens of Time was lots of fun, and also, “not really addicting.” She added that if I started playing, we could be “neighbors” and visit each other’s gardens. I said I was too busy. She tried using the big guns on me, saying, “It’s really Victorian,” and also, “steampunk.” But I was in the middle of finals, and was able to resist.
Soon, I started getting emails from her saying she had “wasted too much time in Gardens of Time,” adding, “but hey.” This should have been a warning to me, but I wasn’t paying much attention to her gradual descent into crippling virtual gardening addiction.
Shortly after that, Rachel came to visit and insisted on showing me Gardens of Time on her laptop. By then, I had finished grading and was between semesters, so I suppose I was a bit vulnerable. She was right: the game is very Victorian and also, steampunk, whatever that means.
I’m sure you see where this is heading. Somehow, by the time Rachel was gone, she had talked me into clicking on Accept for an invitation to Gardens of Time, and we were now “neighbors.” In retrospect, I see that this powerful desire for virtual neighbors might cause someone to trick her best friend into what was to prove to be a terrible, disabling (literally—more about that in a second) monkey on her back.
Writing note: yes, I am aware that I’ve just used a truly horrible mixed metaphor.In my defense, I ask that you picture the aforementioned monkey, not just on my back but twisting my arm behind me until I have carpal tunnel syndrome.
It turns out that Rachel was right about one thing: G of T is an adorable game. You are given a small garden plot and tasked with filling it with sweet decorative objects: interesting historic buildings, such as Big Ben, exotic “artifacts,” such as Egyptian statues, and odd shrubbery. Deploying these items earns you points that unlock more levels. Meanwhile, playing an increasingly difficult series of hidden object games, in which you’re asked to locate hourglasses, compasses, spyglasses, and other Victorian, steampunkish things, awards you silver with which you may buy more sweet decorative objects, etc.
I’m not big on computer games, but after a few days of fiddling around with “Abby’s Garden,” I was totally hooked. What could be more fun than earning huge amounts of silver and spending it on cute things that can be arranged in what turns out to be a rather limited space?
Of course, this being the internet, it turns out that there’s a catch. Sure, the silver can buy you lots of fun stuff—pagodas, pergolas, bandstands, Bhangra dancers, even a pig market—but you soon reach a point where there is no longer any room on the board for these things and you are forced to contemplate the only two possible means of expanding your “grid”:
- You can expand your grid by accumulating more neighbors. What is a neighbor? It is a Facebook friend you have wheedled, cajoled, or in Rachel’s case, tricked into playing G of T.
- Or, you can expand your grid by buying gold. Buying, as in using real money, payable via Paypal. Yes, up to this point, the game has been absolutely free, and although it is clear from the outset that there are certain “premium” features that cost money, only a sucker would spend money on a free Facebook app—at least, this is what you tell yourself.
Until you are in the grips of your addiction: then you will do ANYTHING.
Example: I am visiting my cousin in Connecticut whose daughter has just completed her junior year of high school.
Me: Hey Sophie, I’m playing a really cool game on Facebook. Want to see it?
Me: See? It’s really Victorian, and, um, steampunk.
Me: And if you play, too, we can be neighbors!
Sophie’s mom: Sophie, you may not play a Facebook game! You need to study for the SATs.
Me to Sophie’s mom: Yes, that’s entirely correct.
Me to Sophie: (with evil laugh) Bwahahahaha! See you in the garden!
Not long after that, I went to my physical therapist and told her I was having a pain in my arm sort of like carpal tunnel. She gave me a shrewd look and said, “Have you been playing Farmville?” Farmville is another Facebook game.
“Of course not!” I assured her, with some indignation. “It’s Gardens of Time.” I asked her then if she wanted to be my neighbor, but she did not.
“There’s a really good way to make your arm feel better,” she said. “Quit playing.”
In my mind, I clicked on Ignore.
Once I had talked the requisite number of people into signing up for G of T, I had enough neighbors to expand my “grid” and continue playing. But at a certain point, having exhausted all resources, I reached an impasse: I could no longer afford to use cute low-value items like bushes or statues. To accumulate enough points to continue moving up in the game, I had to deploy only the big-ticket things: buildings.
My garden, once green and leafy, grew increasingly clogged with expensive structures. It still looked cute but was rapidly turning into kind of an urban jungle.
Then I unlocked the Chinese pavilion, and all hell broke loose: the only way I could earn enough points to “level up” was to pave the entire board with them. Now my adorable garden resembled some sort of Shanghai slum. The pavilion was soon unseated by the even more valuable Victorian manor.
My statues of Venus and Zeus went into storage, as did the Royal Albert Hall. My grid looked like total crap, but I was racking up the points.
One morning, as I opened the game for what was only the first of the umpteen visits I was making each day, I had an epiphany. I had turned into what I most loathed: I was now a real estate developer. To earn experience points, which allowed me to level up, which allowed me to earn gold, I had sacrificed the beauty of the land. As I regarded the horrible uniform landscape paved with ersatz Victorian manors, I understood for the first time how powerful greed is. My greed may have been for virtual riches, not real ones, but it seemed recognizable as the same force that is bringing down America, one gold bar at a time.
Did this realization cause me to make a grand gesture by renouncing the game? No. Between bouts, while the “Temporal Energy” used to power my Time Machine recharges back up to 60 points, I’m reading a New York Times article on the skyrocketing of CEO pay. Though I have never before understood what makes those people tick, now, as I contemplate the ruined landscape of Abby’s Garden, I think I get it.
This horrifies me.
And I’m going to quit playing. Just as soon as I buy the Taj Mahal.