Farmville’s 5 Psychological Hooks

Lately I’ve gotten sucked into playing the Facebook game, Farmville. (Apologies to those on my friends list.) I am seriously impressed by the designers of this game. They managed to take an incredibly simple idea and design it to take advantage of several powerful psychological quirks, thus turning a game about farming (!) into the single most popular Facebook app.

What are some of the clever things that Farmville does?

1. Set Completion — We are driven to complete our collections of things.

This is perhaps the psychological trick that Farmville employs the most. Farmville has so many sets of things to collect: achievement ribbons, buildings, gifts, even different colors of cows. In general, once you possess a partial set, most people are compelled to complete the whole thing. There’s something about a collection that is incomplete; it just doesn’t sit too well with many of us.

Farmville is always introducing players to different types of things we can collect. And of course, once you’ve started a set, you have to finish it…

2. Social reciprocity — We feel compelled to help people who help us.

This is another biggie. The fact is, in order to get ahead in the game, you must receive help. The game offers several ways to help others: you can send them gifts, fertilize their crops, help out on their farm, and make Wall posts that give people access to special bonuses. Many of the ribbons and achievements in the game are dependent on being helped in these ways.

And of course, once you are helped by someone, most people feel a strong compulsion to return the favor. This keeps people engaged because the balance sheet is never quite even, so some type of social obligation is always in effect.

It also encourages players to bring more people into the game; after all, the more ‘neighbors’ you have, the more gifts you can receive and the quicker you will gain a lot of the achievements. I think this ’sharing’ aspect accounts for a large part of Farmville’s rapid rise in popularity.

3. Loss aversion — We hate to lose anything.

In Farmville, you have a certain window of time to harvest your crops, or else they wither and you don’t profit. This is brilliant because, by forcing people to invest in seeds and plowing, Farmville is creating an attachment to those crops. Then, by enforcing a short window of time to take action to avoid the loss of those crops, Farmville forces you to return to the game on a regular basis.

This draws users back to where the other psychological hooks can kick in.

4. Customization — We design spaces to display our own personalities.

The entire basis of Farmville is that you are given a ’space’ that is all your own: your farm. And, along with planting crops and raising animals, you can add buildings and decorative objects to this space, in order to make it more fully ‘yours’. In fact, by my count, about half of the items that you can buy have no effect on the game mechanics at all.

Rationally, why would you allocate scarce resources to such objects? But people do, because we are driven to customize our virtual space, to make it reflect ourselves; and by extension to acquire more resources so that we can perform more customizations.

5. Variable Interval Reinforcement — When we receive rewards at unpredictable intervals, we are compelled to continue.

Sometimes Farmville will randomly give you gifts, like money or items to be used on your farm. (The game also combines this principle with #2, social reciprocity, by randomly allowing you to give a special gift to other players, such as special eggs and flower bouquets.) This is considered variable interval reinforcement because it reinforces the desired behavior — playing Farmville — with rewards, on an unpredictable basis.

The gifts serve to keep people engaged in the game, because you have to keep checking in to see if you’ve gotten something that you need.

So there you have it: 5 ways that Farmville effectively taps into human psychology.

The things that interests me is, how can we use this in other areas of design?

How can I make my local restaurant listing site more interesting by tapping into set completion behavior? How could a charity fundraising site employ social reciprocity to draw users in? How could a financial site tap into loss aversion?

I think we could all stand to learn a few things from this simple Facebook farming game.


(If anyone has a good link on the psychology of customization, send it over. That’s the only principle for which I couldn’t find a good source.)

3 Responses to “Farmville’s 5 Psychological Hooks”

  1. barbara Says:

    Fascinating! I’ve gotten myself totally addicted to Farmville, and you’ve just explained to me why! Very cool.

  2. BJL Says:

    Donors Choose has tapped into the social reciprocity idea. I just received a $25 gift card from an anonymous donor to use on any project that I choose. When I logged on to use the card, they have a “donate $25 button” or “donate $45 button”. Of course I felt like I should add a little to the free $25 I’d received.

  3. Catriona Says:

    Great post, Bri!

    Though they’ve certainly done a lot of things right, the company that built Farmville did some pretty questionable things early on:
    http://consumerist.com/2009/11/mafia-wars-ceo-brags-about-scamming-users-from-day-one.html