Imaginary Relations starts next week! And FarmVille comes to an end.

Next week, I intend to open up the online journal Imaginary Relations with an introductory statement and call for papers. The following week, the first essay will be appear, and my hope is to publish a new essay every week of the year.  

Some people have told me they are still unsure about what kind of essays we are looking for.  That’s understandable, since I think what we are trying to do here has never quite been done before, so there is no model in place for this discourse. We hope, then, that “what we are looking for” will only be clear once we see it—there’s no real preconceived template here.

Nevertheless, I’ll offer one example of the kind of thing that interests us.  Today, I was reading an article in The New York Times about FarmVille, a game that appeared on Facebook and was often played from smartphones about a decade ago. The article explains that FarmVille will no longer exist after next week, and probably few people will notice since it has declined in popularity over the last decade.  But “the behaviors it instilled in everyday internet users and the growth-hacking techniques it perfected” live on, as they have become normal practices in our lives, and are built into every “site, service and app” today.  That is, this entertaining pastime that had people obsessively checking facebook for a couple years back when smartphones were new has altered how we live in the world in an enduring, and I would say troubling, way.  

Analysis of exactly how this works, how forms of enjoyment work to produce ideological practices, is the goal of Imaginary Relations.  Although the creators of the game seemed to have some devious strategy in mind, I doubt most players consciously thought : Oh, great, a way for me to become a mindless slave of big tech companies!  They thought they were just having fun.  

I can’t say much about this, because as I’ve often mentioned I don’t do Facebook and don’t have a smartphone, and so I have never played FarmVille myself. Although I will admit that a decade ago I was both shocked and a bit troubled as I watched everyone around me play it obsessively, always talking about their sheep or carrots or cows or whatever.  But somehow, the game tapped into a source of enjoyment and used it so alter people’s behavior in a way that benefited big corporations at the expense of impoverishing the lives of tens of millions of people. And after all, isn’t that what capitalist ideology is meant to do?  

I can’t imagine what structuring belief made this activity enjoyable to people.  As I said, even at the time it seemed beyond dull to me.  The Times article offers one suggestion, though: “those who went back every day said it had kept them in touch with friends and acquaintances, giving them something to talk about.” Now, even at the end of 2020, I have to say that if this this is true it is the saddest thing I’ve heard in years.  That tens of millions of Americans are so intellectually impoverished that a game as stupid as FarmVille was a welcome topic of conversation. That people really felt so isolated and silence in their daily lives, that even this inane drivel was a welcome improvement.  Could this be true? Are we so unable to even speak to our supposed friends and acquaintances, so lacking in possible topics for conversation, that people would jump at the chance to discuss pink cows appearing on their iPhones?  

Mia Consalvo, who is described as a “professor of game studies” (the existence of such a job is the second saddest thing I’ve heard in years), explains that this didn’t really promote an real conversation; it was “just a mechanic of clicking a button.”  But somehow, most Americans became convinced that such “clicking” is as close as a human can come to meaningful interaction with others. Most still believe this, I suspect, and can’t figure out why their constant texting, scrolling and clicking, so vital (the think) to “keeping in touch,” leaves them feeling depressed, lonely, anxious and just plain miserable. Maybe another hour a day devoted to the iPhone would help?

And then we can’t quite figure out why “deaths of despair” are on the rise in the last decade.  

But before I go off on that tangent, I’ll end here.  What we’re looking for at Imaginary Relations is just some insightful discussion, in ordinary and accessible prose, about how we are made into the kinds of subjects we are by the very things we enjoy.  

The new journal is open as of January 4th! here’s the link:

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