What do Facebook games and STDs have in common?

(… Take the pallid spirochete. This tiny bacterium can cause considerable damage in the humans it infects. And it is stealthy. Early on, its only tell-tale sign is a small and painless lesion that doesn’t even itch. Blink, and you’ll miss it, giving the disease time develop into its secondary stage. At this point the symptoms vary greatly — rashes, fever, soar throat, headache, etc — and can easily be mistaken for signs of a much more benign condition. If left untreated, the illness will progress to its latent stage, which is asymptomatic. The infected will sigh with relief, reckoning they’ve been cured. But the pallid spirochete has other plans. Years later, when its host has long forgotten the slight discomfort of the secondary stage symptoms, it will come back with a vengeance, causing the infected’s body to be covered with tumor-like inflammation bubbles, or striking its central nervous system or the heart…)

When I first signed up for FarmVille, I wasn’t immediately drawn into it. I sowed a patch of eggplant or soybeans and then I signed out. I kept checking in once a day, but there was nothing there to keep me for too long. Unlike other games I play, FarmVille barely registered as a part of my daily routine. Soon I stopped paying any attention to it. For a brief period nothing happened. Then, my crops must have withered and I started getting messages informing me that my friend Stoycho had watered my plants and inviting me to water his crops in return. While I did not enjoy that, I could see why it would be fun to other people. I thought it was an innocent enough pastime, even if not my cup of tea. Before too long I wasn’t even paying attention to what became in my taxonomy of online content “FarmVille spam”.

Then, suddenly, one day some months later I realised my Inbox contained 67 unread FarmVille messages. I checked them out to find a sad account of people — friends — coming to water my garden every week, fertilising my crops, sending me donkeys and baskets of fruit, then slowly realising that I was never going to send them a gift in return and dropping off one by one until in the end only the most loyal (or desperate?) farm buddies remained. I felt guilty. People had treated me well and I had ignored them. I imagined them — in dead of night for some reason — toiling away at my farm, happy in the knowledge they were doing something good for a friend. I could see the disappointment slowly growing darker on their faces as they gradually discovered what an ungrateful bastard I was.

That was not fun.

(… You cannot get syphilis off toilet seats or shared towels. The spirochete is weak outside its host and will die fast. The most common way it is transmitted is through intimate contact with an infected person. This may involve kissing or sex, but also blood transfusions. Mothers can pass it on to their babies…)

How had it come to this? Was Facebook to blame? Had it pushed me into such close contact with my friends that picking up some of their habits was inevitable?

Nah, one does not get into FarmVille by simply browsing status updates, or checking messages and instant chat, or watching photos from the latest drinking binge. It’s when you come into contact with other people’s manifestation of being into FarmVille, when you’re most at risk. You see that Vicky has just received a blue ribbon and is so happy about it that she’s posting it on her wall. That must be cool, right?

Inevitably, an invitation. “Will you join me in FarmVille and be my neighbour?”

You share your passion with me and trust me to reciprocate. Will I turn you down? Will I ignore you?

(… Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are unlike other illnesses in that they are considered shameful by many. It’s a sad revelation when a celebrity has cancer, but if the same person got and STD, then that’s a scandal. Even in ordinary people, STDs may result in ostracism by one’s relatives and friends…)

Last year, The Guinness Book of World Records said Dimitar Kerin, a town councillor from Bulgaria, became the first official to be fired over playing a videogame. Kerin and many of his fellow councillors were photographed tending virtual farms during a council meeting. He was singled out as the biggest offender and sacked to set an example.

This story was later withdrawn, but it caused quite a stir over here, raising questions about politicians’ ethics, corruption and the dehumanising influence of the internet (I guess all tabloids are the same, no matter what country they’re from).

Had Kerin been caught stealing from the city coffers, his demise would have been seen as a matter of course. But he was stealing time paid-for by the taxpayer to play on Facebook, which made all the difference. It may be one of our lifetimes’ most influential inventions, possibly changing collective perceptions about privacy for generations to come. But to some, it is still a matter of pride not to have a Facebook account. And among hardcore gamers social gaming is seen as some sort of vile plague that is killing the industry.

(… Safer sex practices, including the use of condoms, are relatively sure to prevent infection. However, they do not offer 100% protection. The safest way to prevent the pallid spirochete from entering your organism is to abstain from any intimate contact with infected people. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for instance, promotes long-term monogamy as the best course of action. It also says people shouldn’t have too much fun with booze and drugs, as that could cloud their judgement and make them more promiscuous…)

Even before the latest change in Facebook’s privacy settings, I was no longer exposed to FarmVille spam. I’d taken time to go through a lot of status updates and carefully block everybody who had posted anything FarmVille related from appearing in my news feed. Not just the application, you understand, but the actual people. If you were my friend and you played FarmVille or Mafia Wars, or any other Zynga game, you got blocked.

One simply can’t be too cautious about these things.

Image by Antonio Guillén on Flickr.

One Comment

  1. M

    Good read, insightful.