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Online farming a growing pastime

Farm simulation games such as Farm Town, shown here, on social networking sites such as Facebook are becoming increasingly popular. The Forum

MADDOCK, N.D. - Faith Rehling helps to produce wheat, corn and soybeans on her family's farm near Maddock, N.D.

She also farms, for fun, online.

"I just enjoy it," she said of her electronic farming.

Rehling is among millions of people playing farm simulation games, most notably Farm Town and FarmVille, on social networking sites such as Facebook.

More than 1.8 million people play FarmVille, which San Francisco-based Zynga introduced last month, according to the company.

The games feature cartoonlike graphics and involve raising livestock and planting and harvesting crops.

They also encourage interaction among players: visiting other farms and sending gifts such as plants that other players can use.

The games aren't high on realism. For instance, wheat and pineapples can be grown on adjacent fields.

Keep the lack of nuts-and-bolts realism in perspective, said Brandon Barber, vice president of marketing for Zynga.

"They're less about stimulation and realism, and more about social interaction," he said.

He attributed much of the game's popularity to the natural human desire to nurture and harvest.

The game can be played for free.

Zynga makes money from online advertising and third-party payments for online surveys.

It also makes money from the sale of "virtual goods," or items purchased and used in the game.

Say, for instance, that a player wants a big, fancy farm - a structure requiring a lot of effort in the game to acquire.

But the player could pay a buck or two of real money to get the barn, avoiding the time and effort needed in the game.

Men and women of all ages play Farm Town, but 30- to 40-year-old women are the game's core demographic, Barber said.

Farming is just one option on Zynga's eclectic list of social networking games. Others involve building up vampire clans, Mafia families and pirate fleets.

Sadie Anderson, University Relations information specialist with North Dakota State University, began playing one of the farm simulation games about two months ago.

"I've always had a mind for puzzles," she said.

She also plays other social networking games.

"They're pretty similar," said Anderson, who stressed that she doesn't spend a lot of time on the games.

Rehling said she typically plays the farm game at night to relax.

She's not bothered that the games aren't true to life.

Asked whether it's easier to make money with simulated farming than the real life, Rehling laughed and said, "That's for sure."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Jonathan Knutson at (701) 241-5530