Why China's Happy Farmer Is So Popular

China's hottest Internet craze right now is all about … farming. Since the Web game Happy Farmer was introduced in 2008, maybe 80 million people, or roughly 20 percent of China's Internet population, have started playing it or one of its many clones, according to some estimates. Every day, and sometimes several times a day, millions log in to accumulate as many points as possible by doing such seemingly mundane tasks as clicking on a screen to watch radishes grow on their own small plot of land, and to water, fertilize, weed, and harvest these virtual gardens. As in the popular American version of the game, Farmville, some players visit other virtual farms and offer to help out; others sneak around the countryside and try to steal vegetables.

The game's success reflects a deep and growing nostalgia for China's traditional agrarian way of life. Over the last 30 years, 225 million Chinese peasants have flooded the cities in search of better jobs and a higher standard of living. The result has been massive economic growth and the building of skyscrapers and infrastructure at a blistering pace. Cities spring out of nowhere, and social networking games like Happy Farmer have become a tangible reminder of the sense of community that many migrants believe has been lost. Such is the isolation among China's urban population that in 2008 MTV did an Asia-wide study and discovered that China was the only country in the region where people claimed to have more friends online than off. Recently, state-run media interviewed a man who tends his virtual garden during the week and his real-life garden during the weekend. "It's a way to experience life," he said.

The game also taps into concerns among many members of the urban middle class that economic growth has far outpaced the country's environmental standards. Poor air and food quality are both major concerns, and Happy Farmer reflects a wistfulness for a rural China that at least in the romantic image does not suffer from such problems. Then there are the lingering effects of the Cultural Revolution, during which Chairman Mao banished millions of educated urban youths to farming villages while exalting the lives of the peasantry. Despite the hardships and atrocities of Mao's rule, many of those who grew up in and survived that era, and lived through China's transition from Maoism to its complex amalgam of "capitalism with Chinese characteristics," still occasionally pine for what they perceive to be a much simpler time. Some of their city-dwelling children, now adults with kids of their own, also romanticize this period, when rural peasants were considered the most prestigious class because they embodied Mao's supposed egalitarianism.

An increasingly popular tourist trend called "Farm Family Fun" meets this need for a taste of the rural, but allows today's city slickers to do it without getting their hands dirty. It involves groups of city folk driving to farmhouses, eating food cooked in the peasant style (and supposedly without pesticides), and fishing from ponds with prestocked fish. But the Happy Farmer game takes that faux-agrarian lifestyle to a new level. Its success is changing the way some city dwellers behave in real life. Urbanites have started leasing farmland and are building vegetable plots across South China, where urban residents volunteer and tend their sections of the garden. The farms often go by the name of "Happy Farmer," and Chinese media refer to this phenomenon as the "real-life version" of the game.

In another twist on virtual farming, some have even set up video cameras so they can monitor their real gardens from home. In tropical Hainan Island, a shop has begun selling miniature farms—little boxes of dirt with seeds for beans to give people their own "happy farm." In Nanjing, an entrepreneur opened up a "Happy Farmer" restaurant, complete with computers where people can play the game while eating. The menu offers a "stolen vegetable of the day" option, which is served as a free appetizer.

There are no statistics on the size of the game's spillover effect. But one thing is clear: China's peasants are migrating to the cities in search of a better life—while a growing urban middle class is looking back toward its roots.