FarmVille, other online social games mean big business, and bonding

Angela Shields plays "Words With Friends" on her smartphone, a part of her daily routine. "It's a lot more fun than e-mail," she says.
Angela Shields plays "Words With Friends" on her smartphone, a part of her daily routine. "It's a lot more fun than e-mail," she says. (Jahi Chikwendiu/the Washington Post)
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By Michael S. Rosenwald
Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The most-used function on Angela Shields's iPhone is not the phone. Or e-mail. Or the Web browser. It's a game called Words With Friends, and she taps it open more than 10 times a day, anxious about her next move.

Shields, a clinical social worker in the District, doesn't consider herself a gamer, a term that conjures images of 26-year-old men slaying aliens in their parents' basements. She is 31 and funny and has many real-world friends, yet she often catches up with them in the Scrabble-like game's chat room while pecking out 36-point words.

"Some friends and I communicate through the app more than we do through e-mail," Shields said. "It's a lot more fun than e-mail. I mean, you can kick their butt while we catch up about our lives."

More than 200 million people play social games every month, and the numbers grow by the thousands every day. "Whereas the 19th century will be remembered for the creation of the modern novel, and the 20th century was dominated by movies and images on screens, I think we can now see that games will be the dominant form of entertainment in this century," said Jon Radoff, an early Internet entrepreneur, game developer and armchair gaming historian.

If that sounds like blasphemy, consider that online games just passed e-mail as the second-most popular activity online, behind social networking, according to Nielsen. Last week, Disney paid $563.2 million to buy social game developer Playdom. Google is reportedly in talks with game companies to start a site called Google Games, having noticed that on Facebook, the fastest-growing Web site in the world, 40 percent of the company's 500 million users regularly play social games.

In olden days, games were played in the living room. Chess. Battleship. Monopoly. Then the world changed. The family nucleus dispersed, especially up and down the information superhighway. Online gaming first gained popularity with those adults-living-in-the-basement types. But now, through smartphones and Facebook, where users tend to imaginary plots of land in FarmVille or hire friends to run eateries in Restaurant City, games are mainstream again.

Many players are using games such as FarmVille and Scrabble to make new friends. Through the Words With Friends app, Shields got love-life advice from a fifty-something divorcee in Washington state. She plays about 20 games a day.

Where adults can play

The demographic profile of today's gamers cuts across genders and age groups, although middle-age women are disproportionately represented in game use on Facebook. People play at work, on their commutes, at lunch, on the couch, in their pajamas -- plowing crops, waiting on tables, building words, often in bursts lasting no longer than five minutes.

If you think the people next to you at Starbucks are taking a break from spreadsheets to look at pictures of cousins' adorable newborns on Facebook, you're probably wrong. They are probably icing friends on Mafia Wars.

"Games have always faced a sort of puritanical challenge in this country, that they are okay to play as kids but weird as adults," said Mia Consalvo, who researches games at MIT. "But play is a fundamental part of our lives. And now, with these social games, many people who weren't gamers have an outlet again to play games as adults."

That's largely because social games on Facebook and smartphones hearken back to a simpler time, when games were easy to play. Board games, card games -- who needed to read the instructions? As families spread apart and technology improved, games became, often on computers or gaming consoles, more solitary and complicated. They required users to play hour after hour. Hand-eye coordination became essential.

Today's popular pursuits are not your weird cousin's games. Now, on Facebook, Scrabble is as simple as the original 1948 game played on cardboard. The most popular game on the site, FarmVille, requires clicking around an imaginary farm to plant crops and take care of animals. In Happy Aquarium, another popular Facebook game, users feed fish and clean tanks. Millions of women throw parties together on Sorority Life. Guys can act out their Tony Soprano fantasies by capping people throughout the day in Mafia Wars.

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