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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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For Facebook and the gaming companies, the business opportunity is enormous, even though playing the games is free. Users can buy add-ons and move through game levels faster by spending a dollar here, 50 cents there on what amount to nothing more than virtual objects on a screen. Analysts predict more than $835 million in such transactions this year.

"In some respects, I think this is the most viable business model that has come along for social networks, even better than advertising," Radoff said.

Looking for human links

The games can be played across platforms -- if you're away from your computer and your wheat needs to be harvested, you can do the work on your iPhone. A simple text message tells you when it's time.

The most popular social games are collaborations. To progress quickly through the games, you need to help other players, and they need to help you. Such collaborations, according to game designers and users, foster a sense of community in an often-splintered world.

For years, computers seemed to split us apart, atomizing life by dividing us into ever-narrower niches; now it appears they are linking us back together, digital acre by acre.

"You can call this silly, but we don't really do things together anymore, things that give you a sense of accomplishment," said Cadir Lee, chief technology officer for Zynga, the company behind FarmVille. "It's not like we are raising barns together in our communities anymore. The closest thing we have to that is helping people move. And even now, we would probably just hire a mover."

The idea of doing something -- anything -- together with her family is what drew Mary Jane Grutzmacher to Facebook. Grutzmacher, who is 59 and lives in Ellicott City, did not join to catch up with old high school friends. Rather, she saw her son playing FarmVille. It looked easy. And it looked like a way for them to connect. Now she plays a few times a day with him, her sister-in-law, her nieces, and even the administrative assistant at her office.

"I like to tend to the animals," she said. "I really like animals. My son likes the crops." She paused and laughed. "I mean, it's just pixels, but it's fun. It's nice to do something fun with family and hear about what they're up to that way."

But game designers are pushing users to expand their playing partners well beyond their family and real friends. To broaden the reach of their wares -- and let's face it, make more real-world cash -- game makers are quickly adding functions that make it easier for players to expand beyond their social networks and match up against random players.

Like Scrabble, Words With Friends offers that chance, which is how Shields hooked up with Victoria Rappin. "We were playing and I think she said, 'So where are you from?' " Shields said.

"She's on the East Coast and I'm on the West Coast, and I'm menopausal so I can't sleep half the time," said Rappin, who is in the nuts and bolts business. "We struck up a nice little relationship."

"I had my heart ripped out in May, and she gave me advice about my love life," Shields said. "She was very sweet about it. I really appreciated it."

They even bonded over illness, Rappin said: "She had mono, and I had mono, too, a long time ago, and so I told her to take it easy, to not overdo it."

The two have never spoken by phone, but both said they would miss each other if the game went away. Told that this reporter would be chatting with Rappin, Shields said, "Please tell her hello from me . . . and that I feel like we're good friends and I hope that her garden is doing well."

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