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

By Michael S. Rosenwald
Tuesday, August 3, 2010; B01

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.

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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