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 Washington, DC, 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 very 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 says. “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 playing these simple throwback games 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,” says 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 per cent 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 adult-living-in-the-basement types. But now, through smartphones and Facebook, where users tend to imaginary plots of land on 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 50-something divorcee in Washington. She plays about 20 games a day.
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, ploughing crops, waiting on tables, building words, often in bursts of game play 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,” says 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.”
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 highly complicated. They required users to play hour after hour. Hand-eye coordination became essential. Today’s massively 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 the tanks. Millions of women throw parties together on Sorority Life.
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 in 2010. “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.
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, atomising 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,” says 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.”
In exclusive partnership with The Washington Post