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Social gaming: The parlor-game crowd logs on

No geek credentials required for the low-tech, community-oriented games that draw Facebook fans.

By Matthew ShaerCorrespondent / October 13, 2010

The purpose of the game FarmVille, which is produced by San Francisco-based Zynga, is to handle the day-to-day operations of a virtual farm.

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A couple of years ago, Angela Morales received a Facebook invitation from her mother, begging her to sign up for a newish game called FarmVille. Unlike traditional console titles, FarmVille takes place entirely online – the industry term d'art is "social gaming" – and allows collaboration among millions of users around the globe.

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In the case of FarmVille, which is produced by San Francisco-based Zynga, the purpose of the game is to handle the day-to-day operations of a virtual farm. Players feed the pigs, monitor the crops, and work to expand their pixilated holdings; meanwhile, other users can patronize the farm, or simply drop in to lend advice.

Ms. Morales was skeptical. She had recently started a photography company in Houston, where she lives with her husband, and free time was hard to find. Moreover, she had never really considered herself much of a hard-core gamer. But the invitations kept coming, and eventually, her defenses worn down, she decided to accept.

The decision changed Morales's life. Within a few months, she was deeply immersed in the world of FarmVille, spending hours a day tilling virtual fields, and breeding virtual animals. In September 2009, she founded the blog FarmVilleFreak.com, a fan page dedicated to all things FarmVille; it has since become the most popular unofficial FarmVille fan site in the world (and yes, FarmVille fan sites are legion).

Although she and her husband recently had their first child, Morales estimates that she still signs on to FarmVille at least three times a day. "I can say that I'm thankful FarmVille didn't exist while I was still in college," Morales joked recently.

The idea that anyone would want to spend hours a week tending a fantasy farm may strikes non-social gamers as ridiculous – surely the denizens of FarmVille would be happier mucking around in a real garden, under a real summer sky. And yet Morales's story is hardly unique. NPD Group, a market research firm, recently reported that 56.8 million American consumers – or 20 percent of the US population over the age of 6 – had played a social-media game in the past three months. In Britain and the United States combined, the size of the market is an incredible 100 million consumers, according to a survey conducted by Information Solutions Group.

Most of these gamers are playing on Facebook, a social network that is itself expanding rapidly. This year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook had topped the 500 million-member mark worldwide; in August, Internet users spent more time – 41.1 million minutes – on Facebook than they did on all Google sites combined.

Who's playing social games

41.1 million – the number of minutes users spent on Facebook in August.

56.8 million – the number of American users who have played a social-media game on a platform such as Facebook in the past three months.

35 – the percentage of those 56.8 million users who had never played a video game before trying out a social-gaming title.

$183 million – the amount of money Google reportedly paid for the social-media company Slide.

$563 million – the amount of money Disney reportedly paid for the social-gaming company Playdom.

$2 billion – the amount of revenue that social games could generate by 2012.

– Matthew Shaer

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