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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.

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"Historically, video games were bought at Wal-Mart and played at home or on a PC," says Justin Smith, the founder of Inside Network, a research firm that studies social-media trends. "What Facebook has done is open up gaming to a much wider audience – it has provided a platform for people who wouldn't even normally consider themselves gamers. It's changing the way that the gaming business is going to work. This is the biggest revolution in the gaming industry in quite a while."

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As Mr. Smith suggests, social gamers are a diverse bunch. The social-gaming market comprises older gamers, younger gamers, and gamers who are happy to breed virtual pigs but wouldn't be caught dead playing an Xbox 360 or Nintendo Wii. NPD Group says that 53 percent of American social gamers are women; 35 percent had never played a video game before. Perhaps most dangerously for makers of consoles such as the Nintendo Wii, social gamers reported having spent 20 percent less on gaming hardware or software since they took up network gaming.

"As more players are drawn into these games, the entire games industry is going to feel, and have to adjust to, the impact," NPD Group's Anita Frazier noted in a statement accompanying the study.

The majority of social-gaming titles are decidedly retro affairs – the gameplay is simplistic, the graphics are stripped down to a Nintendo NES level, the sound effects are tinny at worst and corny at best. In fact, for social-gaming studios, a simplistic presentation isn't just an unfortunate side effect of the production process – a simplistic presentation is the point.

"Our games should work perfectly well on an eight-year-old PC, and if they don't, then we've failed," says Garth Chouteau, vice president for communications at PopCap Games. PopCap – which commissioned the Information Solutions Group survey – makes a range of social-gaming titles, including Plants vs. Zombies, and the bestselling puzzle title Bejeweled. "The crudest possible version of Bejeweled would still be fun to play," Mr. Chouteau says. "It would still be fun because the fun isn't tied to the physical look of the game; it's about the experience."

Chouteau likens the appeal of social-media games to the old-style parlor games played in the 19th century. With parlor gaming, community was part of the appeal – you weren't sitting alone in a dark room, doing solo battle with a clan of bright-green aliens, as many modern console gamers do today. You were talking, you were gossiping, you were connecting with real people. "I think the idea of spending time with colleagues and friends was kind of lost in the first few waves of the video-game revolution," Chouteau says. "There wasn't something like Facebook that gave us immediate and ongoing access to our friends. But now we're at the point, technologically speaking, where we can let people back into the parlor."

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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