Online games meet social networking tools

Jo Ann Hicks doesn't identify with gamers, but she spends hours online every day playing Kaneva.

The 41-year-old homemaker likes the shopping-and-partying game — where she operates a virtual nightclub and hosts parties — because it helps her interact with people, not provide escape from them as traditional games often do.

Social and gaming networks, once considered polar opposites, are cross-pollinating as online interactions replace prime-time TV and other, more traditional media experiences. Games like Kaneva are attracting players that games like Super Mario Brothers never did.

"I run around and act like a 40-year-old person. I have my little clan we hang with. What people will say is more interesting to me," Hicks said of her preferred game. "As opposed to Mario, who's only going to jump."

Game developers say there's money for both sides in this convergence.

Social networks that incorporate more features of "massively multi-player online games" could enhance their already-substantial earning power. And gaming sites would benefit from increased membership and broader acceptance.

David Dague, a 34-year-old executive in Chicago who runs a website called tiedtheleader.com, said games have changed fundamentally since the early days of Space Invaders.

"I've seen gaming go from a solitary thing to where there really is a cinematic experience going on in front of you that you can share in a social capacity," said Dague, whose site coordinates matches in Xbox Live games like Halo 3 and hosts forums about gaming.

"Video games have become the ultimate party line," he said. "The question is, who are you sharing it with?"

Played in virtual worlds with advertising and goods for sale, games like KartRider and Kaneva now go beyond the scope of early interactive games. They're less about skill levels and escapism and more about joining friends and strangers in virtual spaces where chatting, comparing fashions, going dancing — and, yes, slaying monsters — are all options.

For their part, networking sites are encompassing more interactive features that consume increasing amounts of users' time — long considered a defining feature of computer games.

MySpace and Facebook are massively multiplayer games in disguise, says Gabe Zichermann, who is developing "rmbr," which he says will make a video game out of tagging and sharing digital photos.

"The reason why Facebook is a really compelling MMO is because it's fun and you get something out of it," he said.

There are interactive titles like Scrabulous for Facebook, and MySpace is rolling out a games channel early next year.

"They're going to be able to monetize their users at the same level (as the games do)," Jessica Tams, managing director of the Casual Games Association, said of the social network sites. "That's a lot of money."

If each of Facebook's 33 million and MySpace's 72 million October users — according to figures from comScore Inc. — paid a dollar each visit for a new outfit for his or her avatar in a game, that would have produced a lot more revenue than the fractions of a penny the sites got for each click on an ad.

Nexon, which has offered free, socially rich video games for years in South Korea, introduced its English-language version of KartRider for use in North America in September.

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