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, 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.

In October, the year-old North American version of Nexon's Kaneva had 84,000 members, according to comScore. Once players download the game, they see advertising and can buy all sorts of virtual clothing and upgrades for a few dollars apiece.

It's a substantially different business model from online fantasy games like World of Warcraft, which tend to require subscriptions, at $15 or so per month, and usually don't allow users to buy things for real money, online or off.

"Think of World of Warcraft as kind of closing the book on this generation of games," says Christopher Sherman, executive director of Virtual Worlds Management. "Those folks who are developing the next generation of massively multiplayer games really need to raise the bar anew."

Venture capital, technology and media firms invested more than $1 billion dollars in 35 virtual worlds companies between October 2006 and this October, according to a study by Austin-based Virtual Worlds Management, a company that organizes conferences to discuss emerging online trends.

Second Life— where users can buy their own plots of land to build stores, castles or anything else they can imagine — is creating a game within a game with CBS, called The Virtual CSI: New York, that melds networking and gaming. Avatars will be able to go to crime scenes and figure out what happened.

The lure of interactive online games is so strong it can cut into users' sleep and boost the time they spend playing, according to a month-long study by Syracuse University psychology professor Joshua Smyth.

Smyth found that MMORPG players spent on average 14.4 hours a week playing — twice as long as video game players who don't interact online.

Stephen Prentice, a senior analyst for the Gartner Group in the United Kingdom, believes the time is right for such online social video game services to take off. The big question is who will succeed first.

"The huge opportunity is for a lightweight, three-dimensional environment, a virtual world equivalent of Facebook," Prentice says. "Trying to predict who that is going to be is difficult. Anything could happen here."