Playing Well With Others


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Close readers of this column have already heard me drone on about how the Internet is really a very intimate medium, and that people will pay for content that facilitates connecting to others. Brace yourself for more droning, because that same principle is now being played out in another content area: online gaming. I don't mean the pimple-faced joystick junkies who spend half their lives deathmatching in Unreal Tournament or enjoying a troll's life in EverQuest; I am talking about their moms.

In its first year of operation as a paid service (2003-2004), Electronic Arts' Club Pogo (www.pogo.com) attracted an astonishing 500,000 subscribers ($4.99/month) to its suite of card, board, puzzle, and word games. The average user not only spends money but stays an average of 50 hours a month playing. And which game-aholics are driving this stunning growth rate? Would you believe soccer moms? Club Pogo claims that 75% of its members are women whose average age is 35. This corroborates JupiterResearch findings from earlier this year that showed that middle-aged women, putting in five hours a week gaming, are the most dedicated players of all.

Gaming is the new porn of the Web, the guilty pleasure people don't discuss but pursue ravenously when they are alone. According to the new Pew Internet & American Life survey, 48% of broadband users play games online. Gaming, of course, has more respectability, and publishers should be able to leverage gaming in many lucrative ways. Just as cable TV and satellite companies understood long ago that soft-core porn is the content that brings many people in to a distribution network, ISPs like Comcast and RCN are already partnering with games providers in order to add value and differentiation to their high-speed offerings. Both companies report that their games-on-demand and downloadable games portals are doing extremely well only months into launch.

But even small publishers can ride this wave if they understand that gaming is as much about community as it is about competition. To use an unlikely example, even a B2B content site like Meredith's Agriculture.com got tremendous traction from a simple "SmartFarmer" time-trial trivia game. Underwritten by an agriculture chemical company, the simple contest achieved a 55% opt-in rate for the sponsor's content, and it was one of the most popular areas of the site. The joy of the game was like-minded people challenging one another in their field of interest.

There are many sites like women's hub iVillage or men's magazine site FHMUS.com where visitors play games that are readily available elsewhere but they do it within the context of a site they like, and often they get to chat and compete with fellow visitors. While not targeted at women, FHMUS's inspired idea is applicable anywhere. The site simply aggregated the 100 best online games that reflected the magazine's waggish sensibility (i.e. "Guess Her Bra Size"), and general manager Jon Hurwitz says "it has shown the biggest growth. You could waste your whole day here." All he did was apply his knowledge of his audience—his community—to marry it with one of the medium's irresistible pleasures.

The context of gaming will become more essential as the audience for online gaming expands even farther beyond the old teen-boy stereotypes and smart publishers start to understand that gaming is a lot like chat and message forums. You can use gaming as a way to keep people at your site, to register users, to attract sponsorships, and to facilitate a user community.

"We are seeing dramatic changes in social gaming," says Chris Ruff, VP of marketing and product management at UIEvolution, whose software helps games and applications run across various mobile and online platforms. "Women are interested in multiplayer gaming. The game play is changing and the community is driving it." He sees gaming now evolving way beyond that young male core the video game companies made famous. Game content has become a complement and instigator for social exchange among all demographics. Until the video arcade and PC and console games emerged in the late 70s, gaming was a social activity, done with humans not machines as a way to cultivate and maintain relationships. The person-to-person connectivity of the Internet is helping people rediscover the sociability of gaming and take its reputation back from the video game industry. This puts gaming at the center of the very platforms that we know drive online content spending—sites and services that facilitate person-to-person exchanges.

Thanks for staying tuned to my drone on the Web being an "intimate medium." It is important to keep in mind if you want to start using games as a community tool and not merely as just another site feature. Don't just nail up a games area and forget about it. Respect the medium for what it is: a time-honored way for people to interact. It should be a platform for users to interact with you, your sponsors, and each other.