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Around 68.7 million Americans will be playing social games by 2012, according to analysis firm eMarketer. A number like that might seem unreal, but it makes perfect sense. There’s something extraordinarily appealing about logging into Facebook or picking up your smartphone and instantly playing a game alongside countless other people across the world.
But why do the best social games work so well? How do they manage to connect us in ways we wouldn’t have thought possible just ten years ago? Let’s look at five of the most popular social games and try to figure out why they’re hits.
FarmVille is doing a lot of things right, really — that’s why close to 10% of all Facebook users play FarmVille. But one of the most ingenious mechanics in Zynga’s farm simulation game is the neighbor system. It’s easy enough to harvest crops and build up your farm alone, but when you do it with your Facebook friends, your productivity skyrockets exponentially. And if you’ve ever hopped onto your news feed only to be subjected to a deluge of FarmVille updates, you know just how tempting it can be to click around and see what the fuss is all about.
Either this is a metaphor for real farms, where workers have to cooperate to stay alive, or it’s just a ploy to get people to recruit one another so Zynga can harvest all of your money. The gaming company has used the social promotion lessons it learned from FarmVille to launch CityVille last year, which has already become the most popular game on Facebook with almost 100 million users (twice that of FarmVille).
2. Zuma Blitz
PopCap’s addictive ball matching game is fun to play in both short and long doses, but its real strength lies in its scoreboard. As you go about your business in Zuma’s Incan temple, you’ll see a set of rankings on the right side of your screen. Those rankings are constantly updated with your friends’ high scores, allowing you to talk smack as you compete with one another for slot number one. It’s a brilliant, simple, and effective technique that keeps players hooked for one simple reason: Bragging rights.
3. Words With Friends
Imagine if Scrabble was available on your phone 24/7. Now imagine that instead of playing against a computerized opponent, you could compete with any of your friends whenever you wanted, picking when to play each word at your own personal discretion. That’s Words With Friends.
Scrabble has always been immensely popular, so it’s easy to see why online Scrabble is just as lauded.Words With Friends works because it successfully emulates a classic game that everybody already understands — no need to worry about learning complicated new rules or devising intricate strategies. It’s justScrabble!
4. Mafia Wars
Between The Godfather, The Sopranos, Goodfellas, and the countless other mob stories that have been both critically and commercially acclaimed over the years, it’s not hard to see why a game like Mafia Wars works. Though this Facebook mob simulator — which lets you recruit friends and form your own criminal organization — can’t be fairly compared to any of those classic pieces of pop culture, it’s certainly an impressive game that you can sink way too much time into. Teaming up with your buddies in order to fight mobsters, perform “jobs,” and pretend to be criminals is way more fun than it should be.
5. World of Warcraft
Sure, when you think World of Warcraft, you might picture the nerdier set — those who may have sacrificed hygiene and sleep to reach one more experience level. But the truth is that WoW is populated with players of all sorts of backgrounds, from rural housewives to NFL punters. The game currently boasts over 12 million subscribers, mostly because of its social capabilities. Instead of just fighting monsters or leveling up a character by yourself, you get to do it with thousands of other players and interact with them in many different ways ranging from personal e-mails to public online chats.
Most strikingly, World of Warcraft allows you to live a veritable second life. Girls can pretend to be boys; boys can pretend to be girls; human accountants can pretend to be elven mages. You can make friends and enemies, form relationships and even take on an entirely new persona. For better or worse, some people enjoy socializing on WoW more than real life, which may make it the most powerful social game out there. Oh, andMila Kunis plays it, which might be a good reason to start.
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