Game Theory: Play Pays

Internet game sites are among the big portals' most popular and "stickiest" draws

Brian Martin never imagined he would become such a die-hard gamer. Sure, as a teenager he occasionally hit the arcade. But that experience stacks up like a tilted pinball machine compared with Internet games. With his keypad and mouse, Martin can skywalk through the air and launch missiles to blast enemy fighters across the globe in a nanosecond. He says he can sit for hours playing games such as Team Fortress. "You feel kind of like a kid playing war," says the 29-year-old computer network administrator from Fort Worth.

That sort of enthusiasm has made gameplaying one of the Web's predominant activities. Games top instant messaging and music downloads on the list of favorite pastimes of online households. Nearly 26% of U.S. Web surfers, or 40 million people, hang out at hard-core game sites such as and, according to researcher PC Data. Add in the millions of Web surfers who enjoy a quick go at online cribbage, trivia, or puzzles, and the number of U.S. game aficionados soars to 75 million people, nearly half the online population.

What's more, games keep customers coming back. Visitors to spent an average of nearly three hours per month at the game site, making the stickiest site on the Web, according to researcher Jupiter Media Metrix Inc. And they aren't just twentysomething Rambo-wannabe guys. Half of all online players are women, although they tend to prefer board games and trivia quizzes, says PC Data.

Now, the action is breaking out of games-only sites and onto the wider Web. Games have become standard fare on big Web portals such as Yahoo! (YHOO) and America Online (AOL). Even specialized sites are offering games. Technology professionals browsing job opportunities at find a game called Prairie Doggin'. Much like the comic strip Dilbert, the game features cartoon caricatures of stereotypical workplace bosses--a "high-strung" administrator, for example, and a sales manager named Slick Dick--who pop out of cubicles as if they were prairie dogs. Players get points by bopping administrators, instead of co-workers, such as Geek Guy. Although BrainBuzz doesn't track the number of people who play, Chief Executive Jeff D'Adamo credits the game with helping to boost site traffic to 384,000 visitors in January, from 158,000 in September.

Name that tune. It's best to use games that fit the demographics of your site. Prairie Doggin' works because it appeals to the anti-management ethos of the engineers the site targets. Similarly, tunes portal Planet of Music offers trivia games that let visitors test their knowledge of jazz, rock, and R&B with such questions as: When did The Beatles first appear on The Ed Sullivan Show? The site also offers keno and blackjack, but the trivia has proven most popular.

Many sites, however, are not so smartly designed. Take Nabisco's The Web site sports games that range from miniature golf to football, each one tied to a Nabisco product (NGH), such as Lifesavers or Chips Ahoy! But the deliciously playful Candystand hasn't successfully driven traffic to Nabisco--in part because kids don't know or care to go to the corporate site. Nabisco might consider placing a link to Candystand on a site that kids already flock to, such as Even so, "Fig Newtons have nothing to do with games," says Ekaterina O. Walsh, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. "It's a total waste."

Tie games to your Web site's demographics and product mix, however, and you could turn yesterday's pinball wizards into paying customers.

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