Give a Gift That’s ‘Unreal’

When Heather Flores, a Bay Area mom of two young children, has a moment to spare, she taps into her iPhone and takes her turn at a word game, coming up with as many points as she can. Then, she turns the game back to her opponent, often her husband or a friend.

“It’s a nice way to connect with other people and use my brain while I’m around my kids,” says the stay-at-home mom. 

Led in large part by women and moms, social games – simple games that can be played online or on a mobile device with friends – are becoming increasingly popular. By one count, there are 100 million social gamers in the United States and the United Kingdom. More than half of them are women.

Facebook accounts for much of the activity. Users don’t only connect with their friends, but also add a little friendly competition.

A small percentage of players are even spending money as they play. Though social games are free, players can spend real money to purchase virtual goods, such as a tractor to help plow their field in the role-playing game of FarmVille.

Each item costs a few dollars at most, but put together, it is becoming a lucrative industry. Consumers will spend an estimated $2.1 billion on virtual goods next year, according to Inside Virtual Goods, a report about the industry. That’s up from $1.5 billion to $1.6 billion this year.

Just as consumers spend hundreds of dollars during the holidays for presents for friends and family, they can pick up virtual gifts – via cell phones or cash cards  sold at Walmart, Walgreens and other stores.

“At the end of the day, it’s not the physical item that they’re giving, but the thought and meaning behind the item,” says Justin Smith, co-author of Inside Virtual Goods. “This year will be the busiest yet for holiday-themed virtual goods and virtual gifts.”

Here are a few popular titles:


FarmVille ( There are 30 million farms in FarmVille, compared with 2 million real-life farms in the United States, according to Zynga, the San Francisco startup that developed the game. With a small plot of land, you start your farm. As you plant and harvest your bounty, you earn coins that you can use to purchase additional land, seed, trees, animals and other items, such as tractors and barns. You can also become neighbors with your friends and give gifts, such as farm animals.


Pet Society ( More than 12 million people play this game, which requires you to care for a pet – feed it, dress it, even adopt a pet for your pet.


Cafe World ( This is your chance to run a restaurant, serving a menu of your choice. You cook, grill and serve dishes, such as bacon cheeseburgers, and earn coins and cafe points.  For Valentine’s Day, 7.8 million Valentine’s cakes were served, according to Zynga.


Bejeweled Blitz ( A popular mobile and online game, you race to create three or more same-colored gems in a row by switching them around. You can compete against your friends (and strangers) on Facebook and your iPhone. There are even “happy hours” on Facebook that encourage people to play late in the afternoon with special incentives and bonuses.


Ellen Lee covers family technology for Bay Area Parent.

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