There is nothing virtual about the latest round of acquisitions in the world of social gaming — collaborative games played on networks like Facebook. Yet there is something genuinely disorienting about it. In the past few weeks, the Walt Disney Company has purchased Playdom, one of the biggest makers of social games, and sold Miramax Films, the kind of entertainment company — a movie studio — we used to think of as “real.”
The economic logic is simple. Consider the number 61,411,787. That, as of Wednesday, was the number of Facebook users worldwide playing FarmVille, the most popular social game. By some estimates, FarmVille’s maker, Zynga, would be worth $5 billion if it went public.
If you haven’t played FarmVille — or don’t use Facebook — it’s hard to imagine where a number like that comes from. The game involves starting a farm. You get your friends to help you water and fertilize crops and harvest them, earning play money to spend on new items. But what is being farmed isn’t only the virtual crops. It’s also the users’ social connections, their attention, and, ultimately, their credit cards. The basic gaming is free, but sooner or later many players spend real cash to buy game cash. And you can’t really play FarmVille without roping in your Facebook friends.
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