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Social gaming: The parlor-game crowd logs on

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The idea that anyone would want to spend hours a week tending a fantasy farm may strikes non-social gamers as ridiculous – surely the denizens of FarmVille would be happier mucking around in a real garden, under a real summer sky. And yet Morales's story is hardly unique. NPD Group, a market research firm, recently reported that 56.8 million American consumers – or 20 percent of the US population over the age of 6 – had played a social-media game in the past three months. In Britain and the United States combined, the size of the market is an incredible 100 million consumers, according to a survey conducted by Information Solutions Group.

Most of these gamers are playing on Facebook, a social network that is itself expanding rapidly. This year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook had topped the 500 million-member mark worldwide; in August, Internet users spent more time – 41.1 million minutes – on Facebook than they did on all Google sites combined.

"Historically, video games were bought at Wal-Mart and played at home or on a PC," says Justin Smith, the founder of Inside Network, a research firm that studies social-media trends. "What Facebook has done is open up gaming to a much wider audience – it has provided a platform for people who wouldn't even normally consider themselves gamers. It's changing the way that the gaming business is going to work. This is the biggest revolution in the gaming industry in quite a while."

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