Jamie Smith wrote this article.

When I was at breakfast recently with friends, the subject came up about Facebook and who uses it, what games do they play, etc. Interestingly enough, there were a few of us who were on Facebook, for various reasons; mainly to catch up with real actual friends that the user seldom saw or for reunion purposes, family and/or high school variety reunions; family tree research and the like.

I am actually on Facebook for somewhat business related purposes as I have business clients and contacts who prefer to order on Facebook, so that’s what got me started, along with an upcoming high school reunion at the time that made this social media easier to use and interact on.

When a good friend of mine happened to mention that he is NOT on Facebook but that his nephew is, I queried him as to why he had not joined. His response was that he didn’t have time and that he lived in an actual neighborhood, saw and talked with his real neighbors on a regular basis so therefore had no need for the virtual kind. I found that interesting so started to ask around to everyone I know and people I happened to meet, asking them about their Facebook savvy or not.

Interestingly this same nephew of my friend also happened to mention two of the most popular games on Facebook, which include Farmville and Mafia Wars. Zygna, the company who created these two games and many more, happened to make (off of a free game mind you), almost $46 million last year alone. Astonishing when you think about it. These are “free” games; there is no fee or charge to play them. So, where do they get the money for these “free” games? I have to admit this one intrigued me, so I dug around further, though didn’t have to dig too far.

As far as the most popular games on Facebook, the games are indeed free of charge; that is no user fees to start up, to play, you just create your farm or your mafia and start to play. Simple and easy enough, right? Right… and wrong as well.

Here’s how it works: Say you are a Facebook user and you and your “friends” all want to play Farmville or Mafia Wars or any other game for that matter. Once you get started and get hooked on it (they are fun!) then if you want to earn extra energy or time to play, you can “purchase” with real money, Farmville cash or Mafia Wars monies and purchase virtual things for your farm and your Mafia stash. Yes, please re-read this sentence: for your virtual farm and mafia (and pets and other Facebook games), you use your own hard earned real cash (usually via Paypal or another service) and you actually buy virtual fake things. For example, I could, if I so choose, to buy a bigger farm, a bigger tractor, etc. for my fake virtual farm in Farmville. And no, I won’t get to eat the “crops” I harvest (remember it’s a game and they are fake). Same with Mafia Wars, I can buy more parts, guns and ammo for my “virtual” Mafia in order to become stronger and take out someone else’s fake territory and mafia.

Is it just me or is this strange that we would wish to use real hard earned cash out of our accounts and wallets to buy things that don’t exist except for in the virtual world? I have to admit, in the past, I have purchased items online through the internet. Like shoes. Shoes that I can actually wear on my real feet. A shirt that I could not find in my size in a real brick and mortar store, so they ordered one for me in my correct size and shipped it to me. A real shirt. One that I can wear. I am saving up for some other real items in the near future and I know full well that they will be tangible objects that I can touch, see and feel. Nothing virtual.

I think the crossing point for me was this past Christmas holiday season when I was in either Walmart, Target or Best Buy (an actual store) and saw that you could buy gift cards… nothing unusual about that, you say? They were gift cards for Farmville farm cash and Mafia Wars Mafia cash. Gift cards in redeemable amounts starting at $25. Now when I have given gift cards in the past; to my son’s teachers, people who matter in my life but perhaps I am unsure as to their size or what they would like, they were me, using my real $25 or whatever amount, purchasing the gift card of choice for someone who could then buy something tangible at say Target or Barnes and Noble. (Also real stores where the recipient could buy a real item or two).

Since when (and in this economy), do real people spend real money buying virtual stuff and don’t even think about the fact that what they are buying does not exist? I think this takes the buying of lottery tickets (a slim chance on perhaps maybe winning something, but most likely not), to a whole new level of extreme.

For the record, I do have a Farmville farm, though I seldom play and ask any of my fellow farmers, I am a dismal farmer, my crops are all dead and my animals are always in need of something. I am a poor farmer, at least in the virtual world. In real life, I do quite well with the plants I do have, etc. I am happy to report. I also have a Mafia Wars account and in that, I am also not a very good Mafia member because again, I seldom have the time to play on any kind of regular basis at all and so many of my “mafia” members have disowned me. (Better I suppose than a real Mafia where they might break your legs).

So while I can understand that games like these can be “fun” for some, they are just that. A game. Period. So is this the price some will pay to be entertained? I have heard that Facebook was categorized as the ultimate time waster. I suppose it is that too, along with perhaps the most ingenious way for companies with something that will resonate with people to part with their money for virtual items, a very clever money making machine. It makes me wonder if those who fall for that kind of thing; will they ever realize they are parting with hard earned cash that could be used for something else….like gas in their car or their next vacation, their next car or house payment (as those things, over time, always add up). The whole $5 here, $25 there, adding up to nearly $46 million from several someone’s out there. Wow! Sign me up, or better yet, let me get working on developing the next new game that is also free… and that I can charge for the extras!

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