It's 1:45 a.m. My contacts are glued to my eyeballs, because I have not blinked in three hours. My left hand is twitching, my back is aching and my shoulders are cramping. My right hand is rock steady, however, and with the barest flick of a mouse, I send the ball arcing toward the never-ending snake of colored blocks. I only need 20,000 more points for my "Buster Badge," and if I don't get it tonight, I never will. I'm leaving on a business trip tomorrow morning - uh, this morning - and the badge opportunity expires at midnight tomorrow.

This is casual gaming.

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A casual game has small, incremental goals attainable in short play sessions without demanding more than basic problem-solving ability. Whether it's five minutes or five hours, you can accomplish something in every play session. You already have all the skills you need to play from the moment you hit the start button, and refining those skills to the specific game takes minutes, not days. These games are almost always intended for a "mass market," with "lowest common denominator" left unspoken. They're considered "demographically neutral," except in situations where companies like Lifetime commission casual games specifically to extend their brand

There are three basic strategies to lure players to casual gaming sites and make them "stick." The first boils down to inventory - a lot of it, with new products coming all the time. Sites such as MSN Games, Green Apple Games, AOL Games, Yahoo! Games, Pogo and dozens of other smaller players are cornucopias of delectable time wasters. Admittedly, many of the free time wasters requiring no downloads are the same across the various sites (the games with trial downloads vary a bit more from site to site), but there are plenty of differences between AOL, partnered with EA's Pogo, and Microsoft. The second strategy is making the rewards tangible. The third is to add a multiplayer dimension to the single-player experience.

Above all other types of games, I'm a whore for MMOGs. Being able to interact, to compare yourself with other people, is the great appeal of multiplayer gaming. So while other casual sites have more games, I only ignore the plaintive cries of "Honey, it's practically dawn" from my better half for MSN Games, one of the largest casual portals. They claim 14 million unique visitors a month, and I generally find around 115,000 players, no matter when I log in. (In contrast, Xbox Live reportedly hit 7 million members in early July, and Club Pogo has 1.2 million paying subscribers.) There are message boards, live chat areas, a raft of games I can play with other people and, most importantly, I can save my high scores and earn badges (small, collectible token of accomplishment, like an Xbox Live Achievement). For free.

Microsoft must have actual gamers in their badge department who understand the dynamics of virtual attachment. Although the point scores have been wiped and reset several times in the last three years, none of the badges have ever disappeared from anyone's album.

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