It’s 2:30 a.m. Most people are in bed, sound asleep, but not you. Even though your eyes are burning and you have a wicked case of carpal tunnel syndrome in the making, you just can’t stop playing games at your computer.
Why? Because you have to get more entries in to win the hard-rock band Kiss’ “Roadie for a Day” raffle. You just have to.
Welcome to the obsessive cult of Santa Monica-based Iwin.com the free online gaming site where contestants rack up “icoins” based on how well they do on games ranging from solitaire to horse racing. Icoins can be exchanged for a variety of prizes or used to purchase raffle tickets that will enter you into drawings for trips or cash. No actual money is exchanged.
This is one popular site. The average visit lasted one hour and eight minutes during the month of October, according to PC Data, placing it 16th on a list of the Internet’s “stickiest” sites. And that was before the official launch date of Nov. 15.
More than 130,000 people are registered to play games on Iwin and about 7,000 more register each day.
It’s not unusual for people to log onto Iwin and play for four or five hours at a stretch. Dan Baker, a video producer for an entertainment marketing company who lives in West Hollywood, readily admits to playing several hours a day, every day.
“Don’t make me look like I’m a freak,” he laughs, after confessing his Iwin mania. “When I first starting playing I was doing it all the time, like crazy. But I’ve toned it down a little bit.”
Baker spends about half his time working from home and said Iwin is a great time-killer between and during phone calls. He also has spread the Iwin gospel to others first his brother and then several other friends have started playing online.
But it’s not just Iwin any more, Baker explains. His interest in online gaming has led him to check out other Internet sites. “Iwin is like a gateway drug,” he said. “But it’s the best. It’s brilliant in its simplicity.”
But when does a harmless albeit time-consuming hobby start showing signs of something more serious, like an online addiction?
Dr. Mary Andres, a clinical psychologist at USC, said she has seen an increase in people coming in for help to deal with their gaming problem.
“Gaming is starting to surge because there’s just so many more creative games on the Internet than there used to be,” she said. “Probably in the last four years there’s been an increase, especially with the number of computers in homes and the wider access to the Internet. It was different when people only had the Internet at work, and they couldn’t play games at work.”
Online game sites are set to become among the most popular corners of the Web. In 1997, they accounted for just 3 percent of the $5 billion that U.S. consumers spent on games; that’s projected to rise to 24 percent of the $8 billion projected total U.S. expenditures in 2002, according to Forrester Research.
“The games space is one of the fastest growing categories on the Internet, and one of the stickiest,” said Iwin CEO Fred Krueger. “Because there is currently no clear frontrunner in the space, there’s a real opportunity for Iwin to break out.”
But Iwin.com is a decidedly low-tech site. The games aren’t multiplayer, meaning people in different parts of the world can’t play against each other like they can on Sony Online Entertainment’s site. It also doesn’t offer three-dimensional graphics or role-playing opportunities, as do gaming sites run by Electronic Arts and Microsoft Corp.
“I think this kind of concept is probably here for awhile, but the question is, how long is it going to stay interesting to people?” said Sean Wargo, an Internet analyst for PC Data. “With the competition out there, they might have to improve their interfaces and make it more interactive, make it possible to play with other people at the card tables.”
For online game fanatic Baker, adding interactivity to the site would be a huge plus.
“I’d like to see multiplayer games, being able to play poker against other people and other chat stuff,” he said. “Maybe some sort of games with a fixed number of people playing toward something that’s kind of dependent on time, with a countdown clock that makes you have to think fast to get the right answers.”
For the time being, Iwin believes that keeping the site loaded with traditional favorites is better.
“We wanted to make a great site encompassing great games, great design, that’s easy to navigate and easy to read,” said Dale Hopkins, president of Iwin.com. “On some of these gaming sites, you don’t even know what to do. We wanted to offer great prizes luxury goods and vacations and things that really put a Hollywood twist on it, and make that its big point of differentiation.”
Iwin’s selection ranges from casino favorites like blackjack and roulette to a Thanksgiving-themed game called “Turkey Hunt.”
“We sat down and asked, ‘What would we like to play? What are tried and true games?’ ” Hopkins said. “This weekend we took down solitaire to enhance it, and we got 12,000 e-mails on Saturday about it being down. We were just like, ‘Oh God.’ ”
Iwin.com players tend not to be the stereotypical gamers: teen-age boys intent on blowing up virtual demons and Nazis. Most people registered at the site are between 25 and 44, and 48 percent are women.
Wargo said the non-violent kind of games attract non-traditional gamers and provide a more attractive demographic for advertisers. Hopkins said banner advertising will support the Web site, alongside promotions for the companies that offer prizes. She declined to give exact financial details. Ads currently running on the site include banners for iVillage.com, an information portal aimed at women, and heath care site WebMD.
Sharon Mannix of Windsor, N.Y., exemplifies the typical Iwin.com player. She’s a stay-at-home mother of five who plays at the site each night to wind down after her kids have gone to bed. She recently won a raffle that earned her 36 packs of Pokemon cards, which, of course, her kids loved.
“My husband is a teacher; he plays at the school in the morning with a couple of his buddies,” she said. “They’ve entered the raffle for $10,000. I’m a little more realistic.”
But the big prizes are out there for the winning, and that keeps many players returning to the site, even after they score big.
Pat Eidson of Lithonia, Ga., found out last week that she had won the raffle for a cruise to the Bahamas and now fears that her lucky streak may be tapped out.
“I was extremely excited,” she said. “I love to win and now I’m thinking that since I won the cruise, do I not get to win any more?”
Eidson plays the game every day and has gotten her sister and her niece, who live with her, into the action as well. They’ve worked out a schedule so they aren’t all trying to get on the site to play at the same time. Eidson or her sister plays earlier in the evening, while her niece gets the later hours.
Eidson was on vacation from work when she found out she had won the cruise, so no one in her office at Bell South knows. She can’t wait to gloat, but realizes there are certain downsides to coming out of the closet as an online gaming junkie.
“I know all I have to do is go to work and tell everybody, and they’ll start playing at the site and that means more competition (in the raffles),” she said. “I keep thinking, ‘Do I really want to share my secret?’ ”
Such obsession worries Andres. Indeed, the signs of having an addiction to online gaming are similar to those in other addictions. People obsess about the next time they will be able to access the Internet, and enthusiasm for participating in other kinds of activities is dampened because the person just wants to get back to their computer.
“I know students that have not done their work and they come in thinking that it’s a time management issue for them,” Andres said. “Playing too many computer games is not the answer they necessarily volunteer. Usually I have to ask them, ‘What are you doing with your time?’ in a way that doesn’t shame them. They need an outlet to confess.”
Andres said she had one patient, a man who became obsessed with a game that involved him trying to conquer the world using a variety of different strategies. He stopped interacting with his family and sought counseling because of the shame he felt about being so enamored with a computer game.
“When you’re new to something, be it a computer game or a new relationship, it’s natural to have an infatuation,” she said. “But after a time, for most people, it kind of evens out and dies down. For some people, though, they say, ‘I’m only going to do this for an hour today,’ and it winds up being six hours.”