At "Gamesville's Bingo Zone," hundreds of people compete against each other in real time, for free, and win up to $20 for a bingo. Of course, the odds of Aunt Alice surfing the Web are about the same as her surfing at Malibu. A point not lost on Steven N. Kane, co-founder and president of Boston-based nineCo, Inc., the company that created Gamesville.
"We never set out to get bingo players to surf the Web," said the 35-year-old entrepreneur. "The stereotype is that bingo players are all grannies in church basements. But lots of people like to play bingo."
In fact, when nineCo was formed in August 1995 (Kane said the name stands for "no inventory, no employees, cash only"), the last thing on the founders minds was bingo -- or Aunt Alice. Rather, Kane said, they wanted to bring TV game shows and their advertisers to the Internet.
"On TV game shows only three people play while the world watches," he said. "With our online game shows, thousands of people would compete in real-time for real cash."
The games would be free, so it wouldn't be gambling. But players would have to register, during which they would provide demographic information about themselves that would be used to attract advertisers. Kane said the last decision they made before going online was which game show to use, and that's when a funny thing happened: "We wanted a game that already existed, and it turned out that there was only one game that could be played by a huge group of players."
Which concerned Kane, because bingo's granny connotation was not the age group most advertisers seek. But on the day they launched their site in April 1996, the Wall Street Journal ran a story about Gen Xers playing bingo in bars. "It was as if God had whispered to us," Kane said.
Gamesville now has 640,000 registered users, and has been growing by as many as 50,000 users a month. The average age is 32, and 58 percent are female. Up to 2,400 players can compete in the same game, which average around a thousand players, and take about 10 minutes. There are four winners an hour, 18 hours a day, seven days a week. The average payout is $5, and the most anyone has won from the beginning is about $600.
In October, Gamesville introduced a second game called Picturama, a show biz trivia game where contestants unscramble a word or phrase with a gradually revealed photo as a clue to the puzzle. While bingo is a game of chance, Picturama is more of a skill game, Kane said.
Between games, players are shown full screen ads with links to sponsor websites. Gamesville's advertisers include Microsoft, Sony, Sprint, AT&T, JCPenny, Publisher's Clearing House, Excite, Prodigy and US Lottery, among others.
Gamesville may be the only site where hundreds of people compete against each other, but many other sites use the game show model. For example, Sony <www.station.sony.com> has online versions of "Jeopardy" and "Wheel of Fortune," and Bezerk <www.bezerk.com> has an online version of "You Don't Know Jack," which has been described as "Jeopardy on crack."
The Sony site also has a built-in buddy list feature for players to chat with each other, and a lot of other bells and whistles that tend to crash your computer. Kane said he prides himself on staying "one step behind the technology," so Gamesville is accessible to most people with a computer and a modem. The site also provides such community services as the Gamesville Mall (an online shopping area), a newsletter, horoscopes, personal ads, jokes and links to some of the regular players' home pages, including, it must be reported, "The Lawrence Welk Mailing List" <welk.buffnet.net>.
While concerned that if his website gets a reputation of a "grannies club" it will scare off advertisers, Kane also notes that senior citizens are among the fastest growing groups going online, and that seniors can benefit from computers in a lot of ways besides bingo. He added that The Bingo Zone plays great on Web TV, those inexpensive and relatively simple-to-use Web surfers that look and work a lot like TV sets.
"Did we set out to get your Aunt Alice to our website?
No," Kane said. "But would we welcome her there. You bet."