An article in USA Today yesterday provides a good overview of the popularity of online games on social networks and related Web sites – or “social gaming”. According to the  article, the rapid growth and huge audience numbers of some games and applications is shaking up the gaming industry. Gaming is now the most popular category on Facebook and MySpace. The difference between the new games and perennial online favorites – like World of Warcraft or Sims – is that they are free, widely available and easy to play.

What struck me about this article is not the growth of these virtual games – I’ve been inundated with invites and suggestions on Facebook and Twitter that range from whimsical to ridiculous – but rather the increasing focus on having fun. This trend is repeated in the thousands of apps available for the iPhone and other mobile devices…where bite-sized, novel games or tools (many of them good mostly for a laugh) are a popular download for many users.

For years the communication profession has frowned on fun, inferring that information can’t be credible or understood unless it’s serious and laden with facts. I’ve long believed that fun – injected in the right measure and manner – can make communication more memorable and effective. It’s worked well in advertising for years, but PR has mostly shut the door except for soft product marketing campaigns. Now that social media has further blurred the lines between work and play – and corporate and personal information – the battle rages on. The same debate is happening in training, where some e-learning advocates push for creative, interactive modules that feature plenty of smart humor, and more traditional HR practitioners who continue to promote face-to-face sessions supported by pedantic slides and toolkits. Fun need not be trivial, of course, but rather an attempt to inject some excitement, imagination and intellect into the training exercise. Somebody I worked with in my Dell days, Anders Gronstedt, has been promoting the use of virtual worlds like Second Life and on-demand digital content as a better alternative for training and communication. [Full disclosure, Anders is a good friend of mine and once shared my tent during a two-week climb of Kilimanjaro.]

We’ve all heard the axiom that people absorb  information better through a combination of senses – pictures, sounds, touch and words – than just speakers or words on a slide. I would argue the same logic should apply to adding an element of fun to traditional communication content – whether it be on a website, a memo or even an activity. Clearly, consumers are telling us they value entertaining content and modules, even if they serve a useful purpose. It’s time to pay attention to what our audience is telling us.