Sorry, Mario: Smartphones Are the Hot New Game

Smartphones are being used increasingly as multi-purpose mobile devices, with activities ranging from standard communication to managing websites and doing your taxes. This flexibility, in combination with connectivity, high performing video hardware and social networks is leading more consumers to play games on the devices, too: 60 percent of smartphone owners are gaming on a monthly basis using their handset.

This datapoint comes from Zokem, which gathers smartphone usage data from nine different countries in lieu of questionnaires or other research surveys. According to the company’s analysis, gaming is now tied for the fifth most engaging use for smartphones, along with personal information management (PIM) activities, following more common uses such as messaging, voice communications, web browsing, and social networking. The activity rankings are based on user engagement, in the form of device face time on a minutes-per-month basis.

Somewhat surprisingly, smartphone game engagement bests multimedia usage. While games can be addictive, many are short-form, meaning you can play for a few minutes and walk away. The same can be said of music or videos, but both activities can be heavy time-consumers as well. Pandora Radio, for example, continues to be a top app in various apps stores and can run in the background. YouTube (s goog) videos are often just a few minutes long, but watching full-length movie rentals on mobile devices via Netflix (s nflx), iTunes (s aapl) or other video stores is time-consuming and on the rise. This is especially true in the teen segment, a prime gaming audience, says a Nielsen survey from December; teens watch twice as much mobile video as other age groups.

Outside of Angry Birds and traditional game favorites, such as Jewels and Solitaire, many smartphone owners are engaging in cross-platform games or game portals used to play with others. The Zokem data shows Words With Friends and FarmVille, for example, are popular for smartphone users to at least try. Why might these hold high spots? Games are available on multiple mobile platforms and can be played with others practically anywhere due to the data connectivity offered by a handset. This differs from the traditional handheld gaming consoles such as those from Nintendo and Sony (s sne).

While both of those platforms have added connectivity in the form of Wi-Fi, both lack the mobile broadband offered in a smartphone. Of course, both also avoid expensive monthly data plan charges as a result. But as my colleague Mike Wolf once pointed out, the software model used for Nintendo and Sony’s game devices is broken as compared to smartphone app stores. Instead of paying $29 or more for a single game title on a dedicated device, smartphone gamers can spend far less, ranging from free or ad-supported titles to some top-tier games priced at $12.99.

Mike’s original post on this subject garnered nearly 200 comments, so the growing role of smartphones as game platforms certainly touched a nerve; many readers felt the two markets were completely different. Based on Zokem’s research, Sony’s addition of PSP games and controls to the Xperia Play Android (s goog) phone, and the inclusion of Xbox Live (s msft) games on Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 platform, I think there’s more overlap here than people realize. Is it “game over” for dedicated mobile entertainment devices?