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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Maybe get your mind off the economy by playing video games.

In this country, that usually means playing on a computer or on a console, like the PlayStation or the Wii. More and more people are playing on their smartphones. But still, we have not caught up to the Japanese, where gaming on phones is an obsession, and some companies there are eyeing the U.S. market.

Here's Lucy Craft.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Japanese spoken)

LUCY CRAFT, BYLINE: On the subway, in doctor's waiting rooms and during college lectures, you'll find millions of Japanese glued to their smartphones. But they're not texting or making phone calls.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN)

CRAFT: There are no sound effects, no buttons to push, but that glassy-eyed stare, that occasional swipe of the screen, is a dead giveaway - it means game on.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The doors on the left side is open.

CRAFT: Ice coffee in one hand, iPhone in the other, grad student Yoshiro Hinoki is fixated on slaying tiny cartoon monsters.

YOSHIRO HINOKI: (Through Translator) I like that you can play games whenever you have a few minutes, and, for just a little money, you get quick results. I like that feeling of achievement.

CRAFT: Hinoki is one of an estimated 40 million users - that's one out of every three Japanese - who have signed up to play games on their cell phones. Only about a third of these players are active, but that's enough to have ignited a mobile gaming juggernaut here over the last few years, dominated by a few Japanese startups.

Unlike the complex, intense and cinematic experience of sit-down video games, the cell phone variety is about as deep as a round of tic-tac-toe. Yet, consultant Serkan Toto says mobile gaming perfectly satisfies one of the most basic of human needs - killing those slices of time on the way to something else.

SERKAN TOTO: The majority of these games are designed in a way that they can be played in short bursts, in five minutes to 10 minute intervals, because most people don't like to use games on their mobile devices for extended gaming sessions.

CRAFT: All those minutes of play add up to huge revenues. Morgan Stanley predicts that by next year, the mobile gaming business could be worth more than $5 billion dollars - while old-school gaming companies like Nintendo, Sony and Sega, are in eclipse.

HINOKI: (Japanese spoken)

CRAFT: Like most players, Hinoki does his best to play for free, but as he shows me, this takes willpower. Without buying weapons and other virtual gear, games end in seconds and can't be restarted without a waiting period. But there are enough hardcore gamers to generate windfall profits for gaming operators, some spending upwards of 6,000 dollars a month.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CRAFT: Even if you've never heard of "Fishing Star" or "Slam Dunk," it's almost impossible to escape the glitzy ads by gaming giants like Gree, which has made its 35-year-old founder, Yoshikazu Tanaka, Japan's youngest billionaire.

Critical to the success of mobile gaming in Japan is that almost all players are anonymous. Serkan Toto says the setup is tailor-made for the Japanese.

TOTO: My personal take is that this has something to do with the Japanese way of interacting, socially, in the real life, where, you know, direct confrontation or direct interaction with people is not usually the norm.

CRAFT: Businessman Takashi Taira spends two hours a day trading virtual collectible cards with people he'll never speak with or see.

TAKASHI TAIRA: (Through Translator) Most of the people I play with are near-total strangers. If they say they're 30, they might be 60 or even in grade school. If everyone is anonymous, then it doesn't matter if people lie.

CRAFT: Taira shows me his avatar, a cute tousled hair boy. It couldn't be less like the middle-aged man in a suit sitting before me.

TAIRA: (Through Translator) In gaming, you can become someone else. This is very appealing to the Japanese. I don't know about the other players, but as for me, when I play, I try to become that character.

CRAFT: Game companies took a hit this year, after regulators banned a lucrative practice that left children saddled with huge bills. But some analysts say this won't slow the companies, which have proven adroit, creating new ways of separating players from their money.

Meanwhile, Gree and Japanese rival DeNA are taking on the San Francisco-based Zynga and trying to replicate their success in the U.S. In the social gaming world it's, game on.

For NPR News, this is Lucy Craft in Tokyo.

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