The popularity of free, online video games is increasing worldwide, a trend driven by Americans turning to this diversion during the economic downtown, says global digital tracker comScore.

As Americans cut back on gaming-related purchases, they are switching to free online games, said Edward Hunter, director of gaming solutions at comScore.

“I think this is compounded by people's sort of age-old tendency to take away the stresses of a recession with various forms of entertainment,” Hunter said Thursday from Chicago.

About 86 million Americans visited free online games last December, up from about 67 million in December '07. ComScore didn't have Canadian statistics available, but Hunter said a comparable rise likely occurred in this country.

Hunter said free online video game playing is growing in North America, Europe and Asia, adding that “consumer eyeballs flock to these sites” and those with ads have benefited.

But he said their global popularity isn't entirely due to tough economic times.

“I think it has been an evolving trend globally for more reasons than that. There are just a lot of populations out there that have never really had the discretionary income” to pay for video games.

Individual games weren't tracked for their popularity; instead, comScore tracked gaming sites.

Yahoo Games ranked as the most visited site for Americans for free online games, with 19.5 million visitors last December, up 20 per cent from December '07.

EA Online was second with 15.4 million visitors, up 21 per cent; Disney Games had 13.4 million visitors, up 13 per cent; had 13.3 million visitors, up 74 per cent.

The 10th most visited site, Spil Games, saw traffic surge 269 per cent to 6.7 million visitors last December.

Technology analyst Marc Saltzman said that instead of spending $40 to $60 on a video game, millions of gamers looking for a “digital distraction” are turning to the Internet for free offerings.

“There is no shortage of online and downloadable games that are 100 per cent free to play, covering every genre, be it action or arcade, strategy, adventure, sports, puzzle, simulation and role-playing games,” said Saltzman, who has written several books on gaming including “Game Design: Secrets of the Sages.”

“Especially given tough times and the ailing economy on a global scale, more and more people are playing. . . . What better time to lose yourself for a few minutes or a few hours in a virtual getaway. It's a safe sort of cyber-escape from everyday, sort of mundane lives,” said Saltzman.

Despite challenges for web advertisers, revenue from display ads is contributing to the creation of more free online games.

“The fact that these games can now monetize in an ad-supported fashion is actually causing a surge in the amount of content. We're not only seeing more eyes being drawn to these free games, we're seeing more free games to draw the eyes to,” Hunter said.

He added that free games could be developed as marketing vehicles to “deliver a targeted brand message.”

Saltzman agreed, adding that gaming is crossing over into toys, with toymakers using online gaming as a “way to extend the toy experience.”

In some cases, the game itself is “one big ad,” Saltzman added.