This week in San Francisco, the technology industry’s leading lights gathered for the second annual TechCrunch 50 (nee 40, 20) to pick the best and most exciting new companies and business ideas. The event, spearheaded by the insidery blog TechCrunch, is designed to ferret out the best new companies and ideas regardless of their stage, ability to pay, or PR savvy.

As usual, there are myriad doubts about the honesty of the process and politicization of the choices, but the basic premise is sound: filter a large number of ideas to 52 good ones and let the experts decide on the best and brightest.

As with last year, a number of “games” made it to the finalists’ podium – though there were almost twice as many. This year’s finalists included GrockIt, Atmosphir, Akoha and Playce. Although they are all interesting in one way or another, only two of them could be considered casual (GrockIt, Akoha). Atmosphir (a 3D game/level construction system) and Playce (an in-browser 3D game development and distribution platform) were both interesting, but despite claiming to be casual (is it just a buzzword everyone needs to have in their presentations these days?) they were nothing of the sort.  3D, level design, shoot ’em ups, 40MB client downloads and linux compatibility don’t really speak to either the achievements of the casual game industry (keep it simple!) or the base desire of its primary audience (easy to play, hard to master), do they?

I told Atmosphir to drop the casualness from their pitch, because I thought it distracted from their super cool product. Of course, they did make it into the top 5, so that – and the slightly inane comments of the panelists – show you how much I (they?) know.

But let’s focus on the positive and take a look at Akoha. Akoha is a “pay it forward” game that relies on the distribution of “mission” cards (I’m sure the overtones are incidental). These cards give you a specific task, such as share a good book with a friend, or help a startup founder in need. You get a card, register it on your Akoha personal website page (by typing in a custom code), and then complete the mission. Although not obligatory, the more information you enter about the card, how you got it, who you gave it to, etc., the more interesting the history of the game becomes.

Akoha’s website experience is a lot like a simplified social network, with friends, a news feed, and profile information, but wrapped up in leaderboards, points and rankings – making great use of funware design concepts. The cards you give and get can be purchased as physical cards (order and ship or eventually in retail), or as online cards you can download and print. Austin Hill, Akoha’s super amiable founder, assures us that soon you’ll even be able to create your own custom missions.

As a general rule, the panelists at TC50 didn’t ask very salient questions about the games and funware they saw, but Akoha did get an interesting volley from the well-known blogger Robert Scoble. He asked how long it would be until people were handing out “get a latte at Starbucks” cards. Although the audience laughed, the question was more serious than sarcastic – and Austin assured us that missions were being moderated.

I’ve known about the game for some time, and have been super excited to see it live and in action. It seems that games with a positive message, and the basic concepts of using game design to get people to do good are compelling and engaging ideas whose time has come.

The other casual/Funware application from TC50 is one that I’ve heard some buzz about these past months: Grockit. Developed as the world’s first “Massively Multiplayer Online Learning Game,” Grockit’s premise is that by wrapping game design concepts (leaderboards, challenges, badges and collaborative play) around a serious topic (learning), players will improve their ability to hit stretch goals in their personal learning objectives.

The Grockit team showed an example of an adult learner studying for a standardized test. They log in and start taking quizzes (designed by Grockit staffers), while simultaneously engaging in some stimulating chat with others in the same learning area. Each correct answer results in points being awarded, there’s a leveling up concept, and even a notion of experts with specific domain knowledge of interest; GMAT black-belt, anyone?

Grockit’s whole design ethos strongly mirrors my opinions about the future of interactions – that we’re heading into an era where every activity will be wrapped in a game or game-like play. We call this idea Funware, and Grockit is a perfect poster child for the notion. Of course, while watching their presentation, a VC leaned over to me and asked “Where’s the game?”

I found that especially amusing. Apparently, so did the judges – awarding them a Top 5 finish. And while I did want to see Akoha win – especially considering its message and creative design, it was heartening to see that the judges could identify the game-changing nature of Grockit’s idea. There’s no denying – all things being equal, learning is more fun if it’s wrapped in a game.

Casual, indeed.