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Cover Story

Video game nation: Why so many play

A journey through the world of video games, which 183 million Americans play – 25 percent over age 50. What's behind the fascination?

By Robert A. LehrmanCorrespondent / March 18, 2012

A conventiongoer and the 'Dark Void' character at the E3 Expo in Los Angeles. This is the cover story in the March 19 weekly edition of The Christian Science Monitor.

Danny Moloshok/File/REUTERS

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Washington

We see it.

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Gliding through the sky, long neck undulating, great, ridged wings beating, the dragon looks ... beautiful. Until it lands.

Thumbs working the controller, Matt Fries, a freshman at American University in Washington, D.C., throws fireballs at it with both hands. The dragon lifts off, and lands again. It belches out a stream of yellow and orange flame.

"He's done a lot of damage," Mr. Fries mutters. But it's early in the game.

As in video game. Sitting in his tiny Washington apartment, Fries is doing what millions – actually, 10 million – have done over the last few months: fighting dragons in the celebrated new game Skyrim.

Since its November release, Skyrim has won award after award and led reviewers to call it the "greatest role-playing video game ever made." In its first month, it made $650 million, almost double the entire year's gross in the United States for "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2," the bestselling movie of 2011.

Gamers know this. Why don't you?

C'mon. You don't. One surprising thing about the video game industry is that while adults play – in fact, 25 percent of players are over age 50 – most are unaware of how prevalent it has become in American culture.

For many parents, video games are what our kids love – and we fear. One antigame blogger describes an avid user this way: a kid who "rarely goes outside, showers, or interacts with the opposite sex." The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry warns that children playing violent games "can imitate the violence they see."

We have esthetic complaints, too. A few years ago film critic Roger Ebert infuriated gamers by arguing that video games "can never be art."

Skyrim is a useful starting point to examine that view precisely because it has won so much praise.

"We design worlds," says industry legend and Skyrim director Todd Howard.

Mr. Howard means that instead of giving players the simple, gobble-up-the-bad-guys goal of the 32-year-old video game icon Pac-Man, games like Skyrim allow players to explore richly textured worlds, full of choice.

Well, the video game industry is itself a world worth exploring. Just how big is it? How many play? What makes games so popular? Can they do harm? Are they useful? Or – as a Wall Street Journal headline put it – "Are Violent Videogames a Threat to Society? Or Works of Art?"

* * *

First, the big picture. In 2011, the American video game industry says it:

•Recorded $25 billion in sales.

•Accounted for about 120,000 American jobs directly or indirectly.

•Paid workers an average of $90,000 a year, mostly in five states: California, Texas, Washington, New York, and Massachusetts.

Since 2005, the industry has grown eight times faster than the US economy. This is enough to have earned it the ultimate status symbol in Washington: a bipartisan congressional caucus to support games.

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