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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?

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Undergirding these numbers is a zealous and global fan base. According to game designer and writer Jane McGonigal, a half-billion people on earth play video games an "hour a day," of whom 183 million are American. In fact, 97 percent of American young people ages 12 to 17 play video games. Five million Americans play at least 40 hours a week.

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What they play runs the gamut: games for arcades – what you see at truck stops, in storefronts, at amusement centers – as well as for consoles like the Xbox 360, or for PCs, smart phones, and iPads. And they play things we forget are video games.

"The most popular video game?" asks David Johnson, a professor at American University. "Solitaire."

Of course! The pastime mesmerizing millions of Americans, including one woman I interviewed who could only stop playing at work if she turned her computer to face the hall, where her boss could see her screen. And there's Angry Birds, which has millions discovering the joy of shooting birds at pigs with a slingshot.

These are the "casual games." They don't take much skill. You can play them for five minutes on your phone.

Professor Johnson, armed with degrees in both divinity and anthropology, finds this segment of American culture fascinating. He teaches American University's only course on video games, which includes some history.

"You guys get to make a game today," he says one morning, rushing into class.

Fries is in the class. He's excited. Johnson doesn't mean any game. He means the result of that seminal moment in 1972, when Atari cofounder Nolan Bushnell asked an engineer named Allan Alcorn to create a simple game people might play in bars for quarters. [Editor's note: The year was incorrect in the original.]

Mr. Alcorn did, and set it up in a local tavern. Soon, though, it broke down.

What went wrong? When Alcorn looked, the answer was clear. Nothing. Players couldn't stop. They had poured in quarters until the machine jammed.

Alcorn had invented ...


* * *

It's a game Bruce Nesmith remembers well. Now 52, with three daughters, Mr. Nesmith was about 11 when his dad brought Pong home. "I thought, 'Hey! Games aren't just played with little pieces of cardboard.' "

Nesmith, lead designer on Howard's Skyrim team, sits in the headquarters of Bethesda Game Studios, the Maryland company that produced Skyrim, with two teammates. They also got hooked early.

Matt Carofano, Skyrim's lead artist, 34, got turned on at age 5 by the Atari he and his brother got for Christmas.

"I was a latchkey kid," remembers production director Ashley Cheng, 38. "When my grandmother came home, she'd feel the TV. If it was warm, that meant I was playing games – instead of practicing piano."

The three of them typify one part of the video game world: its creators. For 10 years, they have worked together under Howard on a series of role-playing games called The Elder Scrolls. In RPGs, players create characters, assign them a role, and direct them on quests. The Elder Scrolls have been very popular.


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