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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With Skyrim, the fifth in the series, the team wanted to go beyond what they had ever done.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Video games: A $25 billion industry
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Which means ... what? They definitely wanted to include dragons. "It's like the holy grail," says Mr. Cheng. But the team didn't want ordinary ones.
"We want to produce suspension of disbelief," Nesmith says. He looks at me to make sure I know what he means.
Like any good English major, I do. He's quoting Samuel Taylor Coleridge, writing in 1817 of what he wanted to achieve in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner": the "semblance of truth" that might make readers forget he'd made it up.
And so, in the quest for realism, the Skyrim team invented a language for dragons. They studied film of bats to give dragons the qualities that would make them look familiar. Mr. Carofano remembers with pleasure how, as he previewed Skyrim for reviewers, they applauded when the first dragon appeared.
I want to understand what absorbs game designers. I ask Nesmith to describe something he'd obsess about with Skyrim.
"I wanted our magic system to get a face-lift," he says. In other games, when a character threw a magic fireball at the enemy, it was just a little red ball. "We wanted it to have a tail. Scatter flames! Leave a footprint!"
To watch Skyrim confirms Howard's vision. The obsessions Nesmith describes, the technical advances spurred by the industry, the years Bethesda was willing to allot to it – all combine to produce a beguilingly varied world.
Now the Skyrim team is sending out "patches" – ways to fix the inevitable bugs players have reported. So far, not only have 10 million played, but those who have done so on a PC, which the company can track, average a total of 75 hours each.
What's so compelling?
* * *
Fries sits in his parents' living room in Virginia, wearing a faded green Peace&Love T-shirt, controller in hand. He's got Skyrim up on the big screen. His father and a friend, Tom Harvey, watch.
No dragons this time. His character has a more limited quest: making his way across frozen tundra toward a town. As he travels, Fries makes choices for him.
Fight or retreat? Enter a cavern or choose another way? Walk slowly or run ahead? It's what Fries has done playing video games for more than a decade.
"The average young person racks up 10,000 hours of gaming by the age of 21," says Ms. McGonigal. Ten thousand hours. It's a number made famous recently by Malcolm Gladwell's book "Outliers." In it, he offers the 10,000-hour-rule, based on research by a Swedish psychologist who argues that it might take that much time to become really good at something.
Pianists do it. Why not gamers? Forty-hour-a-week gamers might seem scary. Fries and Harvey are more typical. They met when Harvey managed one of the 6,500 stores in the GameStop chain, now the largest American retail outlet for video games. When Fries turned 16, Harvey hired him as his assistant.
Games don't totally dominate their lives. Fries keeps up with schoolwork. Harvey now manages a clothing store. They are articulate, funny, and take showers. But they've both put in their 10,000 hours – including entire days on weekends.