Video gaming, an industry characterized by cherubic cartoon characters and alien invasions, has long been viewed as the adolescent of consumer electronics.
While most people now use a personal computer, the stereotypical gamer remains the same: a slightly nerdy teenage male, cooped up in his bedroom for six hours at a stretch, bonding with characters named Zelda, Munch, and Cloud Strife.
Now designers are trying to broaden dramatically who uses the games in America's living rooms.
With the advent of sophisticated new technology, a generation of games is emerging that designers hope will entice more women, young adults, and even parents to tomorrow's mouses and joysticks. They project a sort of neo Ozzie-and-Harriet living room of the future: Families gathered around a video console - like the hearth of old - playing electronic games after dinner.
But as the new games become more lifelike and real, they are sure to exacerbate the tension in US homes over how much time kids spend staring at screens.
The boldest gambit behind making video games more pervasive in the home is coming from Microsoft. Its unveiling this weekend of the new Xbox console marks a turning point for an industry that, some suggest, has never received due respect from its mainstream rivals.
Indeed, as sales of PCs dropped for the first time in history last year, many at the Consumer Electronics Show here are pointing to the video-game console as the next center of electronic innovation.
"Like other manufacturers, Microsoft wants to get into the living room," says Marjorie Costello, editor of CE Online News. "PC penetration has peaked, so they're looking to gain a foothold in home entertainment through video games."
The games themselves are yielding tremendous revenue. PlayStation 2 (PS2) manufacturer Sony generated two-thirds of its corporate-wide profits through game sales last year. With industry sales expected to surge, electronic giants like Microsoft have sought a share of the bounty.
One key reason for the profit boom: The technology, enabled by more memory and powerful microprocessors, is cutting edge. The advancements are a priority for younger users who want to squish graphic-based maggots with a digital mallet, but only with the latest 3-D imaging.
"Making video games has become like making a movie," says David Perry, president of game designer Shiny Entertainment. "Guys from Hollywood are starting to get into the business, working on lighting and audio and direction."
The final product is often a comprehensive fictional world. Characters have discernible personalities with detailed physiques, down to their toenails. Soon, engineers promise, users will grow increasingly attached to their digital personas as they experience their lifelike sighs and sweat.
Kai Kamp, a young, soft-spoken man currently absorbed in Sony's intricate Final Fantasy game, is a self-described "hardcore gamer." He falls into the standard demographic, but Mr. Kamp says the technology he loves is drawing new users, too. "I see people all the time playing that I wouldn't expect. There's something for everyone now."
Case in point: Women are the fastest-growing segment of game players, according to the Interactive Digital Software Association in Washington.
"Consoles can now deliver personality and a driven story line," says Chris Melissinos, of Sun Microsystems. "The content is so compelling, it will start to outpace traditional media and draw in people who aren't playing video games now."
In the battle for consumers' time at home, the console's advantage over the PC is its entrenched status as a tool for entertainment. Microsoft researchers found that people associate the PC with work, and feel more comfortable playing games on a video-game system.
Both the PS2 and Xbox can play DVDs. And Sony has predicted that home entertainment devices will converge into the one video game console, making the PS2 the center of family computing, gaming, movies, television, and the Internet.
Analysts maintain that adults might soon be playing a game show after dinner and before dessert, or learning the lindy hop on a virtual dance floor before going out to do the real thing.
Still, not all consumers are enamored of the prospect of more lifelike gaming. Criticism of video-game violence swelled last year after a series of shootings involving adolescents, most notably at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., left many questioning the influence of shoot-and-kill games on young users.
"I don't appreciate the violence I saw," said Ms. Costello after Microsoft's demonstration of the Xbox Saturday. "It's ironic that the state-of-the-art technology is still being used to create gruesome games where people are portrayed killing people."
Critics worry new technology could tempt designers to stretch good taste even further.
"There are games of horrific annihilation, and their graphics will only become more enhanced," says Pamela Eakes, president of Mothers Against Violence In America. "We have to rely on the companies to restrict themselves."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society