By day, Cary Szeto pursues her next job as an investment banker, sending out résumés and calling fellow economists to discuss stocks and bonds.
In her free time, the University of Texas graduate pursues a seemingly improbable passion: Ms. Szeto leads Bad Girls, an online clan of videogame enthusiasts.
The group plays two to three hours a day, linking up over the Internet to practice against themselves or to square off against another online clan in the shoot-'em-up game Quake III. "It's fun," she says. "I just do it to relax."
Szeto is the face of America's latest entertainment craze. As videogames become more sophisticated, they are outselling movie tickets, and the players, increasingly, are people who have left high school far behind.
The average age of the casual videogamer is now 28, up from 18 a decade ago, according to one recent survey. More than 60 percent of those who've played videogames for less than a year are, like Szeto, women.
"Interactive entertainment is as natural and basic as watching TV or listening to the radio were for the previous generations," says Doug Lowenstein, president of the Interactive Digital Software Association, which conducted the survey.
Technology and demographics explain why videogames are no longer associated merely with gangly teenage boys in video arcades.
Games today can do things nobody could have imagined a generation ago.
In so-called "God games," players control vast simulated worlds. In Sega's "Seaman," players raise a half-fish, half-man creature they can talk to and teach. Sports titles let players select the hair color, height, weight, and facial features of, say, a golfer or skateboarder. In Quake III, the choice of weapons adds complexity and uncertainty: "If you're not good with one, you can use another and still win," Szeto says.
Then, there is the generational shift.
People who came of age with videogames 25 years ago now have kids of their own, and they take electronic play for granted.
While the games have one thing in common with television a video screen the two pastimes have a very different character.
"In the virtual world, they are responsible for their each and every move," writes Jean-Francois William in "William's Almanac," a newly launched annual report on videogames. "Adults and kids are exploring roles they have never had a chance to play in real life. This is a far cry from the sort of passive attitude TV has been peddling."
Adults and kids alike seem to relish the change.
The interactive entertainment industry already has surpassed the film industry by more than a billion dollars, pulling in $8.3 billion in 2000.
The soaring sales, in turn, are luring fresh money to the industry. And the opportunity to create cutting-edge entertainment is attracting talent that even a decade ago would have gone into movies.
"This is where the vision is. The people with something to say are driving this industry," says game developer John Howard. The Nebraska native says that in an earlier day, he would have headed off to be a director in Hollywood. Instead, he went to Seattle to help launch Microsoft's Xbox game console.
The vision includes nothing short of the convergence of all entertainment technologies, led by videogames. That dream has not quite yet arrived, but it gets closer with each hot new game.
Sony's big title for this fall is "The Getaway," a hostage thriller set in London. The opening credits roll like a film, but instead of players passively watching a story unroll, they get to play with characters that were created by scanning well-known actors and their voices into computers. The game has 42 miles of London streets for players to explore.
The "God games," such as the wildly popular SIMS series, have become particularly sophisticated, Mr. Lowenstein says. Players "develop a relationship with their people and that's very different from what games used to be."
Along with complexity, the sheer variety of games has also multiplied. Everything from war to love, from history to career planning, has been turned into some form of game. And you can play them by yourself or with thousands of like-minded gamers over the Internet.
Not every adult is hooked on videogames (not yet, at least), but there are more opportunities than ever. Games are popping up everywhere from cellphones to Palm Pilots to minivans prewired for consoles and videogame monitors.
"We like to call it pervasive gaming," says Microsoft's J Allard, general manager for Xbox.
If Szeto is any guide, pervasive is not a far-fetched choice of words.
"I actually have two clans," says the 20-something. "One just for me and my girls and the other is with guys." Some of her friends are in her own town. Others are far-flung friends from her college days.
Clearly videogames are becoming a mega-business, with industry forecasts predicting that the interactive entertainment will hit $21.4 billion annually by 2005.
But beyond the money, interactive electronic games are here to stay, says Lowenstein, because they appeal to many basic human desires and are accessible to so many participants. "They are one of the few areas of life in which there are no geographic, age, ability or gender barriers to participation."