Call it the Return of the Halo Effect. It's that short period – now in full throttle – after the release of "Halo 3," the most successful debut of a video game in history.
It's been a few years, but parents, teachers, and bystanding friends have seen this phenomenon before. "Halo" fanatics, with a $60 receipt and new game in hand, drop everything – homework, jobs, food, sleep – to sit for hours in the glow of the Xbox 360 to play, and maybe beat, the alien race.
At $170 million in sales in its first day in stores, "Halo 3" is a cultural behemoth that overshadows (in terms of dollars spent) the bestselling movie of all time ("Spider-Man 3," at $151 million over three days) and probably the last Harry Potter book (an estimated $166 million in the first day).
It's a staggering figure that reinforces a growing recognition, including among the Atari generation and researchers, of video games as a social experience rather than as a peculiar hobby or a distraction.
That may explain why parents would trek to the strip mall after midnight on Tuesday or after work on Wednesday to help their children be among the first to own "Halo 3."
Still, many offered some interesting rationales, with just a hint of defensiveness.
"This is like chess for the 21st century," argued Jeremiah Pick, a father in Berkeley, Calif. "Maybe there is a future for him in this," he said of his son.
One mother said indoor games are safer than roaming the neighborhood.
And a slightly balding father, standing next to his mop-haired son, exclaimed: "Oh, this isn't for him. This is for me!"
For Mary Phillips of Castro Valley, Calif., it's a window into her son's world. She scans the 50 youths lined up late Monday – some for seven hours or more, others scribbling out homework – waiting to be among the first to get the game. "I thought we'd make a family event of it, so that way I could see what it was all about," she says. "I see that it's an older group, [but] it looks like a good group of people."
Another mother sees video games as, in essence, today's neighborhood hangout.
"Thirty years ago you could run around a neighborhood at night. These days you can't let them out like that," says Connie Young of Oakland. "The neighborhood is no longer what is used to be as a source for friends."
Ms. Young likes the way games such as "Halo" allow for team play over the Internet or together in a room.
Her son Kevin says he has made friends he would never have made otherwise. He has traveled as far as the Czech Republic to play in professional "Halo 2" competitions. "You practice with your team on the weekends," he says, likening it to playing sports. "You go to dinner together, you party together, you get so accustomed to each other that you think in a unified way."
The move from physical hangouts like neighborhoods and malls to virtual ones like an online "Halo" match between distant players worries Prof. Michael Bugeja, author of "Interpersonal Divide: The Search for Community in a Technological Age," which argues that technology is often used to isolate people into affinity groups that are easier marketing targets.
"The problem I see in young students is they know how to work really well in their affinity group like 'Halo,' " he says, but have more trouble with cultural differences. "Life is a rich, fulfilling experience where we should talk to people who challenge our beliefs."
Other experts disagree, noting that networked games can bring people together from across generations and continents. "Most gamers don't just sit and play a game. They take part in this wider community, and it often involves teaching each other," says Jane McGonigal with the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, Calif., a group that studies emerging trends.
While video games may be gaining credibility with some parents as a social lubricant, concerns about their addictive and isolating potential haven't disappeared.
The American Psychiatric Association has flirted with formally recognizing "video game addiction." And teachers and principals say they notice games getting in the way of academics for some students.
"I have had a couple of students in my classes in the past whom I had chronically not gotten any homework from. When I pulled them aside they said, 'I've got a gaming problem,' " says Bethany Blackwell, a high school teacher in Lafayette, Calif.
Beyond the extreme cases, some data suggest that gaming does cut into the time students spend on schoolwork. Nearly half of college gamers said interactive games pulled them away from studying sometimes, according to a 2003 survey by the Pew Research Center.
Another study, from the University of Texas at Austin, found that boys spend nearly an hour on average per weekday playing video games and 97 minutes per day on weekends. Though they do spend less time doing homework, they still get it done, the study concluded.
Gamers who no longer live with their parents more often talk about playing long hours. "I told my boss three or four months ago I wasn't coming in" when "Halo 3" debuts, says Malcolm Lear as he waited hours in line Monday. "I have a can of Red Bull at home, and it's going to keep me up for a long time."
Long bouts of game play don't worry Ken Goldberg of the UC Berkeley Center for New Media. "Oftentimes the same kid who spends all that time figuring out how to optimize his play is going to figure out how to optimize some computer program," he says. "That kind of real focused commitment is usually a good skill."