From Geek to Chic: Record Sales Signal Video Games' Arrival

It's hardly news anymore that the average video game player is over 30, that millions of women across the globe are gaming or that it's big business akin to the movie industry.

It's possible that gaming has become so commonplace that few have bothered to realize that it might just be … cool.

That's probably why it wasn't widely reported in the mainstream press that the video and PC gaming industry earned record-setting profits last year -- to the tune of about $13.5 billion, an 18 percent increase over 2005, according to the NPD Group.

"It's a pretty significant increase," said Anita Frazier, industry analyst for NPD. "I think we're going to continue to see robust growth in the industry continuing in 2007."

Of course, new game consoles from Sony and Nintendo helped, as did sales of Microsoft's Xbox 360 and the many games released for the system over the year. Hand-held machines and games for the Nintendo DS and Sony PlayStation Portable were instrumental, and a somewhat surprising showing from Sony's last generation PlayStation 2 made it a banner year.

But perhaps the biggest factor in the industry's success during 2006 wasn't the glossy hardware or the cutting-edge games but instead a subtle shift in the once-geeky public perception of the gamer persona. Consumers just don't feel so strange about buying or playing video games anymore.

Everyone's a Gamer

"Whether it's on a console, PC or cell phone, everybody's playing," said Sam Kennedy, editor-in-chief of gaming community and news hub 1UP.com.

People who grew up with video games are getting older -- duh. As that happens, they're the ones with the incomes. They're the heads of households and they choose not to put down their controllers.

Even people who would never consider themselves "gamers," Kennedy said, are still playing online poker, solitaire on their computer or iPod, or maybe a game of Snake on their cell phone.

"There are things we used to talk about that seemed like pie-in-the-sky talk, like the mainstreaming of games, but now I think it's happened," said Jeff Green, editor in chief of Games for Windows: The Official Magazine. "In general, what used to be called 'geeky' is just mainstream nowadays."

The gaming culture is even touching the celebrity set.

Paris Hilton has been spotted with a Nintendo DS hand-held gaming system. Houston Rockets' basketball player Shane Battier almost brags about carrying a top-of-the-line Alienware gaming laptop on the road. What once was geek, it seems, is now is chic.

"People aren't apologizing so much anymore about what they choose to do with their time, even when they're playing games," said Green.

NPD's numbers are focused on the video game console business, PC gaming and the handheld market, but, really, electronic games can be found everywhere -- from news Web sites featuring current events trivia to plug-and-play versions of Pac-Man to handheld blackjack games or Milton Bradley's Battleship. Electronic gaming is just something we do, and it can take many different forms.

Frazier notes that, if anything, the industry is only creating more gamers within the younger generation.

"Games are kind of on the cusp of arriving," she said. "There has been a little bit of a stigma attached to video games, but if you look at the toy industry, the game category is one of the most successful."

Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft, Oh My!

Kennedy believes that to keep gaming in the mainstream, the industry must continue to increase accessibility.

The cost of game consoles -- which can exceed $600 -- keeps some would-be gamers at bay, and many experts believe the complexity of modern games and controllers have been a barrier to entry.

"Everyone can watch a movie," he said, "but not everyone can play a video game."

But that's changing, thanks at least in part to Nintendo's revolutionary Wii video game system.

"What we're seeing with the Wii -- especially with their unique controller -- is a peak into the future of gaming," Kennedy said. "The Wii is cheaper compared to other next gen consoles, and it's a lot easier for anyone to pick up and play."

What makes the Wii different, aside from its $250 price tag, is its motion-sensitive, remote control-shaped controllers, which allow players to simply move to interact with games. To play a few innings of baseball, for example, a player simply makes a throwing motion with the controller to pitch the ball or swings away on offense.

Advanced Graphics, Stories for Sony, Microsoft

While Nintendo is trying to bring in new gamers and also getting ex-gamers back into the hobby, Sony's PlayStation 3 and Microsoft's Xbox 360 are pushing the limits of graphically realistic games, intense Hollywood-caliber story lines and the increasing desire for online play and content.

"The 360 is definitely on a roll," Frazier said. "They've worked out all of the supply issues and Microsoft and the publishers continue to release titles that drive sales.

"Sony has definitely taken a beating in the media, but I wouldn't count them out."

The Playstation 3 offers maybe the best case study in how far people are willing to take their gaming habits. The PS3 is maybe the most ambitious, powerful gaming console on the market, but its price and complexity met with lukewarm reviews when it was released last November.

The problems for Sony began in May 2006 during the gaming industry's big trade show; the Electronic Entertainment Expo, when the company announced the whopping price tag for the new console -- $600 and $500 respectively for the two models.

Sony justified the price with a built-in Blu-ray DVD player that usually costs close to $1,000. The PS3 also delivered tons of raw gaming horsepower, a number of unique features and the ability to play older PlayStation 2 and PlayStation games. But the cheaper $500 model was still $100 more expensive than the high-end Xbox 360 selling for about $400.

"I do think there was a backlash over the price," explained Kennedy. "But if you look at how the PS3 has sold so far, it's actually sold better than the [Xbox] 360 in it's first holiday season and it's even sold better than the PS2 did in the same time frame.

"It's certainly not a failure, in fact it should be considered a major success."

Considering the system has only been out for a few months, Kennedy suggests it may be a while before the industry, and the gamers, can judge the console's performance.

Will Apple Enter the Fray?

In terms of hardware, the gaming industry has always been limited to a few major players -- first Atari and Intellivision; Nintendo and Sega; and now Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft.

But with so many dollars now spent worldwide on video game hardware and software, and with the industry continuing to experience expediential growth, there's likely room for another player.

But who? Think next generation iMac … on steroids.

It's been rumored for years that Apple would make the leap into the gaming by either releasing their own game console or putting greater emphasis on gaming with Mac computers.

"Especially lately, a lot of people are making these comparisons between Apple and Nintendo," said Kennedy. "Everything from their product design to their message and interface."

While PC gaming is big business, with enthusiasts spending upward of $5,000 for a tricked-out computer capable of playing high end games, it's still a market dominated by Windows-based machines.

Though there is some crossover, and games made for Windows do, at times, reach the Mac, Apple has failed to make gaming a priority.

"I love Apple, I'm a big iPod and iTunes user," said Green. "If Apple ever got behind gaming, I'm sure things would be different."

From the product design to their advertising, Apple has a reputation for making technology "cool."

"Steve Jobs and Apple Inc. just make life more fun," said musician John Mayer at this year's MacWorld Expo. "It's like the exact opposite of terrorism."

If they can make pop culture icons like Mayer publicly admit to being gadget-centric, maybe they could do the same for gaming.

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