Laugh all you want at the thousands of gamers who stood in lines for hours to nab a copy of "Halo 3" for its midnight release Monday, but you're in the minority. Earning more money in 24 hours than the "Spiderman" movies and the latest Harry Potter tome -- $170 million, "Halo 3" symbolizes the move of video games -- once the province of socially awkward, pimply faced teenage boys -- into the mainstream.
And everyone, from nursing home residents to Hollywood directors, it seems, wants a piece of the action.
Gamers have long been stereotyped as geeky, anti-social types, but the numbers paint a different picture. According to the market research firm NPD, two-thirds of Americans are involved in some sort of video gaming, whether they're playing solitaire at their desk or hunkered down in the subway with their Sony PSP.
Similarly last year, the sales of video and PC games in the United States totaled $13.5 billion, NPD's research shows. Furthermore, sales across the entire industry are up 43 percent so far in 2007. NPD predicts the industry will take in up to $18 billion by year's end.
It's not just that gaming is more popular than ever before -- it's also a matter of the changing face of the typical gamer.
Hal Halpin, president of the Entertainment Consumers Association, a nonprofit group for gamers, said that for the "Halo 3" release, the association had people at different Game Stop video stores around the country. "The diversity of the people in the line was unbelievable ... [from the] 36 year-old professional dad standing next to the 17-year-old high school student and the soccer moms there," said Halpin.
"I had sort of preconceived notions. I had my own ideas," Halpin said. "Seeing these people firsthand, they're just about every kind of shape and make. There's definitely not the stereotypical gamer anymore -- a much larger cross-section than you would see earlier."
According to Halpin, the audience for video games is expanding for a few reasons: One, kids who grew up playing Pong on Atari or Super Mario Brothers on Nintendo are maturing with the industry and looking to reignite that old nostalgia, and two, the games themselves are becoming more inclusive.
They're not just toys anymore.
"People who grew up in Generation X and certainly the leading part of Generation Y grew up [with video games] as part of their entertainment diet," Halpin said.
But "as the media matured so did the people who played them," he said. Today "video games are seen as a consumer electronics device rather than a toy," Halpein said.
Not only that, Halpin said, the manufacturers of these games are attracting new players with the development of games based on traditional games or sports like football or Scrabble.
"The soccer moms make up such a large version of the casual market," he said. "They ended up playing board games with their friends and are seeing there's a lot more than that" on video games.
Halpin's theories jibe with the Deloitte's State of the Media Democracy Report, which measured Americans' attitudes about technology and how they use it.
"There's a strong indication that people are yearning for more human to human contact. When we ask folks what they intended on doing more [in the next year], they said having dinner with friends and hanging out with family," said Ed Moran, director of product innovation for Deloitte's Technology, Media and Telecommunications group, and a self-proclaimed fan of the "Halo" series. "Looking at something like the Wii, the user interface is such a social one they can do all those activities together. I would not be surprised if you saw a big uptick in older generations using those devices."
Moran also found in his research that of the majority of the older "empty nesters" who are playing these games are women.
"Females [in this age group] actually own more handheld and console games than males do," he said.
Even celebrities are getting into the gaming business. Oscar-winner Nicole Kidman is the spokeswoman for the Nintendo DS in Europe, while film directors John Woo and Peter Jackson are working on video games of their own.
Games are also becoming more inclusive, expanding beyond the narrower "shooter" games that have been most popular in the past.
"Social gaming is what they're calling it," Matt Lynch, senior manager of the video game group at Amazon.com, said of the trend of gamers who want more social contact. "Rock Band from MTV and EA, Dance Dance Revolution, Sony's got SingStar -- it's not about the nerds anymore. [The industry] is creating family-based experiences for everyone."
After three different versions of "Halo," the top games on Amazon.com are "Carnival Games," family-friendly fare in which players participate in games you'd find at the state fair; Wii Play, a version of Dance Dance Revolution; and Guitar Hero 3.
The most well-known example of social gaming is, of course, the Nintendo Wii, which Nintendo said, along with the Nintendo DS, the company's latest handheld gaming system, was purposely marketed to nongamers.
"The original idea for the DS and the Wii was this concept of baby boomers and being in an aging society. There are people who turn 26, 36, 46, up to 96 every day. As we start aging, now what is there for us? Are we going to be making products that go along for the baby boomer timeline?" asked Perrin Kaplan, vice president of marketing and corporate affairs at Nintendo.
The company wanted to develop something that was intuitive, easy to use and didn't require any past video game playing know-how. What it ended up with was the Wii and the DS. In its marketing efforts, the company developed "Brain Age" for the DS, which asks players to complete activities and then it determines the age of their brain, a game it marketed to suburban mothers as well as senior citizens.
The company's efforts, according to Kaplan, paid off.
"What we're seeing in addition to all the normal people, the core players, we're now seeing moms, couples, seniors buying both systems," she said. "Teen girls are really getting into it. People who are 25 on up to 95 are really engaged, now for the first time ever."
"Guitar Hero" made by Red Octane, which today officially released the game's third incarnation, is another example of a "nongamer's game" that has risen to meteoric success, spawning "Guitar Hero Nights" at bars, which, in some cases, is ousting karaoke-themed nights.
"Guitar Hero," which was first released in late 2005 and has sold more than 5 million copies, allows players to "play" popular rock songs in famous venues and is aimed at men and women ages 18 to 35, according to Jordan Dodge, spokesman for Red Octane.
"The lead is men, but girlfriends and wives and fiancés are trying to pick it up. They're actually picking it up quicker than the guys do," Dodge said. "You don't have to be good at video games to be good at [the game]."
All these blockbuster games, especially ones that bring in as much revenue as "Halo 3," are … are good for the industry as a whole, according to Halpin.
The theory, called a "tie ratio," posits that gamers who come in to buy "Halo 3" will leave with other games and accessories.
"It definitely helps advance the industry when that type of thing happens," he said.