In 1951, a television engineer invented what is credited as the first video game. It was a simple, electronic form of table tennis, or Ping-Pong, called Pong. Then came a captivating game called Pac-Man, in which little faces scooted around the screen, devouring each other. Eventually video games like The Super Mario Brothers developed characters and themes. Many are now visually realistic, violent, even gory. And, American college students, in particular, can't seem to get enough of them.
College kids call it "gaming" - not to be confused with gambling at a casino. The sale and licensing of video games, played on the computer, at arcades, and on hand-held cartridge systems like Play Station and X Box reach into the billions of dollars a year.
And a new report by the Pew Internet and American Life Project finds that computer and online games are "woven into the fabric of everyday life for college students." Steve Jones, a communications professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, wrote the report, which is titled, Let the Games Begin.
"I went into the research believing the stereotype of the lone gamer, and that it was usually males playing first-person shooter, violent, aggressive games - face glued to the computer screen, barely coming up for air," he explained. "But the vast majority of students are telling us that they view gaming as a means of getting together with friends and having fun, maybe half a dozen of them, in front of the screen."
Professor Jones says these games are not mindless. Many are intricate and require remarkable eye-to-hand coordination, complex strategy, and planning. Players of games like The Dark Ages of Camelot assign each other skill ranks and control the action of their characters in the "realm." Other games, like Grand Theft, Auto, have elements of violence, but Steve Jones says most students treat it as a simple racing game. Others that are sometimes called God games, in which the player creates an entire world, can be benign or vicious, depending upon the way the player wants to manipulate its characters.
What they want in a game, the students told the researchers, is excitement, complexity, and ultra-realistic graphics. Men, Professor Jones reports, say they play the games for fun - to, as one put it, "get the blood rushing."
"Women were telling us that they were playing games largely out of boredom or a way to kill time," he said.
I.U. Chicago senior Hiba Sweiss fits this profile. She loves a game called Tetris, in which the object is to manipulate falling blocks at faster and faster speeds to prevent them from piling up to the top of the computer screen.
"If I'm bored, I'll jump online and start playing a game," she said. "Of course, if a new game comes out, you just have to sit there and play it until you win it. You'll have that little, initial, 'OK, I've gotta win this game. I have to win it.' But then, after a point, it dies down. Me, I stop myself and say, 'OK, I've been playing this game a little too long. Time to move on.'"
Pew researchers sent questionnaires to students across the United States, and dispatched student assistants like Sabryna Cornish to observe students' electronic game-playing at colleges throughout the Chicago area.
"The college students today are 'multi-taskers.' They'd be doing 'instant messaging' [back and forth on the Internet] and playing a game online. And then their friends would come in, and they'd be talking to them as well," she said. "I think that lots of people have a negative image of online gaming, saying that, 'Oh, well, college students should be studying all the time.' Well, in reality, they don't do that and never have, and probably never will. They need something to do to relax. And I don't think the online gaming is such a bad way to do it because it really does, these days, take a lot of thinking to play those games well."
Already notorious "night owls," students were found to be playing electronic games heavily in the evening and early-morning hours, often at the expense of a good night's sleep.
Twenty-eight-year-old Steve Breden knows the feeling. He's a little older than most college students, attending classes part-time at the University of Illinois at Chicago while working as a firefighter. He says military-action and strategy games provide an interactivity factor that television and movies cannot match.
"You're picking a character to live through, in a way," he said. "And you make all of the choices that your character would make in that online environment."
Mr. Breden says he would spend twenty or more hours a week playing games online if his schedule would permit it. He says there's a subculture of hard-core computer gamers who derive great satisfaction out of, as he calls it, "tweaking your machine to get it to do what you want it to do." Often this involves what's called "mod-making " or assembling one's own computers out of parts so it will play their video games with more speed or realism.
"They'll design what's called 'skins,' like ways to make the characters in the game look differently than the designers had originally intended," he explains. "It's really limitless, and it's all based on the genius of the guys making the mods."
Yes, Mr. Breden admits, shooting is usually a key ingredient in these action games, and many are violent and bloody in a "virtually real" sort of way. But as a firefighter, he lives to help, not hurt, people, he says, though what he calls his "immersion" in games escalates as the realism of the computer graphics improves.
"Besides the raw entertainment value, I guess it's - I don't want to use the word addictiveness, because I feel I can step away from it if I have something to do. But I always want to come back," he pointed out. "There's always another way of playing it that I might want to explore, or another character I might want to try playing as, or another strategy I might want to use. There's always a reason to come back."
Clinical psychologist Maressa Hecht Orzack might raise an eyebrow at Steve Breden's insistence that he is fascinated by, but not addicted to, computer games. She runs the Computer Addiction Service at McLean Hospital, near Boston, Massachusetts.
"The ones who get, quote, 'hooked,' and can't get back to their studies or who avoid meeting people in person are the ones that I end up with," she said. "These are people who are living in a fantasy world and can't get out of it."
Ms. Orzack likens computer addiction to alcoholism, minus the introduction of chemicals into the body. It changes mood, she says, and affects the brain.
"They play compulsively, regardless of what happens to them. They can't deal with the reality of what's going on in their lives, and they are escaping," she said. "People need to play these games more and more often. And that's sort of like a tolerance that builds up in other addictive behaviors, where they need to take more and more drug in order to get the same effect."
Maressa Orzack says treatment for compulsive gamers involves prolonged analysis of their lives and creation of a regimen that keeps them away from the computer screen's temptations. But relapses, she notes, are commonplace.
The Pew study found gaming integrated into everyday life at college, with students playing between classes, late at night at computer labs, and even in class, while professors drone on in the front of the hall. And just about half of the students surveyed admitted they turn to games to procrastinate from studying or writing class papers. Survey director Steve Jones says he ended work on the study wondering if he and other professors could somehow figure a way to incorporate the techniques of these mesmerizing games into their classes, to enhance the challenge and entertainment values of education.