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GAMERS, YES. GEEKS? HARDLY FOR MANY, E3 IS THE ULTIMATE COOL EXPO HIGHLIGHTS HOW MAINSTREAM INDUSTRY NOW IS.

Byline: BRENT HOPKINS Staff Writer

Andrea Joy Stephens is not a geek.

Attractive and outgoing, she dresses nicely. She's got a good job in sales and marketing. She hosts parties, goes out, has lots of friends, would never consider herself a couch potato. By all accounts, she is cool.

``Nobody believes me when I say I'm a gamer, but I've been one back since the Atari 2600,'' the 32-year-old Orlando, Fla., native said after belting out a tune on the Singstar karaoke game for PlayStation 2. ``I used to not tell anyone, but now it's cool. When I'm hanging out with a bunch of guys, playing `Soul Caliber' or `Tekken,' there's nothing better than watching them get whupped by a girl.''

Video games were once the purview of social outcasts, the pale, acne-faced losers who couldn't play sports or talk to girls. Anyone over the age of 18 who plugged in was immediately suspect, as if they refused to grow up and move on to more adult pursuits.

But at the Electronic Entertainment Expo -- E3 to the game world -- everyone's an adult. The three-day annual conference, in its final day today at the Los Angeles Convention Center, showcased reason after reason why the dweebs won that culture war and games took on a mainstream sheen.

``(Playing games) was like being a computer geek or a chess club guy -- I know, I've been there,'' said Ralph Rivera, 44, vice president and general manager of AOL Games. ``But now, games are for everyone -- this is part of a lifestyle, just like games, music or movies. We'll get to the point where it's not weird anymore.''

It's not that far off, according to a recent Ipsos poll conducted for AOL Games and the Associated Press. The survey of more than 3,000 adults found that 45 percent of men and 35 percent of women play games. More than four in 10 of them play at least three hours a week and, surprisingly, 14 percent of adults age 65 and older play at least 10 hours a week.

Whether it's online card games, such as AOL's World Series of Poker, or complex, video-driven titles that transform the player into a teenage girl, a Greek god or a suburban housewife, the industry has made great strides to break out of the realm of space shoot-'em-ups.

Though there's still certainly a significant dorky contingent, the kind that poses for pictures next to the PlayStation 3 and ignores the pretty ladies at the booths in favor of the new controllers and guns, gaming has made the mainstream leap.

``The whole concept that games are for little kids and dorks is dead,'' said Pete Wanat, the 36-year-old executive producer of Los Angeles-based Vivendi Universal Games' ``Scarface: The World is Yours.''

``But we need to keep going beyond just the typical games. Where's the HBO content? Where's the `West Wing' game? I mean, I don't know if I'd want to play something based on `The West Wing,' but something that's got good writing like that. Something that's written not for someone in eighth grade, but who went to college, who's got a master's degree. Those are the kinds of games I want to make.''

With his Scarface title, he's definitely not aiming toward the kid audience -- ``unless they're playing with their parent, who can explain what's happening, of course.'' So expletive- laden that the title character refers to himself with a middle name unsuitable for mixed company, ultraviolent and criminal to the core, it's consciously marketed to an over-18 audience, particularly drawing on the Al Pacino film's huge following in the hip-hop world.

The assembled crowd around the game's preview theater looked more likely to be riding around in Escalades than living in their parents' basements.

``We did the `Chronicles of Riddick' game and we worked with Vin Diesel. He turned out to be a huge gamer,'' Wanat said. ``He's a very cool guy, but he will kick your (rear) once he gets playing.''

Whether on PCs, consoles such as the Microsoft Xbox 360 or Nintendo Wii, portable platforms such as the Sony PlayStation Portable or even on cellular phones and iPods, games are becoming an omnipresent part of culture. Now, when parents kick their kids off a game, it's not because of unfinished homework -- it's because they want to play.

``Virtually everywhere in the world, there's someone playing a game,'' said Angela Emery, vice president of communications for Glendale-based Buena Vista Games. ``It's not just a 10-year-old, it's not just in the living room, hooked up to the TV. We're just so busy all the time, we need that stimulation, that way to escape.''

Every day, Dionte Butler-Abney needs it. Tall and athletic, dressed in old-school Nikes, camouflage shorts and an NBA headband over his cornrowed hair, the Oakland native works in quality-assurance testing in the game business. He looks more like a baller than a gamer.

``I've been playing games since I was 6 years old,'' he said. ``I could consider myself a nerd, but I'm definitely more cool than nerd.''

Perhaps those terms aren't mutually exclusive anymore. Amanda Mabon took the trip down from the Central Valley for a chance to see new titles and get her hands on the next-generation console hardware. The 18-year-old traces her enthusiasm back to the first Sega, which she still plays along with her Nintendo Dual Screen and two generations of Sony PlayStation.

While she proudly calls herself an RPG girl for her favorite role-playing-games, even affectionately wearing the mantle of game geek, she's a far cry from the old refugees from the audio/visual club.

``I play games every day, but you've got to have a life outside video games,'' she said. ``Otherwise, you're just a dork.''

brent.hopkins(at)dailynews.com

(818) 713-3738

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2 photos

Photo:

(1 -- color) Dionte Butler-Abney, 24, of Oakland has ``been playing games since I was 6 years old. I could consider myself a nerd, but I'm definitely more cool than nerd.''

(2 -- color) Sony demonstrator Suzanne Nopar, left, competes with Florida native Andrea Joy Stephens, 32, on a new karaoke game during the Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3, at the Los Angeles Convention Center on Thursday.

Gus Ruelas/Staff Photographer
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Title Annotation:Business
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:May 12, 2006
Words:1039
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