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The world is my game room: video games are moving online, where the limits of competition are practically nil. (arts).

Kurtis Melby used to spend hours playing video games by himself in the basement of his home in Minneapolis, Minnesota. But competing against a computer holds only so much excitement, he says. Now Melby, 14, plays against hundreds of other people, via a dial-up Internet connection. "Online is always fun, because you're playing against humans," he says.

SOLITAIRE NO MORE

Melby is one of at least 42 million Americans who play video games online. It's a demographic that is larger and more diverse than casual observers may realize. And it may be only the beginning, as game purveyors try to convince consumers to stop thinking of video games as a solitary pursuit, and start thinking of them as something to be shared with people across town or across the world.

"Online gaming has been in the infancy stage for a while," says Richard Ow, who covers the industry for NPD Funworld Video Games. "Now it's becoming a toddler."

The rationale for the predicted growth spurt comes from two sources. The first is the launch of high-profile online computer games like The Sims Online, which allows players to interact with each other in a series of startlingly complex virtual neighborhoods. The second is a well-financed push by "console" game manufacturers Sony and Microsoft to promote the new online capabilities for PlayStation 2 and Xbox products, respectively.

Both Microsoft and Sony made a point of targeting the most rabid video game fans initially. Not surprisingly, the most popular console games with online capabilities feature sports or action: From August to December of last year, game maker Electronic Arts sold an estimated 2.4 million copies of its Madden NFL 2003, which lets players match football smarts with opponents around the country but can also be played offline. The next best-selling online-enabled games are Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4, in which skateboarders try tricks and talk smack with remote players; and SOCOM: US Navy Seals, a miliary action game in which players assume the roles of the Navy's elite special-operations teams.

GAMES FOR LUNCH

But thrill seekers and sports nuts are hardly the only ones getting their gaming kicks online. Check the monitors in an average office during lunch (and maybe even during working hours), and you're likely to find someone logged on to a virtual game of spades or checkers, playing against an opponent several states away. At Microsoft's Zone.com game Web site, usage starts to go up during the middle of the workday on the East Coast. Last November, people spent more time logged on to Electronic Arts' EA.com site than they did on auction site eBay, according to one analysis.

And while video games are usually considered the domain of young men wielding virtual swords, at least half of Zone.com's users are women. "I've met moms who play card games for three hours a night," says Don Ryan, who runs the service. "This was the sort of behavior we expected from people who spend their time running around the dungeons, not playing hearts."

The popularity of services like Zone.com parallels Americans' increasing acceptance of the Internet, and features like e-mail, chat rooms, and instant messaging. Computer users comfortable zipping messages across cyberspace are more likely to spend time playing Scrabble with someone in a different time zone, Ryan says.

Sims designer Will Wright says that the word "game" becomes less appropriate for people playing Sims, where players can compete with each other but often spend more time shooting the breeze at online cookouts or pool parties. "A lot of people are treating it more like a social community rather than a game," he says.

The anonymous, uninhibited online environment, though, does pose a potential problem: How do you exploit the advantages of that arena while assuring parents that their kids are safe mingling with other online gamers? Electronic Arts reported, for instance, that on New Year's Eve, 500,000 role-players exchanged online smooches on Sims. "It's definitely a concern that manufacturers are taking seriously," says Jay Horwitz, who follows online gaming for Jupiter research.

KEEPING GAMES SAFE

Microsoft, for one, uses monitors to help police games, and provides a feature that lets parents lock up online access.

For online games really to become the force that game makers dream of, the U.S. will have to vastly improve its Internet backbone. Broadband Internet access lets players participate in faster, more complicated, and graphics-heavy games. Just 15.7 million U.S. homes now have high-speed access, but that number is expected to double in three years.

Until then, players like Paul Willey are helping drive the genre. Willey, a 39-year-old Army veteran who suffers from multiple sclerosis, plays golf online from his home in Palmyra, Maine, by logging on to Links. Though he often must use a wheelchair, he is a fierce competitor online, having won $154,000 in tournament prizes in recent years. He also has made friends with fellow players as far away as Australia.

Last year, Willey had lunch with an online golfing buddy from California who was on vacation in Maine; Willey had known him only via Internet chats. "No words can describe it," he says. "The worst part was just letting him go."
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Article Details
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Author:Kafka, Peter
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 28, 2003
Words:871
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