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Video games are not just for kids any more

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Jillian Laboi chooses a video game at Best Buy in midtown Manhattan (Pilar Conci)

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Luis Trujillo looks at video games in Best Buy in midtown Manhattan (Pilar Conci)

Luis Trujillo, 39, is married with three sons. He spends about $60 a month on video games, and a few hundred every two years to buy the latest, state-of-the-art video consoles the same day they come out. His eldest sons, 8-year-old twins, enjoy the games a lot. But he doesn’t get them for the kids.

From the time Trujillo was the same age his sons are now, he has been a devotee of video games, going through periods of staying up all night with the controller clutched between his fingers, fighting zombies or chasing animals that escaped from a zoo. On the verge of turning 40, Trujillo is still crazy about classics like “Pac-Man” and “Donkey Kong” but is also a fan of more recent ones like the martial arts “Tekken” or the role-playing “Final Fantasy.” He spends one or two hours a day playing.

“I like video games because it’s the same thing as reading a book--it takes you to another world. I do it to escape, for relaxation,” said Trujillo, an electronics technician who lives in Bergenfield, N.J., as he browsed through video games in a midtown Manhattan store on a Wednesday evening. “I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, I don’t do drugs… I have this,” he said.

Video games are not kids stuff anymore. Whether on home consoles or on the Internet, grown-ups are streaming to video games like never before. They say they love this generation of video games for their constantly changing scenarios, the intellectual challenges and the decision-making involved in play. And they spend more time playing than teenagers.

Forty percent of American adults played video games, according to an Associated Press-AOL games poll in 2006. Also that year, a study conducted by the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) showed that one-third of adult gamers spent 10 hours or more per week playing games, compared to just 11 percent of teens.

Among the total population of video gamers, the average player is 33 and has been playing for 12 years, according to the Entertainment Software Association (ESA). What’s more, 24 percent of Americans over the age of 50 played video games in 2007, a significant increase from 9 percent in 1999.

Some of these older players choose such games as Nintendo’s “Brain Age,” to enhance their memories. Others turn to games about activities they are interested in, such as cooking. Many look to games as a way to spend time with their grandchildren.

“Companies are designing more sophisticated games that appeal both to more experienced teenage game players and to adults,” said David Kelly, president of technology research company Upside Research, based in Boston. “The graphics are realistic,” he said, and that, “coupled with the large screen TVs or home theaters, makes it a much more immersive experience.”

Kelly points out that the music video game “Guitar Hero” is a good example of a game that appeals to different generations, including baby-boomers, adults in their 40s and 50s, or younger consumers. The key to its appeal: Nearly everyone has dreamed of playing in a band and feeling what it’s like to be a rock star.

Like their younger counterparts, adults are willing to pay for the experience. In the United States, computer and video game software sales grew 6 percent in 2007, to $9.5 billion, more than tripling industry software sales since 1996, according to the ESA. Each game ranges from $20 to $60, while consoles are priced between $250 and $450.

Trujillo, who buys a new system every other year, says he cares about having the latest technology. “I have them all,” he explained of his collection. “Every time a system came out, I had to have it.”

The release of the hugely popular Nintendo video game system Wii may have been a key factor in attracting even more adults in the last year, says Best Buy spokeswoman, Crystal Stroupe. “The Wii is a multigeneration system,” she said. “It’s attractive to adults too, not like an Atari.”

A long way from “Pac-Man” and “Tetris,” recent video games offer many more possibilities for adults gamers. They can become a soldier trying to save the world against an invasion of aliens; a cowboy in Texas in 1882; or they can role-play in a fantasy medieval world. Or, they can simply experience basketball and baseball like a pro.

“Video games are always evolving,” said Jonathan Zurbel, a 34-year-old “digital lifestyle consultant,” after buying a video game in an Upper West Side store in Manhattan. “A movie is always image and sound. Video games have new controllers, new ways to interact, online components, a lot of puzzles and thinking. I like it because it pulls you in.”

Many of the adults who turn to video games are also lured by the magic worlds they can find online. The ESA study found that 49 percent of people who play video games say they also play online. Some of these players spend more than nononline gamers to access all that virtual fun. Also, they usually spend more time playing.

“It’s fantasy and it’s an adopted reality; I feel like it’s a lifestyle,” said Jillian Laboi, 25, a cellist who also works in a coffee shop.

Laboi explains that in online games, players can create a new identity, through characters of their own design. “Games are more about simulation than about scores and points,” she said. “My characters are always intelligent, not a lot of physical strength but magic--it’s very addictive.” She spends about $100 a month on games.

Tim Herbert, senior director of market research at CEA, said the video game industry has kept its customers through adulthood by upgrading platforms and releasing new versions of hit games.

Video games have also become a family affair. According to ESA, 36 percent of American parents say they play computer and video games. What’s more, 80 percent of those also do it with their kids.

“My children are lucky because most kids have to beg their parents” to play, Trujillo said. “But since I’m the biggest kid of all, they play my games. I have about 400 of them.”

Women represent 38 percent of all game players. For some of them, playing games is an escape from everyday pressures.

“I had a lot of stress before, and this has helped,” said Laboi. “It’s better than getting prescription pills or than maxing out your credit card with a tropical vacation.”

E-mail : mc2931@columbia.edu