ONLINE gamers have been sensationalized as social misfits, juvenile delinquents, even aspiring sharpshooters. They have been the subjects of psychological studies, including one reported last month in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that linked exposure to violent video games to aggressiveness and delinquency.
But the portrait of the online gamer as a young incipient sociopath is inaccurate, game industry experts say. Although fans of ultraviolent first-person shooter games like Doom and Quake helped establish the culture of online gaming, there now is an entirely new ruling class. These days, Internet gamers are not some clan of elusive teenage demons. More likely, they are Mom and Dad.
Across the Net, sites like Uproar, Pogo.com and Mplayer and portals like Excite and Yahoo are scoring big with casual adult gamers. Card and board games, most of which can be played free, have become a sensation among middle-aged adults and retirees.
According to Media Metrix, a company that measures Internet and digital media use, nearly 50 percent of Web site gamers are over 30 and prefer killing time with classics like hearts, bridge, checkers, backgammon and bingo. Nearly half of all online gamers are women, the company says.
Helen Frederick, 59, of Huntington Beach, Calif., says she spends three to four hours a day playing puzzle games like Overflow and Poppit on Pogo.com.
I used to watch TV, she said. But now I play these games. I like them better than TV because they make me think.
Donald and Laura Bergstrom, a middle-age couple in Saddlebrook, N.J., have given up prime-time television for online bingo. Its competitive and addictive, Mrs. Bergstrom said, and we dont have to go to some smoky bingo hall.
Bruce Ryon, senior vice president and general manager of the new-media group at Media Metrix, said that much of the appeal of these games was their simplicity. People want games that dont require a great learning curve, he said. People dont want to think that much. They just want to have some fun.
With these kinds of games, fun does not require the latest technology. High-end multiplayer PC games like Unreal Tournament and Ultima Online work better with faster chips and speedy Internet connections. But online board or card games, cobbled together as quick and easy Java programs, do not require complicated installations, computers equipped with the latest multimedia technology or even the hijacking of a companys lightning-fast T-1 Internet connection. Within minutes of visiting a site like Pogo.com or Yahoo, gamers can be tossing the dice, going head-to-head in a game of backgammon.
For the sites offering these games, low-end programs mean low start-up costs. A typical high-end PC game, like those that can be played online, costs about $4 million to produce, according to an estimate by the Interactive Digital Software Association. By contrast, a tiny Java-based parlor game like hearts or spades can be made for less than $100,000.
To lure players, casual gaming sites like iWin and Uproar offer prizes like cruises, theater tickets or cash. Brenda Lesack, a 50-year-old artist from Brandon in Manitoba, Canada, won $2,320 by playing Blowout Bingo on Uproar. Ms. Lesack said she typically spent two to three hours a day playing online.
Though the cash payout was nice, she said, it is not the only reason she plays. I like to meet people around the world, she said. Its nice to chat with people while youre playing.
Karen McCarthy, of Fredericksburg, Va., has formed offline relationships with other adult gamers on Mplayer. com. I play for friendship, not prizes, she said.
The social atmosphere often seems to be the biggest draw. Casual games not only offer free and fast competition but also inspire small talk. Instead of going to the water cooler, people can shoot the breeze online while they shoot the dice.
These games combine all the great elements of the Web: community and entertainment, said Michael Latham, senior director of production for Yahoos entertainment and media group. fickenin.eu We see this community as something thats as important as having e-mail or a calendar.
In the gaming communities within portals like Excite and Yahoo, players mingle throughout the day looking for quick pick-up games. In a typical round, a gamer might be carrying on three different games at once, chatting simultaneously with the various opponents.
With so much online activity, it is no wonder the dot-coms have been clamoring for the family gaming pie. Pogo.com abandoned its hard-core gaming roots for that reason. Just a couple of years ago, Pogo.com, which is based in San Francisco, was known as Total Entertainment Network, one of the pioneering pay-to-play services aimed at connecting fans of high-end games. But the company quickly realized that serious gamers had no need to pay someone else to facilitate their online battles.
The model broke down, said Erick Hachenburg, Pogo.coms president and chief executive. When we looked at market, it didnt make sense, Mr. Hachenburg said. Hard-core gamers are very much a niche market.
The company jettisoned Quake for checkers and several other low-end games in 1998 and changed its name the next year to evoke a more traditional family toy: the pogo stick. Visitors to the site now have a choice of matching their skills at everything from euchre to crosswords.
The gamble has paid off. Since the makeover, Pogo.coms usage hours have doubled every quarter, with 25,000 new members joining every day. In January, Neilsen/NetRatings ranked Pogo.com as the second-most sticky site on the Web for its ability to keep visitors on the site for long periods.
But not all the earliest online gaming sites have abandoned their hard-core roots. Half of the users of Mplayer.com, based in Mountain View, Calif., play high-end games like Quake III Arena. Those games have loyal followings, said Chris Early, a vice president and the general manager of Mplayer.com, so the company has no need to do without them. To woo the more sophisticated players, the site offers features like voice chat, which allows players to talk to each other online via a microphone.
Surprisingly, Mr. Early said, many of the younger, more stereotypical gamers often cross over into the low-end arena. Every time we launch a new casual game, he said, we get a rash of traditional hard-core gamers coming to try them out. Its a little unusual for Martha from Wiscogee to play hearts with someone with a nickname like Im Gonna Kill You.
Then again, with the way online games are going, all bets are on Martha.
Here are some popular game sites. All offer chat as well.
Card, board and sports games, including some name-brand games like Bass Masters, Scrabble and Risk. Name-brand games generally require that you have a CD version of the game.
MSN GAMING ZONE: www.zone
.com Microsofts game site. Some free games, some that require monthly subscription and many others that require a CD.
Eleven board, card and word games, including chess, bridge and hearts. All are free.
Games in eight categories, including card, board, trivia and puzzle games. Keno, bingo and six other games have cash prizes. Free.
WORLD OPPONENT NETWORK: www.won.net Lots of classic games, including pinochle and dominoes.