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Last Updated: Monday, 15 May 2006, 22:28 GMT 23:28 UK
The perils of a virtual world

By Guto Harri
BBC North America business correspondent

Model at the E3 games show in Los Angeles
There were plenty of distractions away from the games at E3

Red blooded reality - these days - is second best to many Americans.

Life in an interactive video game offers more pleasure, excitement and opportunity.

Two curious moments at the electronic entertainment expo in Los Angeles reinforced the point.

One was a fascinating display of courage, skill, agility, fitness and imagination: a skateboarder flying out of a man-made canyon, risking broken bones if not broken neck to perform stunning stunts for the cameras.

Another was a raw, rhythmic presentation by a troupe of female dancers.

Dressed in designer-torn clothing and body paint, they played on the most basic instincts to attract attention to their display.

On both occasions there was a video screen in the background, replicating through computer graphics what human beings could do in the flesh.

Thrill of the joystick

On both occasions, most of the audience was mesmerised by the computer screen, overlooking the impressive display in the foreground.

The thrills of the joystick were clearly superior to a rush of blood to the muscles.

Video games are now hugely popular in the United States. Two hundred and twenty-eight million of them were sold last year - two for every American household.

That makes it big business - roughly $11bn (5.8bn) worth.

And it's a broad diverse market. Young men might well be the ones who salivate over the latest testosterone charged console game, but more and more people are now downloading from the internet, and their choice of electronic entertainment varies considerably.

Virtual allotments

There is actually a game for grannies, based around finding your cats who've been captured by goblins who rub them together to make electricity. It sells exclusively to women who are over 60.

If you like the idea of gardening, you can nurture a virtual allotment.

Budding clothes designers can dress a virtual model, fishermen can chase that big catch without getting wet, cold or smelly, and the same is true of just about any sport.

Models selling a game at the E3 show
Gamers can play at being a surgeon, but nurses aren't provided

What that does for a population, which already has a big problem with obesity and lethargy, cannot be great.

A distinguished industry analyst, Michael Pachter, makes a forceful case for video games improving dexterity, problem solving, sportsmanship, and risk taking.

But he contrasts the interactive crowd of today with the passive couch potatoes of yesterday.

Surely, taking a teenager on a real boat, where he or she feels the forces of nature, has to harness the wind, hold steady on the tiller, plot a course and keep an eye on a handful of crucial instruments, would be a million times better - in every respect - than loading a virtual sailing game onto a screen that just engages a few finger muscles.

'I'm weak and lazy'

That idea seems a curious old fashioned ideal among the crowd that attends the electronics entertainment expo, and millions more who buy these things.

Gamers queuing for a chance to play the latest offerings at E3
Visitors were willing to wait for a peek at the latest offerings

"I like games because I'm weak and lazy," one adolescent tells me as he stands in line for 3 hours to see the latest Nintendo offering.

Perhaps he was being ironic, though I suspect not.

He might prefer a world that does not require genuine courage or heroism, fitness, agility or strength.

Every game, as far as I can tell, leaves the player with the ultimate control - able to reduce the level so as not be outsmarted, creating a constant illusion of progress to an ever higher level, without acquiring new skills or insight to reach there.

It also presents them, almost invariably, with an opportunity to cause endless virtual carnage, destruction or death, without consequences.

Expanding market

It suits advertisers, of course, that the world is moving this way.

Reaching an audience of original individuals, acting spontaneously, seeking real and novel experiences week in week out, must be a huge challenge.

Finding them on the web, tilting their joystick from one variation on a common theme to another, is easy, which is why the market is expanding dramatically.

Another case, I suspect, where the illusion of ultimate control and choice, leads to a depressingly uniform and predictable world.

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