Video gamers seek more peace, less war

By Richard Chang

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Video games are becoming kinder and gentler as women and older players seek pleasure in a pastime long dominated by teenage boys hellbent on winning wars in fantasy worlds.

While violent games like “Grand Theft Auto” and ”Battlefield” remain top sellers, relaxing ones designed to induce calm and tranquillity are emerging as a major category in an industry often knocked for promoting bad behavior.

“A lot of people who played games in the past have grown up. They see it more than just a child’s pastime,” said Jodi Whitaker, an Ohio State University doctoral student and lead author of a new study on the effect of video games on their players.

“It’s something that adults can do, so it’s more socially acceptable for other people to play video games as well.”

The shift has come as video game makers seek out casual players who want a brief diversion on their mobile phones or online and do not care to invest $250 or more on consoles such as Sony Corp’sPlayStation and Microsoft Corp’s Xbox.

Nintendo Co Ltd’s Wii console, cheaper at about $150, has been a major catalyst in changing the game, with its focus on fitness, education and community. With 88 million units sold since its debut in 2006, the Wii is now common on cruise ships and retirement homes.

Wii games are “more of a team building exercise, more like board games,” said Jeff Ryan, author of “Super Mario,” due to be released in August by Portfolio Penguin.

Hard-core video games, however, can take 40 to 60 hours to complete, along with gobs of adrenaline and a stomach for guts and gore that many older or female players lack.

The effect of such games on players is not surprising. Whitaker’s study shows violent video games make people more aggressive and angry, while relaxing ones make them kinder, happier and more generous.

“Playing relaxing games puts people in a positive mood, which in turn increases helpful behavior,” said Brad Bushman, professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University who coauthored the study with Whitaker.

“So the games not only decrease aggressive behavior, but also increase pro-social and helpful behaviors.”

In “Endless Ocean,” one of the games in the study, players dive into gentle deep waters to pet sea creatures, explore corals and find buried treasure, in a Zen-like experience.

“It may be a challenge, but it’s not meant to stimulate you,” Whitaker said.

Students in the study who played “Endless Ocean” and the Fishing Minigame in “The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess,” both by Nintendo, were asked afterward to help sharpen pencils if they had time — and were far more helpful than those who had just played violent or neutral games.

By contrast, players of “Resident Evil 4” and “No More Heroes,” rated “M” for mature audiences aged 17 and older, punished losers by giving loud, intense blasts of noise.

Neutral games such as “Super Mario Galaxy” and “Wii Sports Resort,” which are stimulating but not violent, had no measurable effect on their players’ moods.

“The most aggressive were violent game players. The most generous were relaxing game players,” Bushman said.

In a sign of the market shift, Nintendo showed off its next-generation Wii at the E3 video game expo in Los Angeles this week, with tranquil visuals of a cherry blossom tree that players could float around and explore from various angles.

“Instead of picking robots fighting or volcanoes exploding they picked this,” Ryan said, noting that Nintendo is “feeling that people wanted a sense of relaxation.”

Manufacturers are “bending backwards” to cater to the casual video game market, which is largely untapped, he said.

Profits can be made as players of free casual games on mobile phones pay for upgrades.

And while Zynga charges nothing for its popular Facebook games, the fast-growing company is expected to be worth well over $10 billion if it goes public, based on potential advertising revenue and sales of its virtual goods such as tractors and animals for online game farms.

“It offers a ray of hope for the video game industry, which often gets a bad rap because violent games can increase aggressive thoughts, decrease sympathy and desensitize people,” Bushman added. (Editing by Andre Grenon)