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Video game nation: Why so many play

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For many parents, video games are what our kids love – and we fear. One antigame blogger describes an avid user this way: a kid who "rarely goes outside, showers, or interacts with the opposite sex." The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry warns that children playing violent games "can imitate the violence they see."

We have esthetic complaints, too. A few years ago film critic Roger Ebert infuriated gamers by arguing that video games "can never be art."

Skyrim is a useful starting point to examine that view precisely because it has won so much praise.

"We design worlds," says industry legend and Skyrim director Todd Howard.

Mr. Howard means that instead of giving players the simple, gobble-up-the-bad-guys goal of the 32-year-old video game icon Pac-Man, games like Skyrim allow players to explore richly textured worlds, full of choice.

Well, the video game industry is itself a world worth exploring. Just how big is it? How many play? What makes games so popular? Can they do harm? Are they useful? Or – as a Wall Street Journal headline put it – "Are Violent Videogames a Threat to Society? Or Works of Art?"

* * *

First, the big picture. In 2011, the American video game industry says it:

•Recorded $25 billion in sales.

•Accounted for about 120,000 American jobs directly or indirectly.

•Paid workers an average of $90,000 a year, mostly in five states: California, Texas, Washington, New York, and Massachusetts.

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