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Video game nation: Why so many play

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Fries is in the class. He's excited. Johnson doesn't mean any game. He means the result of that seminal moment in 1972, when Atari cofounder Nolan Bushnell asked an engineer named Allan Alcorn to create a simple game people might play in bars for quarters. [Editor's note: The year was incorrect in the original.]

Mr. Alcorn did, and set it up in a local tavern. Soon, though, it broke down.

What went wrong? When Alcorn looked, the answer was clear. Nothing. Players couldn't stop. They had poured in quarters until the machine jammed.

Alcorn had invented ...

Pong.

* * *

It's a game Bruce Nesmith remembers well. Now 52, with three daughters, Mr. Nesmith was about 11 when his dad brought Pong home. "I thought, 'Hey! Games aren't just played with little pieces of cardboard.' "

Nesmith, lead designer on Howard's Skyrim team, sits in the headquarters of Bethesda Game Studios, the Maryland company that produced Skyrim, with two teammates. They also got hooked early.

Matt Carofano, Skyrim's lead artist, 34, got turned on at age 5 by the Atari he and his brother got for Christmas.

"I was a latchkey kid," remembers production director Ashley Cheng, 38. "When my grandmother came home, she'd feel the TV. If it was warm, that meant I was playing games – instead of practicing piano."

The three of them typify one part of the video game world: its creators. For 10 years, they have worked together under Howard on a series of role-playing games called The Elder Scrolls. In RPGs, players create characters, assign them a role, and direct them on quests. The Elder Scrolls have been very popular.

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