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Evolution of the gamer

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Posted: Tuesday, June 12, 2007 11:00 pm

Yuvi Shmul saw the direction the video game market was going, and knew it was time to get in. In 2003, the Mesa resident became chief executive officer of Play N Trade, a video game franchise that opened its newest store at the Chandler Fashion Center on Monday. A July 7 grand opening soiree is scheduled for the store, which is part of the fastest-growing video game franchise in the country. The U.S. video game market hit $12.5 billion in 2006 and is projected to reach as much as $16 billion in 2007. Shmul, formerly a corporate taskmaster for cell phone service Yakety Yak Wireless, said getting in on the act was a no-brainer. "Now more than ever it's more attractive to different people, different ages, different backgrounds," Shmul said. "The average gamer is not a teenager anymore, the average gamer is in their early 30s. The average gamer now has disposable income." Shmul knows his stuff: gamer demographics are changing. An October 2006 study by Nielsen showed that only 40 percent of gamers are teens anymore, and that a solid 13 percent of gamers are over 45. A 2006 survey by the Entertainment Software Association said 38 percent of gamers are female, and that the average age of a gamer is 33. Off the couch Shmul said he decided to get into the game after noticing the industry was changing, spurred along by the emergence of hyper-interactive video games that started chipping away at the stereotypical image of a kid motionlessly anchored to a sofa. Among them: • Dance Dance Revolution: Japanese entertainment producer Konami brought DDR to American arcades in 2000. The game is played on a dance pad, with players stepping on directional panels corresponding with arrows on a screen. • Wii: Nintendo announced the Wii (pronounced "wee") in 2004 and started shipping to the States in November 2006. The system's controller is a wireless paddle, the Wii Remote (or "Wiimote"), that can detect 360 degrees of player motion. • Guitar Hero: This series, first available in the U.S. in 2005, uses a large guitar-shaped control. Players stand and press buttons on the "guitar" corresponding to notes on the screen. Shmul sees that style of gaming as the future. "What we have seen lately, in terms of Wii and Guitar Hero that are very interactive, that's definitely the direction of video games," Shmul said. "Far more interactive, far more challenging and appealing to people of all different ages and backgrounds. "The Wii invited people that traditionally don't play video games into the gaming community," he added. Remember Pong? Video games have come a long way since 1972's Pong, the simple table-top tennis game that launched the initial boom in the video game industry, and the industry has seen more than its fair share of controversy. From perennial arguments that game systems increase youth violence in society to accusations that they promote drug abuse, video game consoles have not been spared the same critiques as all related forms of media. One unique charge, however, is that video games promote childhood obesity. A well-publicized June 2004 study suggested that every hour children play video games or watch television may double their risk of obesity. "To our knowledge this study provides the strongest evidence for an independent association between time spent playing electronic games and childhood obesity," said Dr. Nicolas Stettler, a pediatric nutritionist with the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, in a news release. "Our findings suggest that the use of electronic games should be limited to prevent childhood obesity." Grandma can beat you at Wii But that was before the current generation of consoles with hyper-interactive games. "If I stand up and play a Wii or play Guitar Hero, I'm a little bit more active by default than if I'm sitting there," Shmul said. "There are studies out there - Mayo Clinic, for example, did a study - that said it helps fight child obesity." The Mayo Clinic's study, performed this year, showed kids expended three to five times as much energy playing a Wii game as they did watching television or playing traditional games - the same spike as they got walking on a treadmill. Of all activities, the kids burned the most calories playing DDR, more so even than on the treadmill. A variety of demographics and uses have been found for games like that. Officials at Riley Hospital in Meridian, Miss., noticed that playing the Wii uses the whole body, as well as hand-eye coordination and balance, and decided it was ideal for stroke recovery patients. "In retirement centers as well, Wii bowling tournaments are the rage right now, because it's something they understand," said Pat Harriman, spokeswoman for Play N Trade. Try it yourself Indicative of the popularity of the new breed of game, the first event at Play N Trade at the Chandler Fashion Center will be a June 16 national Guitar Hero II tournament, with the winner moving on to regional competition. "Before, we've had over 300 people," Shmul said. "I wouldn't be surprised if we got 300 to 500 people. People love it; it's incredible." Numbers like that are heartening for Shmul. Gamers spend an average of $58 a month on games, according to the Nielsen study, and 90 percent buy at least one game every six months. Most of them go through big-box retailers like Wal-Mart or other game franchises like GameStop. There's a lot of competition for the $12 billion to $16 billion that will be spent on video game components this year. The Chandler connection Shmul isn't worried about the other guys. Aside from getting into the video game business because the getting was good, Shmul says his stores have multiple features unavailable at big-box retailers or competing game chains: at least 10 sample stations - one of which is 106 inches - where potential purchasers can try any game in the store before buying; classic video games, stretching back to the Atari; and tournaments, like the Guitar Hero II competition, held frequently. "There is not really a good place for gamers to come and get good customer service and really try a game; really be in a club environment instead of just a retail shop," Shmul said. "That's what I think we're very successful at creating, a very fun environment." Successful indeed. As consumers began spending more and more on video games, suppliers have been more than happy to step up. Starting in 2003, Play N Trade had one store and opened its 10th in 2005; the Chandler Fashion Center store is its 57th franchise. For information on the store, visit www.playntrade.com or call (480) 726-PLAY (7529). "There's a lot of positives with this form of entertainment," Shmul said. "It's safe, it's fun and it's something the family can play together. The founder of the company, the story he loves to tell the most is that he used to play with his kids since they were about 2 years old." Jason Ludwig can be reached at (480) 898-7916 or jludwig@aztrib.com.

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