College gamers are not necessarily male — or anti-social hermits. And while about a third of those surveyed admitted playing computer games during class, the games generally don't conflict with their studies, says the researcher who conducted the survey for the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
"It's not taking the place of studying; nor is it taking away from other activities," says researcher Steve Jones, chairman of communications department at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "What they seem to have done is incorporated gaming into a very multitask-oriented lifestyle."
In addition to the survey data, Jones drew his conclusion from observations he and fellow researchers made while watching students in college computer labs — many of them writing papers, then taking short breaks to play computer games and send online messages to friends.
Often, he says, groups of students stop to watch the game.
"What we found is that it's a very social activity," Jones says.
The survey, released Sunday, was compiled from questionnaires completed last year by 1,162 college students on 27 campuses nationwide. Its results have a margin of error of 3 percentage points.
Among other things, surveyors found that 65 percent of those who responded were regular or occasional game players. Most said they played in their rooms or parents' homes.
Nearly half said gaming keeps them from studying "some" or "a lot" — though their study habits matched closely with those reported by college students in general, Jones said.
"There's this stereotype of game slackers wasting time, goofing off, that really isn't valid," says Marcia Grabowecky, a Northwestern University psychologist who has studied visual perception in humans, including those who play computer and video games.
Playing games is so common for this age group, it's almost second nature, Jones says. "It's common maybe in a way Monopoly was years ago," he says.
Nearly 70 percent of those questioned said they were in elementary school when they first played video games. By junior high and high school, about half said they had tried computer games — software-driven games from cards to shoot-'em-up adventures such as Doom — and 43 percent said they had tried online games over the Internet.
David McNulty, a 19-year-old computer science major at the University of Maine, started playing video games, such as Nintendo's wildly popular Mario Brothers, at age 5. He now hosts game-playing parties and joins online games with people who live across the world.
McNulty says he stopped playing during his first semester because he was worried it would hurt his grades, but he found that his social life suffered.
He started playing again and says it hasn't affected his studies.
"It takes less time to play a few games than to go downtown or see a movie with your friends. It's easier to meet them online and shoot at them," McNulty says, chuckling.
The survey also found that, while gaming has a reputation as a male-dominated pastime, women are avid game players, too. Of those surveyed, 60 percent of women said they played online and computer software-based games, compared with 40 percent of men. About the same number of men and women said they played video games on PlayStation, Xbox and other systems.
That news pleased Sarah Fenton, who is finishing up a degree in game art and design at the Art Institute of Phoenix. She hopes to become a character designer for a video game company and is convinced that even more women would play video games if there were more characters geared toward them.
"I hope that we can bring a little equality to what's out there," she says.