By Jeff Jensen
December 06, 2002 at 05:00 AM EST

There are those of you who still think of videogames as kids’ stuff — Saturdays in front of the TV, putting an Italian plumber through the paces of jumping barrels and saving damsels from giant chest-thumping monkeys. Or perhaps it’s late nights in front of the old Commodore 64, searching for that perfectly worded command to pick up a sword, kill a troll, and open a treasure chest. For you, videogames are Big Wheels, sugarcoated cereals, action figures — childish things to be put away at childhood’s end. Your Atari 2600, your Nintendo Super NES, your Sega Saturn — now mothballed in your parents’ attic, destined for eBay (if they’re lucky). But there is something you should know.

You are a dying breed — a 32-bit cartridge in a DVD/ROM world. While you ”evolved,” from Pong to Pulp Fiction, Super Mario Bros. to The Sopranos, and Sonic the Hedgehog to Radiohead, videogames grew up into legitimate entertainment, thanks to a generation that has never put down the joystick (unless it was to pick up a joypad). Some 60 percent of Americans (over 145 million people) play videogames. Average age: 28. More than $6.35 billion worth of computer and videogame software was sold last year; that’s expected to increase this year.

The numbers tell a tale of a burgeoning industry, but videogames are more than that — they’re a medium, capable of creating icons (Mario, Sonic, Lara Croft), crazes (Pokemon and Dance Dance Revolution, a Twister-meets-Dance Fever rage sweeping arcades and PlayStations worldwide), and larger cultural ripples (from transforming TV sports presentation to changing the way stories are told in films). Videogames are a language, a currency of cool. And for those legions of pop junkies who long to live their fantasies, videogames, at their best, are magic.

”All movies, all books transport the person entertained into another place, if it’s done well,” says John Riccitiello, president of Electronic Arts. ”What’s great about videogames is that they’re interactive. Not only are you involved in the story — you’re affecting the outcome.”

To play the Spider-Man game is to swing through the skyscraper canyons of New York City; to play Madden NFL 2003 is to be the long-ball-throwing Kurt Warner you’ve always wanted to be; to play Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is to walk on the wild side of 1980s Miami vice, racing cigarette boats and crossing drug lords.

”I used to play games just to get away from the outside world — just like someone who goes out to play golf,” says 21-year-old Johnathan Wendel, a.k.a. Fatal1ty (the right nickname for the world’s top-ranked Quake player). Initially, his mom wasn’t too happy about his pro playing. ”She wanted me to get a real job — a computer programmer or something.” In 2001, he made $50,000 from tournament winnings and endorsements — an off year. In 2000, he banked $100,000. ”She understands what I’m doing now,” says Fatal1ty.

”I’ve played videogames since I was in elementary school — from the Atari 2600 up the ladder,” says Tiger Woods, 26, a pro golfer who…oh, you know who Tiger is. Favorites: Madden and GoldenEye 007, the shooting game inspired by the 1995 James Bond flick. ”When I’m on tour and I’m staying at the house of a family I know, I’ll bring the PlayStation with me. A lot of times, they’ll have kids and we’ll play. You’d be amazed: Every single kid knows how to play videogames.”