For a lot of boys, game’s the thing

A plague of grogginess swept high schools in November 2004, reducing testosterone-charged guys into “Dawn of the Dead” extras, sleepless zombies dragging backpacks.

Educators soon identified the virus: Halo 2 had just hit video game racks.

“It wiped out some boys for weeks,” said a counselor in the Blue Valley School District.

Now let’s not panic, Mom. Video gaming, like TV a half-century ago, has taken a permanent seat in the house of kid culture, especially for boys. The question no longer is whether games are worthwhile — they’re here — but how to harness their awesome appeal to benefit coming generations.

“You’ve got a technology that clearly captures the attention of American young people,” said Henry Jenkins, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There, academics are building video games that classrooms can use to teach principles of magnetism and the history of colonial America.

A growing number of employers — especially the military — are developing games to train and motivate workers.

And in the Northland, the gaming passions of Drew Nicholson and his 15-year-old pals nudged Drew’s parents onto a new vocational path, bringing the family closer together.

“For boys, gaming is the new club,” said father Ed Nicholson, a wireless systems engineer who opened Sundogs Network Center last spring. It’s a high-tech hangout for young men who pay $20 a day trying to beat their own high scores against online gamers around the globe.

“We need clubs. My dad was in a bowling club ... And boys have always been drawn to fantasy — it used to be comic books, then ‘Dungeons and Dragons,’ which I was into.

“The technology just leads us to a new form of fantasy.”

At a recent promotional event for a new line of Intel platforms, Sundogs was the Friday night hot spot for 53 boys and three girls, two of whom stood with their boyfriends. Ed Nicholson’s wife, Mary Ann, served up Jones Soda, extreme-flavored candies and energy drinks.

Said Mary Ann Nicholson: “I don’t really get it. When I was a girl, my way of having fun was talking on the phone.

“But whatever it is, these boys have a good time and they’re so nice to be around,” she said, stepping outside for a spell and leaving the cash drawer unsupervised. “Oh, I trust them. They even keep the restroom clean.”

Taylor Walsh, 13, reloaded his AK-47 playing Battlefield 1942: “I’m in the Soviet army and I think I’m playing against 30 people ... It’s fun as long as you don’t go overboard. I don’t play during the school week.”

Clearly, gaming has its hazards. One poll found nearly 8 percent of boys “addicted” (compared with fewer than 2 percent of girls), playing in excess of 25 hours a week and often neglecting time for homework or social bonding.

Experts say two hours of gaming a night is more than plenty. At Sundogs, some of the boys boast of playing six, eight, even 10 hours a night, after school, and still getting their homework tackled.

One risk is too little sleep, a common problem in boys with attention issues at school, said Iowa State University psychologist Craig Anderson. And, “if you combine a lot of gaming with a dozen or so other risk factors (such as child abuse, poverty and alcoholism in the family), the odds for committing violence do go up.”

The good news for parents, he said, is that exposure to violent video games can be easily controlled — unlike risk factors such as, say, a boy’s neighborhood.

The message to parents from science writer Steven Johnson is “chill:” It’s not necessarily bad if your son spends more time playing video games than reading books (which surveys show is true for most middle-school boys). His recent book, Everything Bad is Good for You, makes a case that even controversial “first-person shooter” games such as the Halo series help sharpen young minds to solve problems and anticipate outcomes.

“The first and last thing that should be said about the experience of playing today’s video games … is that games are fiendishly, sometimes maddeningly, hard.”

The same could be said for any youngster getting to know his computer’s capabilities or the demands of organizing social affairs — things John Tetrucci has mastered at 16. John leads a Kansas City area group called ExtremeLAN, hosting LAN parties (it stands for local area network), which pit dozens of boys against their games at a hotel suite from dusk to dawn.

“It’s safer than being out on the streets doing drugs,” said John.

OK, so his Web site photo does show John passed out on the floor next to his computer after untold hours of gaming. He still managed in his waking hours to personally customize his computer tower — with its artfully carved-out shell and cool interior lighting — and he knows how to Webcast his LAN parties.

A recent LAN bash back at Sundogs in Kansas City, North, had boys buzzing all night. Drew’s mother made sure to bring his favorite pillow if he needed to crash.

She may never understand her son’s obsession. But at 50, she is savoring her time running the shop and watching Drew and his friends grow up.

“Asian, Asian, cover my back,” said one boy to another tapping next to him. “Watch out, dude … There, you got ’em! I love you.”

Mom smiled as Drew reached the next level. “I think we’re the last generation to say, ‘We don’t know how to do that.’ ”