The popularity of video games is reaching new heights, carried aloft not just by boys with too much time on their hands but by cell phone-toting women with just enough time for a quick play.
Women age 25 and older bought most of the games sold for mobile phones last year, according to market researcher Telephia.
And females spend two hours more a week playing games now than they did a year ago, says the Entertainment Software Association, which represents companies that make video games. Women over age 18 represent a significantly greater portion of the game-playing population (30 percent) than boys age 17 or younger (23 percent), says the ESA.
These gamers aren't killing cops or scoring touchdowns. More often they're solving puzzles, playing with puppies or helping comrades slay dragons -- and during the battle, healing their fallen friends. Casual games, such as "Bejeweled" for the phone, "The Sims" for the PC and "Nintendogs" for the portable Nintendo DS, are drawing in gamers who don't have the time, skill or inclination to hunt and kill. Chief among those casual gamers are women.
"Women favor the kind of conflict where you don't have to fight to resolve it," says professional gamer Ashley Jenkins, a hardcore gamer who also likes casual play. "You're not putting yourself in direct opposition to another person."
Time is also a factor, says game-design professor Carrie Heeter, co-editor of the forthcoming MIT Press book "Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat: New Perspectives on Gender, Games, and Computing."
"Studies of gender and leisure time show that women have less leisure time, and the time they do have is available in smaller chunks, so casual games, which are playable in chunks of 10 to 15 minutes, fit women's lifestyle."
Women gamers aren't all about puppies and puzzles. Some enjoy shooters as much as guys, though they don't always brag about it.
Jenkins is also one of seven Frag Dolls, a team of seven young, female gamers who compete for money in tournaments involving shoot-'em-up games. At these male-dominated gatherings, teams known as clans operate as military squads, trying to defeat other teams. In December, the Frag Dolls became the first all-female clan to win a tournament.
"There's a misconception that women play only casual games," says Jenkins. "More and more women are joining" online hardcore games. "A lot of women who play don't communicate they're female because they don't want a lot of harassment."
Seeking new markets, gamemakers are taking note of female gamers. The runaway success of the casual-gaming Nintendo Wii video game system, which has sold more than 1 million units in its three months of existence, taps into the female market with its emphasis on casual games. And like previous games, players won't be stuck in the role of male protagonist.
"You'll start seeing more games where you can customize character, not just gender but how you want them to look," says Phaedra Boinodiris, CEO of WomenGamers.Com.
And that will bring in even more female gamers, including those who might think that gaming is something other people do.
"They may not consider themselves gamers," Jenkins says, "but at some level, I think all women enjoy them."