NEW YORK (Reuters) - Videogames are becoming kinder and gentler as women and older players seek pleasure in a pastime long dominated by teenage boys hell-bent on winning wars in fantasy worlds.
While violent games like "Grand Theft Auto" and "Battlefield" remain top sellers, relaxing ones designed to induce calm and tranquility are emerging as a major category in an industry often knocked for promoting bad behavior.
"A lot of people who played games in the past have grown up. They see it more than just a child's pastime," said Jodi Whitaker, an Ohio State University doctoral student and lead author of a new study on the effect of videogames on their players.
"It's something that adults can do, so it's more socially acceptable for other people to play videogames as well."
The shift has come as videogame makers seek out casual players who want a brief diversion on their mobile phones or online, and don't care to invest $250 or more on consoles such as Sony Corp's PlayStation and Microsoft Corp's Xbox.
Nintendo Co Ltd's Wii console, cheaper at about $150, has been a major catalyst in changing the game with its focus on fitness, education and community. With 88 million units sold since its debut in 2006, the Wii is now common on cruise ships and retirement homes.
Wii games are "more of a team building exercise, more like board games," said Jeff Ryan, author of the book "Super Mario," due to be released in August.
Hardcore videogames, however, can take 40 to 60 hours to complete, along with gobs of adrenaline and a stomach for guts and gore that many older or female players lack.
The effect of such games on players is not surprising. Whitaker's study shows that violent videogames make people more aggressive and angry, while relaxing ones make them kinder, happier and more generous.
"Playing relaxing games puts people in a positive mood which in turn increases helpful behavior," said Brad Bushman, professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University who co-authored the study with Whitaker.
"So the games not only decrease aggressive behavior but also increase pro-social and helpful behaviors."
In "Endless Ocean," one of the games in the study, players dive into gentle deep waters to pet sea creatures, explore corals and find buried treasure, in a Zen-like experience.
"It may be a challenge but it's not meant to stimulate you," Whitaker said.
Students in the study who played "Endless Ocean" and the Fishing Minigame in "The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess," both by Nintendo, were asked afterward to help sharpen pencils if they had time -- and were far more helpful than those who had just played violent or neutral games.
By contrast, players of "Resident Evil 4" and "No More Heroes," rated "M" for mature audiences aged 17 and older, punished losers by giving loud, intense blasts of noise.
Neutral games such as "Super Mario Galaxy" and "Wii Sports Resort," which are stimulating but not violent, had no measurable effect on their players' moods.
"The most aggressive were violent game players. The most generous were relaxing game players," Bushman said.
In a sign of the market shift, Nintendo showed off its next-generation Wii at the E3 videogame expo in Los Angeles this week with tranquil visuals of a cherry blossom tree that players could float around and explore from various angles.
"Instead of picking robots fighting or volcanoes exploding they picked this," Ryan said, noting that Nintendo is "feeling that people wanted a sense of relaxation."
Manufacturers are "bending backwards" to cater to the casual videogame market, which is largely untapped, he said.