Continued from page 1

Some of these competitions are sponsored by professional video game leagues like Major League Gaming, which even has its own signed “cyber athletes” with $250,000 contracts. Other events are hosted by local LAN centers — like cyber cafes but set up to accommodate multi-player games between patrons or over the Internet. One such facility is Rockville’s X3O Gaming Center. It offers a variety of tournaments, including the upcoming “Summer LockIN,” an overnight series of mini playoffs from the evening of July 28 through the morning of July 29.

A sleepover may sound like child’s play, but to people like Barry Caudill, an executive producer at Firaxis Games in Hunt Valley, Md., gaming is serious business. Firaxis is one of the best-known upstarts among the Baltimore suburb’s gaming cluster. It’s helmed by revered programmer Sid Meier of the Civilization series and is lauded for its strategy games.

During Mr. Caudill’s decade in the industry, he’s seen production budgets and team sizes grow between five- and tenfold and watched development and testing houses mushroom in the Baltimore suburb, driven in part by government demand for simulators.

“We sort of jokingly refer to this area as the Silicon Valley of the East,” says Mr. Caudill.

He adds that gaming has become so much more mainstream that when he announces his profession nowadays, people respond far less frequently with, “That’s nice — when are you going to get a real job?”

This is good news for soon-to-be job seekers like Mr. Wellington, who sees gaming not as a distracting hobby but a quest for excellence. “The thing that pushes me the most in playing and competing and wanting to make games is just wanting to be the best,” he says.

Dana Wortman, the department chair of his Art Institute program, has heard this same confession many times before. Her students, she says, have a real passion for what they do — something not everyone is lucky enough to discover. Besides, there are far worse things people could waste their time on. She wonders, for example, “Why do we watch reality shows?”

There may be a cloud of controversy surrounding video games now — they’re aggressive, isolating, addictive and so forth — but it doesn’t look like they’ll fade to black any time soon.

As Mr. Caudill says, people have a choice to make: They can either sit back and watch a TV show or a movie and “get taken into somebody else’s story,” or they can take the controller into their hands and “be the center of the story.”