MMORPG unseats NHL as Canadas top online subject

CanWest News Service
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In a slap shot to our national identity, Yahoo! Canada says hockey has been unseated as the country's top online search subject.
The Internet search engine reports that RuneScape, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), was 2008's most-searched term among Canadians, knocking the NHL out of the lofty position it has held since 2006.
Geoff Iddison, CEO of RuneScape developer Jagex, describes the fantasy game as "a massive social network," noting players can converse in-character through customized avatars.
University of Victoria cultural studies professor Kim Blank believes the sense of belonging people associate with being part of a sports team is being augmented or replaced by citizenship in the gaming world.
"Like other MMORPGs, (RuneScape) creates virtual forms of identity and community," said Blank, citing a 2008 study in the journal CyberPsychology & Behavior that found more than one in five online gamers preferred online socializing to offline socializing.
The shift in interest from a physical game to a virtual one heightens concerns among health experts about the link between electronic entertainment and national physical activity levels.
"We know screen time on television and computers is pretty closely linked to increased juvenile obesity levels," said Colin Higgs, a sport science researcher for nearly 40 years.
"Given that side of the equation, we are headed for serious health problems down the road because of this shift to video games."
According to Hitwise, which measures online usage, 43 per cent of Yahoo! users are under 35.
Statistics Canada reported earlier this year that just three in 10 Canadians 15 and older regularly participated in one or more organized sports in 2005. This was down from the early 1990s when it was closer to one-half.
Gaming, meanwhile, is rapidly gaining adherents. DFC Intelligence projects worldwide video game and interactive entertainment industry revenue will grow to US$57 billion in 2009, up from $20.7 billion in 2002.
Higgs notes it's possible Canadians are playing sports in less-structured activities that are harder to measure.
"Just because they're not playing on Hockey Canada-registered teams doesn't mean they're not renting ice time," he said.
There is evidence many gamers are balancing their screen time with other activities.
In a recent University of Southern California survey of 7,000 people, researchers found the average online gamer had a lower body-mass index than the typical American, and engaged in some form of weekly exercise despite logging an average 26 gaming hours a week.
Jeremy Hartman, an avid gamer from Toronto, says he's as likely to be playing dodge ball, football, volleyball and softball as he is to be shooting virtual goals on NHL 09.
While he wouldn't consciously trade real sports for electronic ones, the 33-year-old says it does happen on occasion.
"There have been times when I've played too many hours, just getting sucked in and killing a nice day," said Hartman.
"But generally, video games haven't become a replacement (for sports)."
While Higgs, a professor at Memorial University in Newfoundland, is concerned about the amount of time young people spend playing video games, he'd be happy if their parents would take them up.
"In some ways, if we could get more of our older people engaged in video games, it might be a plus because it can help them maintain coordination and evaluate rapidly changing situations. It's good stuff for older brains."
Other search terms in the 2008 Yahoo! top-10 include Miley Cyrus, the Toronto Stock Exchange, Service Canada, Britney Spears and American Idol, as well as entries for the NHL, UFC, WWE and NASCAR.
"Sports still rank high in Canadian searches," said Yahoo! Canada spokesman Peter Harris.
"Some people may even think researching the TSX is a sport."

Organizations: University of Southern California, NHL, Yahoo! University of Victoria CyberPsychology & Behavior Statistics Canada DFC Intelligence Memorial University in Newfoundland Toronto Stock Exchange Service Canada NASCAR TSX

Geographic location: Canada, Toronto

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