After a day of dirty diapers and "Dora the Explorer," of laundry and homework time, when her four kids are finally asleep, Sarah Ninesling begins roaming the ruins of a post-apocalyptic Washington, D.C., fighting mutants to help save the survivors of a nuclear war.
The 30-year-old stay-at-home mom from New York's Long Island plays "Fallout 3" and other games like "World of Warcraft" and "The Lord of the Rings Online." She plays every day, sometimes past midnight, to escape and relax and feel a sense of accomplishment.
"You are never going to play a schlep," she said. "You are always going to be a hero."
Ninesling is not alone. More than half of American adults play video games and one in five play just about every day, according to a survey released Sunday by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. The survey of 2,054 U.S. adults was conducted late last year, with a margin of error of about 2 percent.
People from all walks of life play, though younger adults are far more likely to play than seniors, proof that video games are mainstream entertainment for the generations that grew up with them. In all, 81 percent of respondents between 18 and 29 said they play games, compared with 23 percent of people 65 and older.
Another Pew survey this fall found that nearly every teenager — 97 percent — is a gamer.
"As various people become more accustomed to spending their entertainment time playing games, we will continue to see this spread throughout society," said Amanda Lenhart, senior research specialist at Pew. "There are people who talk about games as a new genre, a new art form."
The gender gap between gamers was not what would be predicted by old stereotypes painting video game fans as young men who need to get outside more. Fifty percent of women and 55 percent of men play video games.
Video game companies are increasingly trying to cater to women and families. In recent years, they have pushed to expand their audience through "casual" games, ones that are easy to pick up and take less time to master. Nintendo Co. has enjoyed perhaps the greatest success — its Wii gaming console, launched in 2006, is still in such high demand it was recently sold out on Best Buy's Web site.
A surprising finding in Pew's report was the discrepancy between the education levels of gamers and non-gamers. While video games may not make you smarter, a college education means you're more likely to play them. Some 57 percent of respondents who went to at least some college said they play games, compared with 51 percent of high school graduates and just 40 percent of people who have less than a high school education. Lenhart said there is no obvious reason for the difference.
The survey also found that parents with young children and teenagers are big gamers, though a love of video games is not necessarily a result of parenting. Rather, these parents tend to be younger than parents with adult children, and are thus more likely to play.
In all, 66 percent of parents or guardians of children under 17 play video games, far more than the 47 percent of adults without kids that age. But it's not the offspring who are dragging Mom and Dad in front of the PlayStation: Only 31 percent of parents with teenagers play video games with their kids.
Ninesling, whose kids are 2, 4, 5 and 9, may play a lot of computer games, but she's strict about how much time the children spend in front of the screen: They have up to an hour each day to play the Wii, and they get at most half an hour on the computer, and not even every day.
"It's hypocritical, I guess," she said with a laugh.
Part of the lure of video games is the opportunity to interact with a story, to change the narrative if you want. The ending of "Fallout 3" depends on the choices the player makes throughout the game. Ninesling finds that interactivity more appealing than sitting in front of a television.
"Real life can suck, and games are designed not to," she said. "That's why it's important for most people."