Rather than reach for the television remote control when she wants to be entertained, Karalyn Valente goes online to play EverQuest, Ultima Online, and other video games -- a gaming habit shared by millions in the United States.
Valente, a 29-year-old graphic artist from York, Pa., said she devotes about 30 hours a week in vast online worlds and spent more than $1,500 on games last year.
''I watch less and less TV. I turn it on and the shows are just idiotic," Valente said. ''When I play the games, I actually look through the character's eyes. I actually become the character."
According to a new AP-AOL Games poll, 40 percent of American adults play games on a computer or a console. Men, younger adults, and minorities were most likely to play those games.
Among those who describe themselves as gamers, 45 percent play over the Internet. And more than a third of online gamers spent more than $200 last year on gaming, compared with nearly a quarter of those who don't play games online.
Online gamers also spent more time playing those games.
Forty-two percent of online gamers said they spent at least four hours playing games during an average week, compared with 26 percent of those who don't play online. About one in six online gamers play more than 10 hours a week.
The survey results come as Sony Corp., Nintendo Co., and Microsoft Corp. push their new consoles this week at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles. All three are hoping to make broad online features such as multiplayer games, video conferencing, and downloadable content a core element of the video game experience.
Casual games like board or card games were the most popular, followed by strategy games, action sports, adventure, first-person shooters. and simulations, the poll found. Casual, strategy, and role-playing games were most popular among online gamers.
And that game playing can be expensive.
Cameron Wright's gaming cost more than $4,500 last year, most of that on upgrades to two of his four PCs.
More than a fourth of gamers say they spent nothing on that hobby last year and slightly more, 31 percent, spent $100 or less.
Only 11 percent spent more than $500 last year. Online gamers are more likely to have spent more than $500 last year compared with gamers who don't play online. Six in 10 hardcore gamers -- those who play three or more hours per week -- spent $200 or less on games last year.
Although Wright usually spends about two hours a week on gaming, he said he sometimes makes extra time for adult-themed military strategy games like Command and Conquer, which he plays online with friends.
''Once you start, they get quite intricate," said Wright, a 44-year-old investment manager from Indianapolis. ''You're looking at four to five hours a night."
Of those who play online games, nearly one in five said they had formed ongoing friendships or relationships with fellow gamers they did not know before, the poll found.
Valente said she met her roommate and her boyfriend in online games and regularly uses special computer software called TeamSpeak to talk with teammates and friends in the game worlds.
''I've met a lot of strangers online and become friends with them," she said. ''I have friends that have been online for years."
Wright, meanwhile, said the family PlayStation 2 has become the center of entertainment for him and his four young children.
''With the PS2 we find ourselves sitting down and passing it around from one person to another doing round-robin tournaments," Wright said. ''The kids just eat that up. The big competition is who gets through that level first."
The AP-AOL Games poll of 3,024 adults in the United States, including 1,046 gamers, was conducted by Ipsos, an international polling firm, on April 18-20 and 24-27.
For the gamers, the poll has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.