A Buyer's Guide for Aspiring Gamers

Welcome to the new era of video games. Gone are the pixilated, two-dimensional arcade games played on a chunky Atari console. Technology has given life to realistic characters that inhabit sprawling virtual worlds.

Video game companies have flooded the market with new products, from gaming consoles to specialized chairs. DFC Intelligence, a San Diego-based market-research firm, estimates that consumers will spend $57 billion on gaming gear this year.

Second Life, a PC-based game, offers players a virtual world.

So how can you get into the action? Here are a few tips to help you pull together a first-class gaming system.

Console gaming: There are two ways to play, on a computer or through console systems such as Sony's ( SNE) PlayStation 3, Microsoft's ( MSFT) Xbox 360 or Nintendo's ( NTDOY) Wii. Consoles are standalone boxes that you connect to your TV and home-theater system. That allows you to hear the boom of grenades exploding through your surround-sound speakers as you play the shoot-'em-up game "Call of Duty: World at War."

Not all consoles are built alike, and consumers must pick the one that fits their needs. The $399 PlayStation 3 boasts a Blu-ray player and wireless connectivity. The Xbox 360, which costs $199 to $399, offers a subscription-based service that allows users to download video games and challenge other players online.

The PlayStation and Xbox use hand-held controllers while the $249 Wii employs wireless stick-like controllers that use motion sensors. In the Wii Sports tennis game, for example, players swing the controllers to control the serves of their avatars' serves, groundstrokes and volleys.

Computer-based gaming: Despite the lure of shiny consoles and wireless controllers, computers still offer plenty of bang for your buck. PCs for years have been the standard for "massively multiplayer online role-playing games," or MMORPGs, games with their own virtual universes filled with hundreds or thousands of other people. Second Life and other PC-based games are typically hosted by their developers, and the playing continues after you log off.

PC-based games require more power than the average off-the-shelf computer offers. The machines need faster processors, lots of memory and top-of-the-line graphics capabilities. Several companies offer customized gaming machines, including Alienware Computers, Dell ( DELL) and Gateway.

Extras: Once a gamer has selected his system, he can spend big bucks to outfit it. Some products, such as headsets that allow you to communicate with opponents online, are almost mandatory. Others aren't mandatory, but will make for a fun afternoon. Check out Pyramat's Wireless Deluxe Sound Rocker, an ergonomic gaming chair with embedded wireless speakers.

Some games require special accessories. Wii owners can shell out $20 for controller covers that look like boxing gloves to play Victorious Boxers Revolution. They might pay $139 for Rock Band 2, a game that costs $139 and includes guitar controllers, a microphone and a specialized drum set. The game challenges players to play along with iconic rock tunes by artists such as Fleetwood Mac and the Foo Fighters. The better you play, the higher your score.

For players on the go, portable game units offer an alternative to couch-bound consoles. Nintendo's line of PlayStation hand-held games, which start at $100, are among the most popular.

Since the Atari 2600 launched in the late 1970s, the video game industry has exploded. Thanks to powerful consoles and sophisticated graphics, games are becoming more realistic. The downside of that progress is that what you buy today might be obsolete in a few years. But if your console becomes outdated, just stash it in the attic. It's sure to become a collector's item.