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.

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