About the time warrior woman walks by in a leather bikini that hardly exists, Nyla Comisso admits she's overwhelmed.

The warrior is about 6 feet tall and carries two silver daggers reflecting the hyperkinetic lights exploding from the dozens of multiplex-sized video screens that dangle above tall castle walls, poke out from jungle foliage and pretty much fill the Los Angeles Convention Center's 770,000 square feet during this, the world's largest video game conference.

The warrior, as it happens, is pretty much what you'd get if you asked a videogamer to design the perfect woman: a mythical goddess unnatural in her proportions and bursting with the promise of artificial adventure. But it's not Ms. Warrior or the Vegas-in-mid-apocalypse sensory barrage that has Comisso, a video game company spokeswoman, momentarily stunned.

What overwhelms is the player who boasts he has logged more than 250 hours on one of her company's games.

"I'd probably decide," Comisso says, "that it's time for a nice hike after the first 100 hours."

The question of whether joysticks and hiking sticks (or ski poles or fishing rods) can peacefully coexist in a person's life is something entertainment capitalists, cultural critics and academics started pondering long before video games began generating $7 billion a year.

Judging from the flab and pale faces at this year's convention, the answer is "no." And judging from all the zombie-killing action flickering across those mega-screens and the hundreds or thousands of smaller flat panels drawing in tens of thousands of eyes, even the ersatz exertion of surfing, skiing or rock climbing is woefully out of style in gameland these days.

And yet there are those who say that video games are successful precisely because they replicate the reasons people like to go outdoors.

Inside out

In the back of the convention hall, a pimply twentysomething male picks up a rifle attached to a computer, squeezes the trigger at video bad guys, turns to a friend and laughs.

"My mom's gonna hate this," he says.

Game designers speculate that the lad is in the grip of the same instinct that has encouraged decades of boys and girls into mud pits and up trees. Games attract players for the same reasons parks and forests draw hikers, says Henry Jenkins, a professor with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab.

"Games offer the opportunity to explore and discover and confront challenges in ways that let you develop a sense of who you are," says Jenkins. "Today's kids grow up without backyards. They don't get to choose between a hike and a game most days. Video games are the only way to escape domestic confinement."

Outdoor exploration has traditionally been an important part of learning how the world works, says University of Arkansas history professor Elliot West. Most children living in the 19th century enjoyed free range over miles of open space. By the 1950s, in most places, territories for mythical kingdoms had shrunk to backyards and nearby parks. But they were still outside.

That time spent outdoors was important, writes Roger Hart, a professor of environmental and developmental psychology with the City University of New York, because explorations of physical surroundings aid in the development of personality. The physical world, Hart writes in the book "Children's Experience of Place," is comfortingly stable when contrasted with the complexities of human relations. In treehouses and caves, and in the imaginary worlds and play battles they inspire, kids figure out life's rules.

But the exurbia sprawl cut off access to many of those natural resources. So, Jenkins says, video games picked up the slack. "Latchkey kids are playing video games that let them create imaginary worlds. Southern kids play deer hunter on the computer rather than going into the woods with Dad," says Jenkins. "Growing up is about confronting authority and learning to master hierarchies — that's what you do in a video game."

"Now, because they can't do it in the forest, they do it in their bedrooms."

Some video games explicitly borrow from the outdoors. Surfing, kayaking, hunting, skiing, fishing: almost every sport has had a day in the digital sun.

But game designers learned quickly that some sports translate into pixels better than others, says Dave Oxford of Activision, one of the largest video game distributors.