Video games muscle in on movies

Latest version of 'Grand Theft Auto' moves industry into the spotlight.

Traces of the word "video" linger beneath a new sign that just went up on a suburban Blockbuster store here. In its place hangs a logo for Game Rush, a new division created by the movie-rental chain to tap into one of the fastest growing markets in global entertainment: video games. Inside, more than half the shelf space is given to video-game sales and rentals.

"It's still Blockbuster," says employee Scott Dolgin, wearing a shirt featuring both the old and new logos. "But more people want games rather than movies, so we just have to move [to] where people are going."

Younger people, that is. Video games rarely register on people over 30 - except when the games are implicated in Columbine-style violence, or as happened last week, a game comes along that promises record sales. But this past week's release of "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" - the fifth installment of one of the industry's most popular franchises - was an event that even made the morning news shows.

Although the company, Rockstar Games, will not release sales figures, industry watchers predict that "GTA: San Andreas" sales will approach 5 million units in the first week alone. At $50 a box, that's an eye-popping $250 million for just one game.

The interactive-entertainment industry has been vying with Hollywood for top dollar in recent years. Figures on video-game profits vary all the way up to $30 billion worldwide, including hardware and software sales; even conservative estimates peg it close to $10 billion. Now, first-week sales of a single game - "GTA" - are rivaling the box-office numbers for such hit movies as "Spiderman" or "Finding Nemo."

But other than sporadic debates over the role of video games in perpetuating a violent youth culture, mainstream media have largely ignored this 800-pound gorilla. However, as the demographic ages (players include those in their 20s and 30s) and the industry begins to beat movies' box office, pundits say it's time to acknowledge a cultural change at work.

"Consumers are choosing video and computer games as their choice of entertainment for the 21st century," says Doug Lowenstein, president of the Entertainment Software Association (ESA). "Games have made tremendous advances over the past decade, both creatively and technologically, drawing more people into immersive and complex virtual worlds." Over the next decade, as younger audiences who have grown up with video games move into adulthood and parenthood, the demand for video games will only expand, he predicts. According to a recent ESA survey, 54 percent of American households will buy one or more video games in 2004.

For all the recent attention paid to "GTA" and its moneymaking potential (the whole franchise has sold more than 32 million units to date), the coverage has also raised public concern about the extreme violence, stereotypes, and cartoon-like characters typical of many video games, including "GTA." According to one of the industry's most prominent critics, violent video games make children more aggressive. "They learn that there are lots of bad people out there who will hurt them," Iowa State University researcher Craig Anderson testified before the US Senate recently. "They come to expect others to be mean and nasty. Perhaps as importantly, they do not learn nonviolent solutions to interpersonal conflicts."

But neither this sort of criticism nor the lag in mainstream acceptance for a new entertainment form is new, say pop-culture pundits. "Movies were embraced by the young in the early 1920s," says Gerard Jones, adviser to the MIT comparative media-studies graduate program. "It wasn't till the '30s or so that the people who run the cultural debates of the country started to wonder and worry. The same thing happened with comic books. They were catching on in the '30s, but it wasn't until the '50s that everyone said, 'What is this that our kids have been into?' " Mr. Jones, author of "Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes and Make-Believe Violence," suggests that video-game violence is simply new technology applied to an age-old need for testing one's limits in a safe environment.

This generation gap is most obvious when it comes to reviews of "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas." While the game is drawing fire from the mainstream media for the mayhem it contains, inside the gaming world, it is being heralded as a landmark achievement. Reviewers praise everything from the sophisticated technology it employs to the storylines, freedom, and moral choices it offers players. A major interactive-game website, IGN.com, says: "GTA: San Andreas is the single best PlayStation 2 title I have ever played." Even the Chicago Tribune called it a "masterpiece ... that moves toward the next generation of consoles and the kinds of evolving human tales waiting to unfold."

Attitudes will begin to shift only as generations change, says Helmut Kobler, a game consultant. "We've gone beyond just kids playing the games because those kids who started with the industry back in the '70s and '80s are now parents and many of them play with their own kids."

Mr. Kobler, who is also a game designer, says lack of familiarity with games breeds contempt. "It's largely fear of the unknown," he says of critics. He points to the widespread acceptance of violent behavior in films. "Why is the 'Godfather' trilogy, which is about the same kind of stuff [as the GTA games], considered an icon in American culture, while this game is seen as completely bad?"

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