Can GTA 4 drive me across the digital divide?

I’ve recently taken on a project to create a personal profile page for the hero of a popular video game that will be posted on social networking sites. I probably haven’t logged more than two hours total gaming time in my life.  Publicly, I follow the game industry for professional and academic reasons. Privately, I’m one of those old pharts who just doesn’t get it.

But thanks to my new assignment, and my perpetual fear that I’m going to wake up tomorrow morning and be declared professionally obsolete, I’m going to force myself across this generational digital divide by playing Grand Theft Auto 4.

Grand Theft Auto 4, (GTA 4) one of the most successful and controversial video games to date, went on sale at midnight and is expected to ka-ching over $400 million in sales this week.  Previous versions of the game raised alarm from content watchdogs about the story line, in which players take the role of a East European immigrant who steals cars, shoots cops and beats up prostitutes.

GTA 4 sells for $60 and its success is more evidence of the paradigm shift in the entertainment industry.  Only 7 movies have grossed more than $400 million, and none of them in the first week of release.  Game software sales are up 63 percent and game console sales up 46 percent over this time last year. Hollywood is looking on with envy.

Today’s NY Times quotes males in the game’s core demographic of mid-teens to mid-twenties as saying that, if it came down to choosing priorities, they’d sooner give up their cell phones than forego GTA.   For them, it’s not a question of  ‘Can I afford it?’ but of “How soon can I get it?’

It’s hard to imagine even the most hard core Star Wars fan making a comparable sacrifice to buy a movie ticket.  The article also quotes  game industry analysts and business school professors as saying that the game industry seems to be recession proof, and speculating that it’s thriving in hard times because of the escapist, and addictive, nature of the gaming experience.

My sons, ages 18 and 22 are life-long gamers and have tried many times, in vain, to get me engaged.  Despite my natural escapist, addictive tendencies, I’ve never come close to playing any game a second time. They will surely score a copy of GTA 4 this week, and I’m giving myself the assignment of spending at least several hours playing it.

If I have to shoot a cop and beat up a prostitute to stay current, well, it’s a living.

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