"What I like to do is get in the car and drive around and do drive-by shootings," said Chris Trudeau of Norwalk, Conn. "You can haul someone out of their car and beat on them and steal their money and their car. It's kind of amusing that you have that ability."
Colin Smith, from Charlotte, North Carolina, said: "The drive-by shootings of innocent pedestrians are always fun. It really does bring out the quote-unquote evil in you."
These aren't journal entries from prison inmates. No, just the heartfelt testimonials of some die-hard fans of the best-selling and -- not coincidentally -- most violent video game in America: Grand Theft Auto 3, a wantonly anti-social carjacking escapade in which players are rewarded for having sex with a prostitute, killing her and stealing her money.
PHOTO: NY TIMES
Banned in Australia
It's no problem in Grand Theft Auto 3 to grab a rifle and shoot innocent pedestrians (blood spurts from their heads when they're hit), or to toss a grenade in a busy city intersection, or to simply whale passers-by with a baseball bat until they collapse in writhing heaps. The game was banned in Australia and earned a dishonorable mention on the annual video game violence report card by Senators Joseph Lieberman and Herb Kohl.
But fans of the game, who must be 17 years old to buy it, are hardly a collection of weirdos and social misfits. An awful lot are like Trudeau, a 29-year-old computer programmer, and Smith, a 30-year-old sports marketer: professionals with successful careers, wives or girlfriends and, in many cases, children. And to hear a lot of them tell it, well, Grand Theft Auto 3 is just too much fun.
Rich Estrin, 24, a publicist from Long Island, says the game's allure comes down to "just going on killing sprees."
What is it about virtual carjacking and killing innocent pedestrians that's appealing to young men who are otherwise upstanding citizens? According to Eugene Provenzo, a University of Miami professor of education who has written extensively about video games, mature-rated games may be the adult equivalent of flashlight-under-the-covers reading. They satisfy the urge to be naughty.
"It allows us to enter a dangerous space in a new way and to explore something that's a bit forbidden," he said. "Maybe it's not a space we want to go to in reality, but it's something we want to test out."
It's this generation, which grew up on Atari and Pac-Man and now spends with credit cards instead of quarters, that has contributed to the incredible growth of the video-game industry in the last two years. Retail sales of video games totaled US$9.4 billion last year, a 42 percent increase over the US$6.6 billion in sales in 2000, and even more than Hollywood took in at the box office last year.
Despite the perception that gamers are pimply-faced Bart Simpsons, the average video-game player in the US is 28 years old, according to the International Digital Software Association.
Grand Theft Auto 3 is hardly the only big seller among mature games, which last year accounted for 9.2 percent of all video-game sales and are the fastest-growing sector of the market, according to the NPD Funworld, a retail research firm.
Other big sellers include Resident Evil; Max Payne -- a game built around the revenge of a cop whose wife and child were killed by thugs; and Halo, a gory shoot'em-up for Microsoft's Xbox that allows as many as 16 players to gun away at each other at once.
Guys night out
For some in their mid-20s to late '30s, shooting one another to virtual smithereens has replaced poker as the activity of choice for guys' night out. After work one recent evening, Kevin Amter and five friends gathered around a refrigerator-size Panasonic television in a Manhattan loft. They ordered some pizza, cracked open beers and after a pep talk from a fictional mission commander -- "When we meet the enemy, we'll tear their skulls from their spines and laugh about it" -- their thumbs started pumping like sewing-machine needles.
"Get up so I can kill you some more!"
For a few harrowing, corpse-strewn minutes, the guys were lost in a world that looked and sounded like a futuristic version of the opening scene of "Saving Private Ryan."
Bullets and bodies flew to the relentless, metallic clackety-clack of reloading small arms. The virtual floors of the game were bathed in blood. In the apartment, a dog wet the floor and no one noticed.
Not overly mature
Amter is 37 and his Halo buddies range in age from 25 to 38. "We're not slackers or teen deviants," Amter said, chewing on a slice of pizza after the electronic smoke had cleared. "We're just mature adults who aren't overly mature. The phrase 'grow up, not old' applies directly to us."
Much of the mature games' power to titillate comes from advancements in graphics and sound technology. Because game hardware renders curves and the illusion of 3D by assembling a vast number of polygons on a two-dimensional screen, their graphic capability is measured by the rate at which their processors can produce those geometric shapes per second. In 1999, the fastest game consoles operated at a speed of around 350,000 polygons per second. By contrast, Sony PlayStation2 operates at 66 million per second. Microsoft's Xbox has a speed of 116 million per second. The result is an almost cinematic experience for the player.
"It's like a horror movie, but you're in it," Trudeau said of Resident Evil. "You play it at home with the lights off, and it scares the bejesus out of you."
One needn't actually play the games to appreciate their cinematic qualities. When Rick Barakat, 28, a sports marketing executive from Charlotte, plays Grand Theft Auto 3, his wife, he said, "likes to sit there and watch like it's a TV show or a movie." The first time Barakat mowed down a pedestrian in the game, he said, "we thought it was funny."
"If we're going to look at murder and prostitution and violence in movies," he continued, "why shouldn't we be able to see them in video games?"
Although most research on violent video games has focused on their effect on children, some experts fear that the games may adversely affect adults.
Caught in the act
Eric Weinburg, a 28-year-old father from Atlanta and a Grand Theft Auto 3 fan, said the game had become a wedge between himself and his wife. "She's appalled -- first of all that it's a video game; secondly, that I'm playing it," he said. "It always seems like the times when my wife walked into the room, I was picking up a hooker."
Wall Street's faith in the sales of the games was recently demonstrated when the publisher of Grand Theft Auto 3, New York-based Take-Two Interactive, became embroiled in an accounting scandal. Though trading of its stock was halted for three weeks and the stock's value dropped 24 percent, it closed Friday at US$23.75, near its all-time high, US$26.90.
The company plans to release a personal computer version of the game soon and is promoting the game aggressively on "The Howard Stern Show," in the lad magazine Maxim and on MTV's "Osbournes."
In addition, the company is exploring film possibilities. In the view of Paul Eibeler, the president of Take-Two, video games and movies "are moving closer and closer together."
"It used to be that movies went to interactive products, now it's the other way around," he said. "The older market drives that business."
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