Tuesday will be one of the biggest days of the year for gamers -- and one of the most controversial.
Rockstar Games will release "Grand Theft Auto IV," the latest in a series that has sparked sales of more than 35 million units and been the focus of social outcries about the dangers that video games can pose for children.
Former presidential candidate Joe Lieberman has called the "GTA" series "horrendous." But Henry Jenkins, a respected professor at MIT, likes how the game explores the notion of choice and consequence.
In the "GTA" games, you generally play as a low-life thug working your way up in the criminal underworld. The way you do it -- by shooting police officers and dealing with hookers, drug dealers and pimps, in very graphic ways -- is what attracts the controversy.
And controversy attracts curiosity. That means too many kids are playing a game they shouldn't.
"Well, you know how the saying goes, `There's no such thing as bad publicity,' " said Libe Goad, editor-in-chief of the GameDaily Web site. "I can only suspect that the more people read about the thing called `Grand Theft Auto,' the more they want to find out what it is."
A digital `Scarface'
In "GTA IV," the lead character comes from Europe to live with his cousin and quickly finds himself in the criminal underworld. It's like a digital "Scarface," with you in the Tony Montana role.The latest game is reportedly a huge leap over previous installments.
The level of realism has been ramped up; Rockstar North producer Leslie Benzies told ign.com in a recent interview that it took nearly 1,000 people and 3 1/2 years to develop this title, which takes place in Manhattan-esque Liberty City.
And it's the realism that disturbs critics.
"This brutally violent video game must be kept out of the hands of children," said Tim Winter, president of the Parents Television Council.
Winter is especially concerned because a previous "GTA" title secretly included a mini-game that allowed players to have a graphic sexual encounter (the game briefly earned an Adults-Only rating before Rockstar re-released it).
He would also like to see "GTA IV" not displayed publicly in stores, and for retailers to check IDs.
"Legally, stores cannot sell children pornographic magazines or handguns -- but they can legally sell video games to children that contain pornographic content or that teach children how to kill," Winter said. "This is wrong.' "
I've played the previous three "GTA" games and have found them all well done and well thought out.
I'm 41, and I don't see anything in these games that I haven't seen in critically acclaimed movies such as "The Departed" or "No Country for Old Men." The difference, of course, is you're not watching someone get killed. You are the killer.
Let's be clear: No one under 18 -- and probably no one under 21 -- should play this game or even see it played. But Rockstar's commercial, showing strippers on a pole and crooks driving fast cars, will be effective at luring teens as well as older male customers.
" `Grand Theft Auto' was one of the first games that was specifically designed with older gamers in mind," said Game Daily's Goad. "It took the same stuff we were seeing in TV and movies and put it into a video game. It's not sci-fi, it doesn't involve magic -- it's set in a `reality' that people can relate to."
And we can expect plenty more "Grand Theft" titles in our future.
"I can definitely imagine the `GTA' franchise lasting for years to come," Goad said. "Rockstar would have to have a death wish financially to stop making `GTA.' "