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Fighting Fit

It's a great week for gamers - and a poor show from the medium's critics

It is, according to eternally amusing quixotic crusader Jack Thompson, "the gravest assault upon children in this country since polio." Alternatively, according to the altogether less entertaining but vastly more factual Chart-Track, it's the fastest-selling game in the history of the UK market - a feat which, the Wall Street Journal suggests, will probably be repeated in the USA also.

The furore surrounding the hugely anticipated Grand Theft Auto IV couldn't possibly be any more bi-polar. On one side, you have the vast audience that "gets" games - awash with 10/10 review scores, hugely enthusiastic online and offline buzz, talk of an epidemic of "GTA flu" on launch day and, of course, those sales figures.

On the other side, you find all the frothing, howling and hypocrisy that we've come to expect from the right-wing conservative travelling circus which attends the launch of every controversial videogame. Reactionary knee-jerks range from the removal of ads for the game from public transport in a number of US cities (potentially opening a huge First Amendment can of worms in the process) to a call from a New Zealand politician for - you guessed it - an outright ban.

Along the way, there are plenty of extraordinary roadshows to take in. Marvel at Jack Thompson's taste-defying stunt as he compares a videogame to an epidemic that left countless destroyed lives and deformed bodies in its wake! Gasp at the hypocrisy as police spokespeople slam the game, even as their fellow officers queue up to buy it! Chuckle knowingly as minor politicians spot a bandwagon trundling past and take flying leaps at it!

With crucial local elections - and a huge debate over income tax - dominating politics here in the UK, we've thankfully been spared the mock outrage of the usual suspects on this side of the Atlantic. However, even the ongoing theatre of the Democratic primaries hasn't been enough to distract the USA from the fact that there's a videogame out in which people are shot, cars are stolen and, worst of all, people appear to have sex! (In their clothes, in such a manner that you can't see anything anyway - don't get too excited.)

If anything, however, the whole response to GTA IV is actually quite reassuring. When the UK press responded to the Byron Review a few weeks ago, I commented that the backlash was so shrill, so defensive and so pathetically, self-righteously vitriolic that it made clear that we have turned a corner. What would once have been strident calls for bans, censorship, hangings, floggings, the return of the birch and a good dose of national service to sort it all out, had been reduced to vaguely morose and pitifully luddite complaints about how all this new-fangled nonsense will end in tears.

The response to GTA IV is certainly more enthusiastic - at least in the United States - but it's still a pale shadow of what was, not so long ago, a genuinely worrying legal and political campaign. Legal battles in several states have been fought and lost - and shouldn't have been fought at all, if their proponents had the first clue about the nation's constitution, but fools have always rushed in where angels have the common sense not to tread. A number of top politicians and broadcasters have sensed a losing battle and gone quiet on the "cause".

Besides simple attrition, though, there's another reason why the crusade against videogames is falling apart - and if you walk into any games or electronics store in the UK this week, you'll see it in action.

GTA IV isn't the only game that's selling like hot cakes in Europe at the moment; Nintendo's Wii Fit is also selling out as fast as the company can ship the balance board to retail. While there's arguably a market for it among the same customers who buy GTA (my own advancing paunch is a testament to the power of great games to do awful things to your waistline), the crossover between consumers of the two products is probably fairly minimal.

This is the real mass-market in action - the kind of mainstream, mass-market appeal that I've been banging on about in these columns for years. GTA IV on its own is not a mass-market product - it's hugely successful within a large niche. Wii Fit, equally, is not mass-market per se - it, too, is successful within a large niche. Combine the two, though, and you can see the extraordinary, mass-market reach of gaming itself.

This is the Holy Grail - the ability to launch two wildly disparate products in the same week, and garner a huge audience for both. It's like when Hollywood launches a sci-fi action-fest and a warm-hearted romantic comedy in the same week, and you get to see boys in their late teens desperately trying to act like the person ahead of them in the ticket queue isn't their mum. As painful as it may be for some gamers, GameStop, GAME and their ilk are well on their way to having your mums as customers.

Why does this kill the anti-videogames message? Simply because for the media, which is used to painting videogames with broad, tar-laden brushstrokes, it's difficult to now backtrack and have a story on page one about evil videogames corrupting our youth, and a story on page four about fantastic videogames helping you get back in shape, or warding off senile dementia.

Moreover, the blow is here being struck that will turn Middle England, Middle America, and Middle Everywhere Else (although perhaps not Middle Earth) into gamers. I had previously believed that this process was inevitable, but only because the generations who grew up with games are getting older, and given enough time there would be little remaining of the generations to whom games are new and suspicious. As it transpires, my beliefs were pessimistic - from web games to the Wii, via Singstar, The Sims, Rock Band and plenty more besides, the games industry is actually converting its former detractors, rather than just waiting for them to die off.

In a week which has seen new records set, with high review scores thrown around like pies at a food fight, the sight of games flying off the shelves at two very disparate ends of the industry's product spectrum is a hugely heartening one. It should put a grin on the face of everyone with a financial interest in the games business - but for everyone who cares about the art and progress of videogames, there's reason for an even wider smile in the fact that the industry's critics are on the back foot, being dragged ever-faster into obscurity and irrelevance by a tide of inevitability.

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Rob Fahey avatar
Rob Fahey: Rob Fahey is a former editor of who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.
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