Once upon a time, football fields, racetracks, and dragon-infested dungeons ruled the videogame universe. Now the hot virtual locale is the hood. Urban fantasies like Rockstar Games' Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas are grabbing a real chunk of the $10 billion gaming market. Why? One reason: Videogames have finally grown up. For twentysomethings, that means party time at the PlayStation2. For parents, it means having to read the ratings on the boxes. And for game designers, it means upping the thrills while thinking through some issues of conscience.
More and more, the thrills are coming from gangsta hip-hop culture; Grand Theft Auto and street-life titles like the upcoming 25 to Life (Eidos) and Fear and Respect (Midway) tap into rap's stories, settings, and music. That's a natural partnership, according to Kevin Liles, former president of Def Jam, the label that collaborated with Electronic Arts to put out the fighting games Def Jam Vendetta and Def Jam Fight for NY: ''We've never had the opportunity to benefit financially or participate in the creation. Now people are seeing that [hip-hop is] a viable force, not only in music and film but in the gaming world.'' Says Keith Munro, marketing director for EA: ''[It's] an obvious fit. We know hip-hop sells clothes, shoes, even Courvoisier.''
And urban violence. GTA: San Andreas, a gleefully gritty carjacking adventure, takes hood life to new extremes and is destined to be a retail monster. (The six installments of GTA have sold nearly 16 million units in the U.S., according to the NPD Group, at up to eight times the cost of a movie ticket.) Indeed, the game plays like the most shocking N.W.A lyrics come to life, with gamers able to manipulate a black man through pseudo-West Coast cities, ducking drive-bys, beating innocents bloody for cash, and ''parking'' with prostitutes. (No sex is depicted but the controllers shake, simulating orgasm.) And cultural watchdogs are bristling. ''When those nuggets of imagery get repeated, those messages become internalized,'' says Christy Glaubke, of Children Now. ''Not just for a white kid who's never gone to school with an African American, but for African-American children playing games with negative stereotypes. It reinforces that that's what society expects of them or allows for them to be.''
Surprisingly, you won't get much argument from those in hip-hop. ''I adopted this kid that's 13,'' says producer Jermaine Dupri, who has contributed music to EA and admitted to being very into GTA. ''He started playing it before [I did]. I came in one day and heard the language and saw the violence.... I don't believe that a 13- or 14-year-old should be watching it because they might start emulating [it].''
Boyz N the Hood director John Singleton, who is writing Fear and Respect with Snoop Dogg about the life of an ex-con in L.A., believes the distinction should be clear. ''There are ratings on games just like on movies,'' says Singleton, 36, an avid gamer. ''Mostly the people who get off on this stuff are men in their 20s. My son's 10 and I would never let him play GTA.'' As for the young 'uns who do: ''That's on the parents.'' (Rockstar, which came under fire in 2002 for the line later cut ''kill all the Haitians'' in GTA: Vice City, released a statement saying that GTA: San Andreas is rated M, for adults 17 and older.)