The average video game player is in his, and now her, late 20s. And they're playing games that will shock you as well as move you.
It's a virtual world where the lines between fantasy and reality are quickly disappearing. And along the way, these adults are fueling a business that rakes in billions of dollars.
It's no wonder the richest man in the world wants a piece of the action. Correspondent Bob Simon reports on a story that first aired last December.
Bill Gates, the chairman of Microsoft, is in the video game business with his game system called Xbox.
"It's bigger than the movie industry," says Gates, noting that video game industry is worth around $7 or $8 billion.
"Video games are getting more realistic. But the key is that you have to bring that level of realism to a point where people forget they are playing a game," he adds.
"And the chips got good enough that we said we could come in and take gaming to a new level."
To prove it, Gates, and the man in charge of Xbox, Jay Allard, challenged Simon to Gates' favorite game - Fusion Frenzy. It was the first time Simon had ever played a video game.
As in business, Gates emerged victorious. But there was one game they didn't play, called "BMX XXX."
The name says it all. And it's part of the fastest-growing segment of the video game business: mature titles aimed at people over 17.
"BMX XXX" was created by Shawn Rosen and Ben Fischbach of Acclaim Entertainment in Long Island, N.Y.
“We wanted to do something that was different, that hasn't been done before," says Fischbach. "You're going to see a hooker, you're going to run into a pimp, you're going to actually carry a hooker from one point in the game to another point in the game.”
When players gets enough reward points, they get to go into a virtual strip club.
"You're looking at women dancing on screen for a very short period of time,” says Fischbach. “The reality today is that 60 percent of the gamers playing console games are over the age of 18. So, we wanted to create an entertainment experience on par with things like 'Sopranos' or even 'Sex and the City.'"
It's not surprising that Wal-Mart and Toys 'R' Us won’t sell the game. Or that Sony will only allow a cleaned-up version for its PlayStation system.
But XBox allows adults to play the uncensored version of the game. Why? To sell more XBoxes, of course.
“Gaming has to broaden its audience,” says Allard. “It's not just about kids anymore. And so what we're seeing is a broad diversity of content. We have over 200 games now on XBox. And they range from very young games to very mature games. And 'BMX-XXX' is one of those examples.”
Gates likes to point out that the XBox also has a feature that allows parents to prevent kids from playing these mature games.
“I think it's key that you have the box be able to control exactly what kids are able to use and that the rating system makes it clear to an adult, a parent, you know, what are they going to be exposed to," says Gates.
But racy titles like BMX-XXX or violent-action thrillers are not the only games adults are buying these days. The vast majority of video games they play range from driving games to contact sports. And their appeal lies in how realistic they are.
For instance, Kobe Bryant looks and plays like the video game version of Kobe Bryant because he was actually involved in the creation of the game.
Acclaim Entertainment makes a lot of these realistic games, and invited 60 Minutes II to see how it’s done.
First step: A camera took a 360-degree photo of Simon’s head, a face scan.
The goal was to put Simon into a baseball game. They put dozens of reflective ping pong balls all over his body before walking him into what they called a motion capture studio. Here, 14 infrared cameras recorded his movements.
They even put the reflective balls on a bat he had to swing, and a computer modeled his style. Later, they showed 60 Minutes II the finished product: The Brooklyn Dodgers vs. Yankee legends. Now batting: Bob Simon.
The pitcher was none other than Hall of Famer Whitey Ford, who got two quick strikes. Simon let a ball pass, then, another swing, and a strike-out.
"You make me come out here, you dress me up silly and now you strike me out,” says Simon, joking to Fischbach. "We say all the time these days that reality is getting stranger than fiction and now, in fact, the difference between reality and fiction is disappearing."
Fischbach agrees: “It’s very close. It’s all that suspension of disbelief. If you can walk by a monitor and watch one of our games and can’t tell whether you are watching a real baseball game or a virtual baseball game, then we have succeeded at our job."
Leading the charge into the future is Electronic Arts, or EA, the largest video-game maker in the world. They make one of every four games being played today.
“I think our business is here to stay. It’s growing,” says EA president John Riccitiello. “For us, I think, and the people that work here, I think, it feels kind of like it might have felt to be in Hollywood back in the '20s. Things are getting started, a new industry is being born.”
EA, which is based in San Francisco, released 15 new titles last Christmas. Its output rivals that of major Hollywood studios, and it requires Hollywood-size investments.
Games, like their new James Bond title, cost up to $15 million to develop and can take up to two years to complete. This Disney-like company shies away from mature games, focusing instead on Tiger Woods, John Madden and Harry Potter.
According to Riccitiello, video games already rival Hollywood: “I think everyone has the same dream. But it's just a different way of delivering it. People want to get lost in a story. Every single person that plays a video game, when you get lost in that experience, you sweat, you almost cry. And, you know, that's what a good movie can do for you.”
Riccitiello hopes to make $100 million from the new James Bond game. But no game has made EA as much money as the best-selling computer game of all time, "The Sims."
Unlike other video games, it’s played mostly by women. In "The Sims," each player can create a cartoon character, and using the Web, enter a virtual world that looks like the suburbs.
The other characters are other players sitting at their computers somewhere else in the world. You can talk to them, live with them and even romance them. It’s a digital parallel universe, and according to its creators, Will Wright and Chris Trottier, people love to be somebody else.
“You're completely anonymous and temporary, if you wish,” says Trottier.
“This is like a masked life,” adds Wright. “You get amazingly immersed in this world. When you're sitting there in the house and having an interesting discussion with other players, you leave your body. I mean, you totally feel like you are in that environment.”
“If they tickle you, you feel like you just got tickled. If you kiss someone, it's like, ‘I just kissed this other someone,'" adds Trottier. "It's pretty amazing how much you end up putting yourself into that sim. It feels like you're really doing it.”
The makers of "The Sims" allow parents to limit whom their children can talk to. Fun for kids, scintillating for adults, it's a seductive world that can become very addictive.
In fact, Wright says that the average Sims player plays 20 hours a week – half a work week.
"I dial into the Sims Online and I'm somebody different. In this game, I’m 30. I wish I were again. I'm awfully popular, got a lot of friends. Essentially I’m the equivalent of a New York nightclub owner," says Riccitiello, who admits that he plays this game nearly every day.
“Now, at a different time, I was a 19-year-old waitress. Didn't quite work for me, but you get into these experiences and you are who you say you are. Absolutely, and you invest in that character. That character is you. And it's going to change the way entertainment happens.”