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Mafia Wars

The Great Escape: In a down economy, the immersive world of video games is thriving.

By Charlie Deitch
Posted // April 15,2009 - As I stare at my account balances, I have a hard time believing that the economy is in such bad shape. In one account, I have just a little over $4.6 billion; there’s about $12.6 billion in the other. And if I really get tight, I can always cash in the $3 million in blood that I have in a third.

Those aren’t my bank account balances. That’s the money and other, uh, currency that I have accrued in various massive-multiplayer-online games. My real bank-account balances? Well, let’s just say we’re probably all in the same boat.

Even though I know it’s not real cash, I like to spend a few hours of my day pretending that it is. And I’m not the only one. While the economy has been tough on a lot of sectors, the video-game industry—despite some problems—is experiencing a little surge.

After experiencing some massive layoffs in the industry last year—1,100 workers at EA, another 600 at THQ, for example—game revenues are up 11 percent since February, from $481.4 to $532.7 million, according to the Associated Press. As bad as things were last year, game sales were still up about 21 percent. Gamestop, the country’s largest game retailer, saw revenues increase nearly 40 percent in 2008. And the reason seems obvious: Having $12 billion in an account on Mob Wars is hell of a lot more fun—and a hell of a lot less distracting—than the $23.75 you have in an account at Bank of America, and the $127 electric bill sitting on top the television.

The most charming thing about video games has always been their ability to immerse you in a world other than your own. They give you fantastical problems to solve and the chance to be the hero. Who wouldn’t want to spend their time winning the Super Bowl or running a criminal empire, instead of trying to figure out how you’re going to make the payment on that SUV you never should have bought in the first place?

And many people are spending much more time in these games then they’re spending on their real lives. On Facebook, I casually play three games: Mafia Wars, Mob WarsBloodlines (a vampire game). The point of these games is to grow your mob or your vampire clan, complete missions and become more powerful. 

Through researching this column, I found that there are other groups devoted to making friends simply to grow your clan or mob. I set up a separate account, started the game and joined one of these groups. Within one hour in the middle of the day, I had 65 new friends. Less than 24 hours later, I was at more than 245, all of whom only wanted me as part of their game. The people playing video games, particularly these games, are completely immersing themselves in this world. Games like this and Worlds of Warcraft, Grand Theft Auto IV, Halo … heck, even Tetris, have become one giant escape pod from our problems.

Luckily for the gaming companies, it’s helping them escape the tough times, too. Except in their case, they get to make millions—and I get to become the greatest GTA IV player ever, or the strongest vampire on the Internet. At least as long as the lights stay on, that is.

In Brief
Godfather II (Electronic Arts. PS3, Xbox 360: $59.99; PC: $49.99)

Unlike the Godfather movies, the second isn’t as good as the first. But that doesn’t mean it still isn’t pretty good. The game’s storyline is loosely affiliated with the film—the characters and story structure is there—but your character definitely plays out his own story arc as a boss for the Corleone family. Game play is fun and it’s pretty easy to control—all things I love. So while it’s not as good as the first, it’s still worth taking out for a spin.

 
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