3_gta_cops.jpg [“Why We Play” is a new weekly column by freelance writer and HardCasual blogger Chris Plante that discusses how video games benefit us when we are away from them, in the real world, and what brings us back. This time – serving time for Grand Theft Auto IV.]

Last night, I joined a large group at the Astor Place Gamestop in New York City to grab my reserved copy of Grand Theft Auto IV. At midnight, their doors opened, we calmly shouted a brief hooray, entered, flashed our pre-paid receipts, took our copies, and made our separate ways into the Liberty City, er, New York City night. After a few blocks, I thought “why did we join together in the first place?” Yet, I wanted to be there along with a couple friends, a few acquaintances, and a whole slew of gamers from across the city.

Originally, I returned and wrote an “intellectual” take on the subject. It sucked. Who wants to read an over-thorough account of a launch party? So, here’s last night's events as they happened, and how they revealed why we all joined together for GTA IV.

The Clock Starts:


9:00 PM - I Pass

The line’s too short. I decide not to skip class. I also grab a bagel.

9:45 PM - I Join Up

I return. The line’s a little longer, so I take my place. It’s quiet. A few people talk amongst themselves. Immediately, I notice the absence of cliché game launch survival kits: no DSes, no Chipotle, no extreme sodas. In fact, the group’s quite the demographic smorgasbord. I ask different people why they chose this GameStop.

“It’s safer at midnight.”
“It’s closest.”
“The hot NYU girls.”

10 PM - The Man Arrives
The PR team (and crowd control) roll down Broadway in a black SUV. They stop a few feet away. A group of late-twenty-somethings hop out decked in GTA IV hoodies and various gear. They toss around t-shirts, pass out foam hands giving the international sign for “shocker,” and distribute Rockstar Social Club stickers like the men in china town promoting strip clubs.

For the next two hours, one of them is constantly strolling up and down the line promoting the Rockstar brand, answering questions, and carefully keeping people both enthused and sedated. It’s an impressive technique in crowd control: “Who’s ready for GTA?” “WE ARE!” They reward us with stickers, and move down the line. Every so often, someone near the front or the back yelps a vulgarity, and we all laugh; otherwise, I continue to wait in relative silence. For a moment, I realize I fulfill the friendless loner stereotype.

10:45 PM - We Talk the Talk
The group around me grows bored. We start to talk. One’s a bike courier. He collects money, and heads off to grab us snacks. We talk shop, and I’m surprised to see how much gory industry details everyone knows, even cares about.

They tell me their opinions on EA and Take-Two; the pluses and minuses to the no-longer Head Coach exclusivity with this year’s Madden. Eventually, we get on the topic of our first Grand Theft Auto experience. Turns out we are all fans of the original top-down GTAs, and for the same reason. It was a game that didn’t tell us “no.”

The courier returns and joins the conversation. He says his friends were divided between the original GTA and the Tomb Raider series.

In a way, Tomb Raider was the anti-GTA. It holds the illusion of an open world, but in reality you must continually push forward. It holds the illusion of free-movement, but in reality you’re stuck to a grid. GTA hands you the keys and you go any direction you want. The only grid is the city’s layout, the only authority the police and death.

11:00 PM - GTA 4 Life

A navy blue Cadillac, custom painted with a large beige stripe, stops at the nearby intersection. At a green light. Various cars behind it honk and slam their brakes. The horns make more noise than the crowd by far. Taxis zip around the car. We all stare. The car’s passenger window rolls down, and a man leans out.

“Hey, you want that game so much, grab a brick and throw it through the window. That’s real GTA. Start a riot, steal that shit!”

The car speeds off through the now red light.

We laugh and joke about it, but none of us move. We’re still under society’s spell. We’ll start trouble tonight, but it’ll be on our 360s or PS3s. I consider whether that man would label me a “total Narc.” Then I realize that man would never say “total Narc.”

11:30 PM - Why We Play
My group discusses why they came to this launch. Most of them, courier excluded, had never been to a game launch. At least, they wouldn’t confess to it. A few of them want to start playing immediately, but most admit it will be a while before they fit in some serious game play—work, finals, girlfriends who demand they stay off the TV when they’re spending time together (a popular answer).

So why did they come out?

Everyone wanted to see the crowd. They wanted to experience it. My group’s made up of different cultures, races, and classes. I’d say if you saw us together in any other situation we’d be quite the motley crew. Yet, we share a common hobby, and for most of us, it’s a hobby we don’t share with our friends.

12:00 PM - Takeoff

“5, 4, 3, 2, 1, GTA IV” Until now, I’ve never counted down to shoot virtual cops. The doors open. Things move quickly. We flash our pre-paid receipts, grab our copies of the game, and disperse. I don’t see my group again. They’re lost in the mob. I head south on Broadway, call my girlfriend to brag I got a game she doesn’t care about, and head home.

Aftermath:

Like I said, it’s silly to over-analyze why a bunch of men and a handful of women waited in the rain outside a GameStop last night. We wanted to play a game immediately? We were part of the hype machine? I don’t know. Yet, in a way, and forgive me if I dig too deep, I think we all stood up to the many groups that wants to cubbyhole gamers.

When people passed by and patronizingly asked, “What the hell are you waiting for?” and chuckled at our response, we smiled. We didn’t throw any bricks through any windows, but we did form a mob—a peaceful mob with our foam “shockers” raised to the sky. We made ourselves visible. We bought the game that will surely be attacked for the next few months with a sense of pride. We said it’s OK to play games. We did all of that, and people took notice.

Or did they? Eh, a guy can hope.

[Chris Plante is a freelance writer living the post-collegiate pauper life in New York City. By night, you can find him at HardCasual.net. By day, he produces theatre and television.]