Silicon Insider: Applying 'Grand Theft Auto' to Business

Can "Grand Theft Auto IV" get any bigger?

Yes. As a matter of fact, I don't think "GTA 4" is big enough. Let me explain why.

The latest "Grand Theft Auto" arrived at our house -- thanks to an Amazon pre-order -- early this week and, needless to say, it has had a profound effect upon our household.

My younger son Tim ordered it with his own money, so it is officially his (yeah, parents, go ahead and try to ban it -- your kids have probably already seen the entire game, without you knowing it, via YouTube screen grabs). But that hasn't kept Tad from hectoring his little brother every 20 minutes for a chance to play it .

Meanwhile, Tim has already managed on two separate days to get himself into that bloody-eyed, stiff-legged zombie state that comes from staring at a TV screen too long with an Xbox 360 controller in your hand. I've already taken the game away from him twice -- that's in two days, mind you -- and made him do his homework, eat, sleep, breathe, etc.

Frankly, it's hard to blame him … and I don't even like video games. But even to a nongamer, "GTA 4" is simply dazzling. And scary.

First the bad news (or good, depending upon whether you are younger than 25 or older): "GTA 4," like its predecessors, is basically the devil's spawn. As with the "GTA San Andreas," "Vice City," etc., your character is essentially a homicidal sociopath, illegal immigrant Niko Bellic, running amok and slaughtering, robbing or hijacking people across a noir-meets-'70s grimy urban landscape.

Last time it was gangbangers; this time you are an Eastern European thug. As usual, there are some missions you need to complete, but it is also likely that you'll mostly just drive around randomly offing people and getting into shootouts with cops.

Now that the cheat codes have already been published online -- boy, was that fast -- most players will simply amp up their firepower to grenade launchers and shoulder-mounted missiles and start destroying police cars, helicopters, small buildings, etc.

In other words, if you're concerned about the effects of video games on the future of civilization, or if you're convinced that violent games are the direct cause of Columbines, "Grand Theft Auto IV" will confirm all of your worst fears. It will be your new poster child.

Now the good news.

First, though the "GTA 4" is as brutal, remorseless and violent as its predecessors, it is somehow less violent. Not to be too callous about the whole thing, but when you shoot somebody in the head, the whole projectile blood and brains thing seems far less vivid than in, say, "GTA San Andreas."

And though I have only seen a fraction of this virtual landscape so far, "GTA 4" also doesn't seem as sexualized as its predecessors. That's not to say it isn't as crude as ever, but the sun-washed Land o'Hookers that was the last few games has been toned down into something darker and more obsessed.

OK, so that's not exactly good news -- more like a relief -- but this is: Visually, "GTA 4" is just about the most extraordinary virtual world I've ever seen. Even jaded old gamer Tad just sat and stared at the screen, exclaiming over and over, "Look at that! Look at that! These graphics are unbelievable."

And I can only agree. "GTA 4" is a stunning reminder of the sheer power of Moore's Law. It has been 3½ years since the introduction of "GTA 3 Vice City," itself a landmark in gamer graphics, yet "GTA 4" makes its precursor look positively crude by comparison.

Not only is the landscape of "GTA 4" at least twice as big as the "GTA 3" games, it is infinitely more detailed. You can almost smell New York -- in the game it's called Liberty City. You can see the stains on the asphalt streets, the shadows of the elevated railway, the blurred sidewalks in a thunderstorm. Bullets kick up dust as they ricochet, or ablate metal as they thump into the side of a car. You kick in a window and the glass shards fly.

In the distance, beyond the Broker (Brooklyn) Bridge, Algonquin (Manhattan) glows in the sunlight like every borough kid's fantasy. (In a clever analogy to real life, the game's biggest challenge is to get to Algonquin despite all of the obstacles put in your way.)

Not only is the scope of "GTA 4" amazing -- it incorporates nearly all of greater New York City, right down to the neighborhoods -- but so is its precision: You can turn on the radio and listen to different stations, watch television shows, even use your cell phone (which is how you access cheat codes).

There are restaurants, bars and stores you can literally enter and walk around, even make purchases. And, amazingly, you can even meet a date and take her to the bowling alley for a game or two. And to think that this is not some hothouse virtual world prototype running on a supercomputer somewhere, but an actual product being distributed by the millions of units to everyday consumers to run on their home machines. That's a miracle.

It is this last that interests me most. As I said, I'm not a gamer, and so for me "GTA 4" is just another parenting challenge, the latest bit of violence and mayhem being inflicted by adults on my children. So I can't really say that I wish the folks at Rockstar Games good luck on their new endeavor.

And yet, the designers at Rockstar (as well as the gamer folks designing "Metal Gear Solid," "Saints Row," "Bioshock," "Call of Duty," etc.) deserve a standing ovation for technical achievement. With each new generation of their product, they have inched ever closer to realizing an alternative world that feels as complex and subtle as our own.

So, the real question: Why is this towering achievement only taking place in the game world? Why is no one (besides about 300 million kids around the world) noticing this breakthrough and figuring out how to apply it to their own business?

To jump from "GTA 4" to, say, or eBay or any retail site, is to literally leap backward into the last century. The "grown-up" sites are clean and nice, but they are also static and boring. They are still dragging behind them the legacy chains of their beginnings as print catalogs. They may add a little streaming video (wow!) or some crude animation (gee!), but ultimately they are dead on the screen.

But why? What "Grand Theft Auto IV" shows us is that it is possible to create a compelling, visually rich, and very lifelike alternative reality in which we adults, instead of machine-gunning drug dealers, might inhabit an endlessly sunny version of the real world -- and in this alternative reality we would be able to walk into a store (instantly modified to our interests), quickly search the entire inventory, and, if interested, make a purchase.

In a virtual bookstore, we'd be able to not only pick up the book and thumb through it, but simply wander the aisles for something that captures our eye. In the retail clothing shop, the shelves would only contain items in our size, which our virtual selves could try on in front of a virtual mirror.

Or how about a virtual travel agency that lets you wander through the corridors of the virtual Louvre or sit in an Osaka tea house? It may not be the real thing, but how many of us will ever get to see all of the world's great treasures?

A few years ago, this was just a pipe dream of various futurists. But "GTA 4" is undeniable proof that the future is here right now. So why isn't it happening to the rest of the Web world? Why isn't our online experience as rich as our kids? Where is that Aaron Montgomery Ward of the 21st century to pioneer a new way of retailing?

The answer, I think, is a failure of imagination -- the kind of imagination that the game world eats and breathes. We adults are overdue for some fun of our own. So which mainstream company will have the courage to step up and give us the first "Grand Purchase Auto"? Or "Call of Fashion III"?

This is the opinion of the columnist, and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michael S. Malone is one of the nation's best-known technology writers. He has covered Silicon Valley and high-tech for more than 25 years, beginning with the San Jose Mercury News, as the nation's first daily high-tech reporter. His articles and editorials have appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, the Economist and Fortune, and for two years he was a columnist for The New York Times. He was editor of Forbes ASAP, the world's largest-circulation business-tech magazine, at the height of the dot-com boom. Malone is the author or co-author of a dozen books, notably the best-selling "Virtual Corporation." Malone has also hosted three public television interview series, and most recently co-produced the celebrated PBS miniseries on social entrepreneurs, "The New Heroes." He has been the "Silicon Insider" columnist since 2000.