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Merrily Yours: Shirley Temple lifted the nation's spirits during tough economic times in the 1930s and '40s. Are video games the modern-day Shirley Temple?
Merrily Yours: Shirley Temple lifted the nation's spirits during tough economic times in the 1930s and '40s. Are video games the modern-day Shirley Temple? Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Grand Theft Auto was released in April and reportedly brought in more than $500 million in its first week on the market.
Escapist?: Despite a faltering economy, video game sales are up 43 percent since 2007. The latest version of
Escapist?: Despite a faltering economy, video game sales are up 43 percent since 2007. The latest version of Grand Theft Auto was released in April and reportedly brought in more than $500 million in its first week on the market.
During the Great Depression, Americans flocked to the movies to escape the harsh realities of their daily lives. As the stock market tumbled and loved ones went off to war, Americans disappeared into dark theaters, where Shirley Temple sang and tap danced her way into their heavy hearts.
Now, as the nation faces arguably the worst financial crisis since the Depression, video games may be playing the role movies once filled in hard economic times.
During the 1930s, Americans could get their minds off their troubles for just a nickel a night. Gary Handman, director of the Media Resources Center at the University of California at Berkeley, says Americans came to the theaters to see everything from melodramas, to romances, to films bursting with song and dance.
"You got two features," Handman says. "Sometimes you got two features and a news reel. And in the Depression, sometimes you got two features and a news reel and a raffle for Depression-ware china."
More 'Bang For Your Buck'
Now, nearly 80 years later, Americans looking for a cheap way to distract themselves from tough times aren't turning to theaters. Though movie revenues are up slightly, the number of movie tickets sold has remained fairly constant for the past decade.
By comparison, overall video game sales are up 43 percent from this time in 2007. Since its release on Aug. 12, fans have purchased more than 2 million copies of the football game Madden NFL 09, according to the National Purchase Diary (NPD) Group.
David Riley of the NPD Group says part of the reason video game sales are rising and movie ticket sales aren't is that a movie only lasts a couple of hours — it gives you less "bang for your buck."
"The difference, obviously, between a movie and a video game is the amount of time that you get," he says.
Gaming fans shopping recently at a Best Buy in San Francisco echoed Riley's words; Malou Taylor says she's more likely to play a game than go to a movie.
"I might as well use the money on a game that I can have for a longer time," she says.
Another Night In
Though video games initially earned a bad rap for being something of a loner activity, gaming has become an increasingly sociable event. Some couples, like Benjamin Gerald and Char Williams, say they stay home together and play.
"Last night, we spent, like, six hours," Gerald says. "Char was playing the game, and I'm sitting on the couch next to her ... I'm totally involved, even though I'm not even playing the thing."
Gerald says they do see movies, but they often rent DVDs to watch at home rather than go out to the theater. Still, Handman remains skeptical that games truly fill the same role that movies did during the Depression.
"I don't think video games will ever be as demographically diverse as the movies are or [as] movies were," he says.
There is no video game equivalent of Shirley Temple. With so many varied options, it may be that there simply is no longer one entertainment escape.
But if gas prices continue to rise, and more Americans are forced to scrimp and pinch, nights at home with your family and the game console will start looking better and better.