NEW YORK — "Call of Duty: Black Ops" blasted entertainment records this week by raking in $360 million in its first 24 hours on sale, a dramatic and lucrative indication that video games have cemented their place as mainstream entertainment on a par with movies, books and music.
For the hordes of devoted fans who waited at midnight Monday to get their hands on the military shooter, this is hardly a surprise. For them, popping the new "Call of Duty" into a game console is the equivalent of turning on the TV to watch the Super Bowl or sitting back with a tub of popcorn to watch the latest blockbuster movie.
But while movies happen at you, video games allow the user to affect the story's outcome. That hands-on experience and interactions with other players fit the emerging social-media era where consumers demand a voice in whatever they do.
Across two years, with a budget well in the tens of millions of dollars, the developers of "Black Ops" created a world that immerses players in Cold War-era battles with settings ranging from 1960s Cuba to Vietnam and the Soviet Union.
Its intricate graphics and details – down to the gruesome sound a knife makes when pulled from an enemy's neck – are amplified in players' homes through big-screen TV sets and powerful speakers.
In one mission, which takes place with John F. Kennedy in the White House before the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion and the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, players must shoot their way through Havana to assassinate a young Fidel Castro.
Cuba state-run media has leveled harsh criticism at the game, calling it "doubly perverse" by glorifying assassination and stimulating "sociopathic attitudes in North American children and adolescents."
"What the United States couldn't accomplish in more than 50 years, they are now trying to do virtually," said an article on Cubadebate, a state-run news website.
Though game developers see their creations as art, not everyone agrees. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments over a California law that seeks to ban the sale of ultra-violent video games to minors. Parents' groups and politicians say games should be regulated like firearms and tobacco rather than like books and movies, which are protected by the First Amendment. A ruling is expected next year.
Many liken these games to movies – and it's an apt comparison. Along with the hyper-realistic cinematic scenery and surprise plot twists, there are well-known actors – including Gary Oldman, Ed Harris and Sam Worthington – lending their voices to the game's main characters. Also, the motion-capture technology used to track actors' bodies is the same that was used in "Avatar."
Activision Blizzard Inc. sold 5.6 million units the day "Call of Duty" went on sale, according to the company. Its predecessor, "Call of Duty, Modern Warfare 2," sold 4.7 million copies in 24 hours to reap $310 million on its first day of sale last year. Within a week, it made $550 million.
"Not too many years back it would have been unfathomable that the biggest entertainment launch would be a video game two years in a row," said Eric Hirshberg, CEO of Activision Publishing.
No longer. Today, such games as "Call of Duty," "Grand Theft Auto" and "Halo" all fit into the blockbuster category, and with each sequel they only get bigger. Production budgets for these games rival those of big-screen movies, as does the marketing push behind them.
"You are delivering not just a gaming experience but a cinematic experience as well," Hirshberg said. "The characters are emerging as the protagonists of the story."
The video game audience has expanded considerably in the last five years, reaching women, young children and even senior centers. But the people who flock to "Call of Duty" and other shooters are still primarily young men, just not as young as some would think. The average U.S. game player is 34 years old, according to the Entertainment Software Association.
A big part of the appeal of "Call of Duty" is its multiplayer feature, meaning gamers can fight against someone across the country or on the other side of the world.
"Everyone thinks that games are these solitary things," said Patrick Markey, a Villanova University professor who studies video games. "But now, hooked up to the Internet, it's friends and strangers we are playing with."
"Black Ops" went on sale Tuesday in North America and the U.K. It costs $60 and works on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 gaming consoles, and PCs. With that cost, games have an easier time setting dollar sales records than much less expensive movies or music.
The latest "Call of Duty" game broke records set by its predecessor a year ago. The $360 million in North American and U.K. sales on the first day is higher than any other form of entertainment – even beating box office sales of top movies in those markets over the entire opening weekend.
The game is rated M for mature – meaning it's not meant for kids under 17. It's bloody, to be sure, but new media professor Charles Palmer says that's not the main appeal.
"It's the challenge," said Palmer, who teaches at the Harrisburg University of Science and Technology. "It's one of those areas that thrills and excites people."
Sports games, such as "Madden," from Electronic Arts, are also popular, as are music simulators such as "Guitar Hero." But shooters in the style of "Call of Duty" continue to be the most popular.
"There is a DNA-level curiosity about and attraction to battle," Hirshberg said. "That has been a staple of the entertainment industry – movies, television, books and fiction – forever. And the same is true for video games. 'Call of Duty" has delivered perhaps the gold standard experience of battle."