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The Toys "R" Us flyer arrived on doorsteps as usual. What was unusual was its cover: In the spot normally reserved for the newest dolly or the hottest electronic toy was a full-colour promotion of Grant Theft Auto, among the most controversial video games yet created.

Under a banner reading "R" You Ready to Play? the toy chain's Dec. 7 flyer offered a package that included Grand Theft Auto III and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, along with Play Station 2 hardware and memory card, all for the value price of $419.99.

The games are rated Mature -- intended for age 17 and up -- with sub-ratings of "Blood, Gore, Violence, Strong Language, and Strong Sexual Content." Vice City, which Toys "R" Us sells separately for $69.99, is the fourth and most violent installment of the popular Grand Theft Auto series, created by New York's Rockstar Games. In its first five days on the U.S. market, GTA:VC sold 1.4 million copies. Entertainment Weekly rated it No. 1 on its 10-best-game list for 2002.

"The reason Vice City blows every other game away isn't that it's a driving, shooting, action or simulation game, but that it's all four combined into a criminally stylish package," said EW critic Noah Robischon.

Toys "R" Us, which has 63 outlets across Canada, did not return numerous phone calls to its head office in Brampton, Ont., requesting comment on its decision to promote the game. "Usually we put video games in the back," a customer service operator said, before bouncing the question back to head office.

Grand Theft Auto's massive popularity is part of a trend to more adult-oriented entertainment, both in film and video games, The Wall Street Journal said this week in an article titled A Season of Peace, Love -- and Decapitation. It's a trend that recently led the U.S. educational chain Zany Brainy to stop carrying video games altogether. And with the shortage of children's titles, some parents say they are being browbeaten into buying Grand Theft Auto for their pre-teens.

But the game has been banned in Australia, as well as linked to numerous real-life crimes, most recently the killing of Jerry Steinberg, a 38-year-old father of three who was hit by a car on Nov. 17 in Wyoming, Mich. and then punched and kicked into a coma -- he died six days later. Police charged three people (two men, aged 18 and 24, and a 16-year-old girl) who had been playing GTA:III for several hours and reportedly set out to re-enact the game.

Unlike most video games, where the player represents a hero struggling against evil, Grand Theft Auto invites players to pose as a vicious criminal named Tommy Vercetti. In order to get out of "glamorous, hedonistic" Vice City alive, the game's package reads, Tommy must battle "biker gangs, Cuban gangsters and corrupt politicians" in order to "take over the city himself."

Tommy earns money for his sinister acts, which include running over pedestrians, hiring and then murdering prostitutes, and killing other gangsters with guns, Uzis, swords and Molotov cocktails.

At the Toys "R" Us store in the Dufferin Mall in Toronto's west end, copies of GTA:VC are displayed alphabetically along with the rest of the video games. In some U.S. stores, when a person tries to buy the game, an automatic cash register message instructs the clerk to ask for I.D. But at Dufferin Mall, the clerks said asking for I.D. is at their discretion. (The games are also carried in Canada by Wal-Mart and Zellers, both of which require clerks to check I.D.)

Craig Anderson, the chairman of the department of psychology at Iowa State University, has been studying the effects of violent video games for the past eight years. Though there are no studies on GTA:VC -- it's too new -- he has run numerous psychological tests involving similar games. Half a control group plays violent video games, the other half non-violent, then subjects are observed in real-life social interactions -- kids playing with other kids, for example -- or reacting to staged situations, such as coming to the rescue of a "victim" of a fight they overhear.

"Our research is now strong enough to conclude that playing violent video games for as little as 20 minutes increases aggressive thoughts, feelings and behaviour, and decreases pro-social behavior," Anderson said in a phone interview. "These are the same results obtained by universities across the U.S. who've done this type of research." The effects were marked in adults, and even stronger in children.

The video game industry disputes his research, which doesn't surprise Anderson. "They have a huge profit motive," he said. Indeed, according to EW, it's worth more than $6-billion (U.S.) a year in the United States.

Anderson scoffs at the idea that pretending to be a bad guy killing video villains can be cathartic and replace the desire for real violence. "Over the last 30 years, that's been one of the most heavily researched and thoroughly debunked ideas to ever come out of psychology," he said. "All the research demonstrates that subjects show more aggression rather than less."

He has no opinion, though, about Toys "R" Us selling GTA:VC. "I reserve my advice for parents," he said. "I hope they'll get smarter and force corporations to do so themselves. There are a number of wrongful-death lawsuits connected to video games already; eventually one will succeed."

A clerk at the Dufferin Mall store said she hasn't received any complaints about Grand Theft Auto. "But I think we will," she said. "I expect it."