Millions of Britons have a guilty secret. They are spending their spare hours immersed in an underground world of LA gangs and gun-ridden ghettos. Relying on huge word of mouth, a video game has become Britain's favourite escape.
Main character CJ is expected to attract a cult following
Hopping from foot to foot at a market stall are JP and Karl.
Agitated, they are bartering hard for a new memory card. Their new game depends on it.
"I'm playing it all day," says JP Strachan. "As soon as I get up, for two to three hours. And before I go to bed."
"It's distracting me," he says, "from work."
The 32-year-old DJ and producer is now part-time gangsta. He is playing Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas on his Playstation 2.
Computer game sales records may be dismissed as a passing blip from geekdom - barely discussed in mainstream media.
But as Simon Soffe, from retailer Game, points out, gaming is a "mass market pastime" and the media has been slow to catch up.
Happiness is a new memory card
Perhaps they should sniff again at the figures - one million copies sold in nine days since release and £24m in gross revenue in just the first weekend, according to Chart-Track.
In comparison, blockbuster films such as Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King took around £10m in their opening weekend - although games titles are several times more expensive than cinema tickets.
All told, GTA: San Andreas, from Edinburgh-based Rockstar Games, is expected to become the biggest selling game in UK history, beating the record of its predecessor - Vice City - and current console rivals such as Halo 2.
A quarter of UK households will have a Playstation 2 by Christmas and it may be that only such cultural juggernauts as the new Band Aid single or the Best of Robbie Williams will beat GTA: San Andreas for sheer numbers sold.
Walk down the street at this West London market, and everyone bar two of those questioned had caught the bug or knew an infected relation.
GTA SAN ANDREAS
Fifth instalment in the GTA series
Set in early 1990s
Took £24.2m in two days
Sold 1m copies in 9 days in the UK
Series has sold 32m copies worldwide
"There'll be a lot of Grand Theft Auto widows this Christmas," says greengrocer James Hill, 24, shaking his head.
"I've been doing the missions and trying to control a whole neighbourhood. But I'm pretty low level at the moment. You get your own jet, own mansion in the hills...
"I've played it every day, It's totally immersive."
Immersive, non-linear and film-like are all used to describe the game. Its frequent swearing and graphic violence, however, have drawn criticism.
It may be that its leap to mass media attention will be sparked by its adult content - a path taken by predecessors when real-life murders and car-jackings were blamed on the game's influence.
Back in the 'hood
Players are CJ, a small-time crook returning to his 'hood in San Andreas - a virtual world based on 1990s California.
Framed for murder, he sets out to right wrongs against his family, using anything and everything as a weapon.
Business analyst Dave Read, 28, says the game's free-form structure means he can pick it up for just a few minutes and get somewhere. But he also admits: "On Sunday I probably spent 11 hours straight on it."
James: concern over GTA widows
It is the street-style aspect, the sounds, language, clothes and scene that sells it, says Huggy T, 36, a part-time youth worker.
He is manning a sports shop in the market with colleague Abdul Mutalib, 26, whose "little brothers are playing it for hours".
"That's why it's done so well", says Huggy. "Anything to do with streetwise, street dancing, street culture - everybody wants to know about it."
Trend and marketing analysts note it has tapped straight in to the popularity of glamorising the underworld. But it remains to be seen if the game will impact popular culture like a major film, book or album.
Martin Farrington of Future Laboratory predicts CJ will attract a cult following but says it is too early to call on other knock-on effects.
GTA is on Lisa's Christmas list
Back on the street at her greeting card stall, mother Lisa Bennett, 32, admits "I play it now and again," and says this latest version will be on her Christmas list for son Davey, 16.
Despite its 18 certificate and non-stop violence she believes he is mature enough to handle it.
"He's got the old version and uses me to play with when his friends aren't there," she laughs.
A selection of your comments:
I'm a forty something respectable middle manager by day. By night and every weekend I'm hanging with my homies and loving every minute of it.
David Hawkins, Carmarthen
Thanks to San Andreas discussions in the office the closet computer game players are slowly emerging, the stigma attached to their night time activities is dissolving.
We have San Andreas running on a huge screen in the office, don't let the boss know though.
San Andreas is a fabulous game which fully deserves the lofty praise it is receiving. However, parents need to take note of the '18' certificate on the front - this game is not for kids. Just as you wouldn't let a child watch an 18 rated film full of swearing and violence, the same caution should be used with computer games.
This game is amazing. I am no gamer but this is ruining my days at work, and my relationship! The two things that make me least happy... hooray for San Andreas!
Danny, Enfield, London
I play it because of the driving and extras like the betting, the ghetto is just its setting. I do not agree with the mother buying it for her 16 year old son, it sends out a message that the ratings are there to be ignored.
I'm ashamed to admit it but my baby boy was born four weeks ago and he has hardly seen his dad since it came out. Joking aside, or maybe I'm not, this game will be taking over my weekend again.
Bradley Leonard, Manchester
Accountant by day, PS2 player by night, stopping only for dinner and conversation with family! It will control you should you buy it!
Ash Maini, West London, UK
It's all anyone ever talks about at work and in my social life. It is a new way of life.
My wonderful wife persuaded me that I deserved to own it, and I think she is beginning to regret it now! If you want me, darling, I'll be in the 'hood.
Chas Knight, Duxford, UK
Am I missing something? Has the world gone mad? Is it me that is mad? Am I the only person alive that couldn't give two monkeys about Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas?
Larry Hughes, London, UK
This game isn't affecting my house, friends and work! My house, friends and work are interfering with my game!
I've been a computer games enthusiast since the beginning. On the day my Father brought home the Sinclair ZX81 he told me that by the time I'm 30 computer games would look as good as films and be as popular too. I smile to myself as I wake up to the dawn of that day.
Stuart Bell, Shetland, UK
My husband, 31, bought it the day it came out. When I come home from work and ask him if he has had a nice day, he replies that he's had some tattoos, gone to the gym and done some drive-bys.
Lucy Loftus, Bristol, UK
I'm a student. Everyone that I know on my street has bought it. This is not good news for lectures! The numbers going to them have plummeted. If the effect on people in the business world is the same, the UK economy is in serious trouble!
Stephen Ridley, Leeds
Typically the game had to come out just as I became a father for the first time. I have managed to perfect a way of holding my son and the controller!
Stuart, Canterbury, Kent
I'm a mild-mannered new business manager by day. At night I go mountain-climbing, parachuting, flying in helicopters, starting gang wars, falling in love with feisty women, betting, pool hustling, off-road driving, base-jumping from skyscrapers, evading the police, diving for oysters... all in San Andreas.
Max Richards, Wales
This game is a cult phenomenon that is sweeping the nation. Like, say the first series of 24, everyone is talking about it. At work, on the bus to work, in the pub.
Michael Riley, Skelmersdale, Lancashire
Vice City had an impact on culture: suddenly you were hearing tunes from its soundtrack in clubs and bars. It made 80s funk and soul popular again. Whether San Andreas does the same remains to be seen.
Nik, Manchester, UK
I love it, I know it's sad but I actually prefer it to my real life.
Richard Santiago, Woking
My husband is a man obsessed, but once he introduced me to the two-player parts of the game (I now have my very own blue controller) I could see where his passion lies.
Faith Kirby, Kempston, England
I'm a little ashamed to admit I make my friend play the same stage over and over so I can hear one particular track. And they've just started playing it in my local pub. Genius!
I normally spend all weekend clubbing in Brighton. I didn't last weekend for one reason - this game. Guess what I am doing tonight?
Roberto Pissiane, Brighton
I'm a trainee solicitor and you would expect me to be on the right side of the law but it certainly takes the stress out of the day!
My personal jealousy as a game-widow has been exacerbated by the presence of CJ's electronic girlfriend, Denise. I get a detailed run-down of all their dates, while I'm forced back to nights out with the girls.
Joanna Pinto, London