"I'm not a doctor. I just play one on Xbox," smirks Arrested Development's David Cross, jesting about a recent spate of appearances in high-profile video games like Halo 2 and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.
One of many actors and musicians to take a sudden interest in the $9.9 billion interactive-entertainment industry, he's not the only celebrity smiling, however. With sales for top-tier titles suitably impressive - the aforementioned selections moved 4.2 million and 5.1 million units respectively last year - most are laughing right to the bank.
"Game developers are always looking for ways to expand the reach of their titles," explains Mike Lustenburger, vice president of marketing for Sony Online Entertainment. "Celebrity involvement is fast becoming crucial in terms of attracting a wider audience." Nobody's more conscious of the benefits; the company made history casting actors Christopher Lee and Heather Graham as key contributors to EverQuest II, a category-defining, online-only fantasy adventure.
Today, more than 42 million American households own a gaming console such as the PSOne or PlayStation 2, and three quarters of those homes contain a male age 18 to 34. Owners spend 12.5 hours a week with it, versus 9.8 with the TV. Of still greater significance: A shocking 70 percent of young men swear by the pastime.
Predictably, Tinseltown is taking note. Sega's The Matrix Online features star-studded headliners like Laurence Fishburne and Monica Bellucci. Narc, a brutal police drama, touts vocal contributions by Michael Madsen, Ron Perlman, and Bill Bellamy. The Getaway: Black Monday, a spoof on Guy Ritchie's crime capers, showcases more than 20 motion-captured actors, including Snatch's David Legeno. Even the unlikeliest candidates, i.e., Playboy: The Mansion, are showing up with cameos from B-list staples such as Tom Arnold and Carmen Electra.
But not everyone's hopping on the bandwagon. A spokeswoman forNintendo cautions that the insertion of world-renowned talent intoa product only ensures a publicity boost, not enhanced quality. What's more, the Japanese giant asserts that these collaborations can't simply be forced on consumers; appearances by iconic individuals have to fit the context of the game.