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Gaming the Ghetto

by ANTHONY DiMAGGIO

While the concept of the concrete jungle has been employed many times throughout history and for various purposes, it takes on a special significance in media mythologies that represent cities as production sites of crime, drug addiction, and poverty. Nowhere are these stereotypes as well represented as in the Grand Theft Auto (GTA) video game series.The GTA video games have enjoyed unprecedented success in recent years. The series? transition into a 3-dimensional, hyper realistic setting (which took place in 2001 with the release of GTA III on the Playstation 2) propelled it into a fame and infamy rarely enjoyed by other video games.

GTA manufacturer Rockstar Games is poised to retain its status as a cultural icon with the late-April 2008 release of Grand Theft Auto IV for the Playstation 3 and X Box 360. The game instantly broke video game sales records, becoming the Guinness World Records ?highest grossing video game in 24 hours,? and retaining the highest ?seven-day total? sales record in gaming history. It sold 3.6 million copies with $310 million in revenue within only 24 hours, and by the end of its first week, those figures had nearly doubled to six million copies sold and $500 million in sales.

America?s love affair with Grand Theft Auto is truly gargantuan in its magnitude and scope. Other games in the series were heralded as the year?s best-selling games when they were released (GTA III in 2001, GTA: Vice City in 2002, and GTA: San Andreas in 2004). The five GTA games released in the last eight years have sold more than 70 million copies combined, as of mid-2008.

GTA IV has been celebrated, as with its award winning predecessors, as one of the best games of all time.Game Informer magazine deemed it a work of ?perfection,? surpassing ?epic gaming experiences? in its ?stunning realism? and ?unbelievable? action. Electronic Gaming Monthly deemed it a ?magnificent? specimen of ?destructive mayhem,? and a ?truly exciting? gaming experience.

The controversy that has raged in the media over GTA has tended to ignore the most devastating critiques of the series put forward by progressives. Media outlets overemphasize the parochial, conservative debate over whether ?video games cause violence,? while almost universally neglecting substantive critiques of corporate America for profiting from racist and ethnic stereotypes.

A brief review of GTA IV?s plot reveals some of the game?s major trouble points, although one would be hard pressed to identify such critiques in most reporting. In GTA IV, players take on the identity of Niko Bellic, vaguely referred to as an ?Eastern European? immigrant and veteran of the Bosnian war (since when has getting national identity correct ever mattered to those who profit from racist bigotry?). Niko works for the Bratva (Russian mafia), conducting various assassinations and other jobs, keeping with the standard motif of the series. GTA IV?s depiction of the Eastern European ?other? is merely one of many stereotypes employed throughout GTA?s history.

Previous games were centered on members of the Cosa Nostra (Italian mafia) and various black and Latino street gangs located in American cities. Perhaps the most flagrantly racist of all the games was GTA: San Andreas (2004), which was advertised on television alongside the tune ?Welcome to the Jungle? (by Guns N? Roses).

The advertisement portrayed inner city blacks and Latinos walking around with missile launchers and multiple Uzi?s, riding in bouncing low-riders, and partaking in drive-bys, carjackings, police chases, prostitution, and gambling. The not-so-subtle racist imagery and stereotypes of GTA: San Andreas were hard to miss, even for the game?s most ardent defenders. Inner city minorities were dehumanized and mongrelized in the construction of the city as the concrete jungle.

GTA IV largely transmits these central themes but this time applied to swarthy, and/or exotic immigrants. Although it has toned down the blatant racism of GTA: San Andreas, it continues in the tradition of glorifying southern and eastern European organized crime. GTA IV?s advertisements repeat the mantra of the city (in this case ?Liberty City,? based heavily on New York City) whose residents have become ?out of control.?

By focusing on the ?immigrant as criminal terrorist? theme, the game?s parent company Rockstar has demonstrated that it is an equal opportunity purveyor of stereotypes against people of all different races, ethnicities, and national origins. Images of American cities as breeding grounds for crime have a long history in corporate media. Well-received dramas such as Taxi Driver, Children of Men, and Blade Runner have profited by disseminating images of the city as the home of utter depravity and social deterioration. Games like GTA profit off of the ideological and physical segregation of Americans who are separated along class and color lines. Corporate media propaganda of cities and minorities, however, has not gone unnoticed in critical academic studies.

In Urban Nightmares: the Media, the Right, and the Moral Panic Over the City, communication scholar Steve Macek spotlights ?the alarmist, pathologizing discourse on contemporary urban reality promoted by conservative politicians, pundits, and intellectuals ? and endorsed by ?centrist? imitators.? The depiction of the city as a ghetto ?has been embraced wholesale by the entire spectrum of the mainstream news media and informs their coverage of issues from street crime to homelessness to ?welfare dependency.??

Political-Communication scholars Robert Entman and Andrew Rojecki have uncovered evidence of a ?racial subtext of Chicago?s local news.? In the period of coverage they examined during the 1990s, ?white victims outnumbered Blacks in news reports ? even though Blacks in Chicago and most core cities are more likely to be victimized.? Stories featuring black victims of violence were consistently shorter than those that focused on white victims, with a ?total story time? ratio imbalance of 3:1 in favor of whites. Studies have also implicated violent media images in negatively affecting audience beliefs and perceptions.

Such studies go far beyond the simplistic, clumsy and unsubstantiated claims of those conservatives in the media who blame entertainment and video game consumption for ?causing? children and teens to engage in violence against their family, friends, and peers. Rather, a substantial body of literature has developed in implicating media in far more subtly ?cultivating? conservative, racist, and militaristic thinking within the minds of heavy television consumers. Heavy viewers of television programming have been found to be more likely to ?express fear of crime,? particularly amongst those viewers who are white, and/or middle or upper income elites.

Media outlets have long depicted acts of violent crime with far more frequency than they occur in the real world, while news programs in particular disproportionately focus on blacks as suspects in crimes in question. Subsequently, those who more heavily consume television programs ? including reality based crime shows and news reports ? are significantly more likely to provide ?higher estimates of crime prevalence? in society. It is perhaps the subtle effects of media violence on individual perceptions of crime and race that makes the Grand Theft Auto series so problematic.

Young and impressionable minds may have a difficult time distinguishing fictional depictions of race and violence from the realities of everyday urban life. This is especially a concern when studies show that even adults who consume large amounts of television cannot discriminate between the images they see in entertainment programs and the realities of American cities.

The GTA series has excelled in promoting some of the most warped and grotesque images of minorities and American urban locales. In a time of increased segregation (within cities and suburbs) such hostile media depictions are likely to further consolidate racist and prejudiced preconceptions of minorities and the poor. Without direct, meaningful exchanges across class, color, and ethnic lines, citizens are unlikely to foster the civic ties needed to overcome the institutionalized racism so often seen in film, television, news, and video game culture.

ANTHONY DiMAGGIO is the author of the newly released: Mass Media, Mass Propaganda: Understanding American News in the ?War on Terror? (2008). He teaches American Government at North Central College in Illinois, and can be reached at: adimag2@uic.edu References

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Anthony DiMaggio is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He holds a PhD in political communication, and is the author of the newly released: Selling War, Selling Hope: Presidential Rhetoric, the News Media, and U.S. Foreign Policy After 9/11 (Paperback: 2015). He can be reached at: anthonydimaggio612@gmail.com

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