For the likely millions of players embarking on tongue-in-cheek crime sprees in Grand Theft Auto IV's Liberty City this week, it's only a game. But a close look into some communities within New York City, the real-world inspiration for the Liberty City environs, reveals a different story.
Tens of thousands of New Yorkers live in neighbourhoods where more than half of the population's median income falls below the poverty line. Prevailing terminology calls these neighbourhoods "underserved," but denizens of these communities have no problem calling it like it is: the ghetto.
These ghettos may seem like a different world to those who may have only visited places like them in video games, but the communities that live here are just as excited for Grand Theft Auto IV as everyone else — and some say the widely-anticipated title holds special meaning for them.
In many of these neighbourhoods in areas of Manhattan and in parts of the Bronx and Brooklyn, higher crime rates, lower education rates and diverse cultural allegiances often create a familiar, uneasy standoff between the community and the police, where racial tensions often play a role.
These tensions recently came to a head following a long-awaited verdict in an emotional police shooting case. Plainclothes undercover police officers had fired 50 shots at a trio of unarmed young black men outside a nightclub following an apparent miscommunication. One of the men, 23 year-old Sean Bell, was killed that night; his two friends had been throwing him a bachelor party at the club. Bell would have married his fiancee, the mother of his child, on the following day.
The three officers charged in the Sean Bell shooting, known throughout the city as the "Fifty Shots Case," were acquitted of all charges on April 25th, prompting an outpouring of emotion largely from the black community in New York. Attorneys for Bell's family promise a civil suit will follow the criminal acquittal, but with the verdict still fresh, community anger and anti-police sentiment, along with civil rights subtext spearheaded by Reverend Al Sharpton's National Action Network, boil in the streets.
Spanish Harlem, known to its residents as "El Barrio," lies just east of Harlem proper in northern Manhattan, bordering the East River. It's a largely Black and Hispanic neighbourhood where, according to the most recent census data, the average household income is just under $16,500 a year. More than 13,000 people in the community live below the poverty level, and many people rely on support from social security and food stamps.
Even Spanish Harlem has a video game store, though — everyone needs a little entertainment.
The staff supervisor at the Spanish Harlem Game Express goes by the alias "Dragon," and he says he's the go-to guy within his broad network of friends for news on the latest games. For the past several weeks though, he says, his friends, neighbours and customers have only been interested in one title.
"Everywhere I go, people want to know about GTA and what they can do in the game," Dragon says. In his store, he's taped several signs in every line of sight that point out GTA IV's release date, so that people will stop coming in and asking him. Dragon also showed us "sold out" signs he made in advance, just to be prepared.
He says his customers are especially excited to play GTA in light of the Sean Bell verdict — the judge's vote in favour of the police has not found much support in Spanish Harlem, to say the least. "GTA lets them do the stuff they can't do in real life," Dragon says. "Like, 'this one's for Sean Bell,'" he adds, imitating a beat-down in mid-air.
Dragon says customers have shared plans to form gangs online, and pressed him for details about the specific types of crimes they'll be able to commit in the game. It's not that these people want to be criminals, though — "It's a ghetto thing," Dragon says. "They just want to take their anger out... people are upset right now."
In a neighbourhood where fear, resentment and anger toward law enforcement may come into conflict with urging by Sharpton, the Bell family and religious authorities to keep all protests and demonstrations non-violent, it seems many people are looking to GTA IV's fantasy environment as a form of catharsis.
So has Dragon sold a lot of GTA IV? Not yet, he says. He's planning on his highest-traffic period during the coming weekend, after the 1st of May when most people's Social Security checks arrive.
Near the store's exit, the GTA IV promotional mock "Wanted" poster art has been marked with a Sharpie: "This is not real," it says in one corner, and "Just a game," in the other. Dragon says a local sheriff had been alarmed to see the realistic-looking poster in the store, and he wanted to be sure no miscommunication occurred.
Further downtown, Tracy Gordon, a mother from the Bronx wearing a T-shirt airbrushed with the words "R.I.P. Sean Bell," was also more concerned with what her kids, aged 15, 9 and a year and a half, might face in the real world instead of what they could see in a video game.
Gordon says her husband — her "big kid" — and her 15 year-old son were both looking forward to buying GTA IV soon, but she has no plans to allow the 9 year-old to join in. "[The 15 year-old]is very mature," she says.
Gordon says she is familiar with the ESRB's ratings system and closely checks every title she purchases. Her decisions about what games her kids may play are based less on age restrictions and more about her judgement of how the content meshes with her family's values. But from her point of view, if her kids must handle the things they see daily on the news, the goings-on in GTA IV are minor by contrast.
"I mean, what are kids seeing out on the street?" She countered, suggesting that shielding kids from certain kinds of media makes them less prepared to deal with harsh realities.
Allen Joseph, a 26-year old father from Brooklyn, said that the stress and poverty of New York City's ghettos leads many parents to simply overlook their kids' video gaming habits.
His 11 year-old nephew plays Grand Theft Auto Games, he says. "[His parents]don't really care... You know, in some places in Brooklyn, as long as the kids have something to do, they don't care."
Joseph has already purchased a copy of GTA IV for his Xbox 360, and while he says he won't give his 4 year-old son a turn, he doesn't mind if he watches. "It's no problem," said Joseph. "He won't get to actually control it."
Even despite challenging urban social issues, some parents still plan to follow the ESRB's recommendations to the letter. A Bronx dad who only offered his first name, Jorge, said he would "definitely not" be buying GTA IV for his children or allowing them access to it. "Any real parent wouldn't buy it for their kids," he stated.