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'Racist' Vice City dialogue still a problem

Self-censorship isn't enough. They want blood. Kill the Rockstars!

Dark blue icons of video game controllers on a light blue background
Image credit: Eurogamer

Earlier this week, Rockstar Games caved in to pressure from minority groups in the US and decided to censor the multi-million unit selling Grand Theft Auto: Vice City by removing an instruction to "kill the Haitians", issued by one of the city's rival drug lords.

However in the words of Ringo Cayard of the Haitian American Foundation, "It's too little, too late." The Delray Beach-based Haitian American Community Council still plans to protest against the game this weekend outside a Wal-Mart SuperCenter in Boynton Beach, apparently incensed that the game - which also includes a mission with a similarly troublesome "kill the Cubans" line - has made so much money.

In a further development this week, the Palm Beach Post reports that the Florida Attorney General's Office and the Palm Beach County State Attorney's Office have now been asked to investigate whether Vice City's "kill the Haitians" line violates state law.

Although nobody connected with Florida's Attorney General Charlie Crist knew who had filed the complaint, Delray Beach City Commissioner Jon Levinson apparently forwarded information about the game to a friend who works for State Attorney Barry Krischer. In Levinson's words, "it sounds like this has got to be against the law. To tell people to kill a particular group of people? That has to violate the law." Although the State Attorney is unlikely to take it any further as it falls outside his jurisdiction, the investigation could lead to damaging charges being brought against Rockstar.

It's enough to get some people very hot and bothered. Civil libertarians believe the dialogue is protected under the US Constitution. "Speech alone, unaccompanied by any action, is protected by the First Amendment," said Jim Green, a West Palm Beach lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union. However ordinary Haitians, many of whom will not have played the game, are understandably upset by what they're hearing in the news - that a successful piece of home entertainment encourages its fans to slaughter them by whatever means possible - and aren't prepared to accept that.

But of course the crucial fact of the matter, and one that seems to have completely bypassed just about everybody connected to either side of the action, is the actual context of the statement, which forms a vital part of the narrative. Of the literally hundreds of articles debating the issue, both online and off, I've been unable to find a single piece that quotes the game beyond "kill the Haitians" or elaborates on the circumstances in which Cuban drug lord Cortez issues the offending instruction. The instruction is to kill members of a rival drug gang - criminals who shoot you, knife you, swear at you, run you over and generally couldn't care less about the fate of innocent bystanders.

To players of the game, the instruction is little more than another objective in a game full of criminal caricatures, people, places and activities that are completely disconnected from real life. A game, by the way, which is rife with knowing references to violent films full of even more violent and bigoted characters, whose activities are borne out in graphic and sometimes chilling detail - and not just a few splashes of red cartoon blood. And yet somehow the picket signs all focus on this allegedly racist sentiment, buried so deep within a game that it took proponents of this current wave of protests well over a year to pick up on it at all?

The issue has already stirred up a lot of unpleasantness, and it sounds like it's going to drag on for a considerable length of time, but for this commentator it merely serves to underline the sad truth that games still aren't being taken seriously, or considered on their artistic merits, or even considered as a whole. Ask yourself this: how likely is it that the people spearheading this assault on Rockstar Games have actually played Vice City? Played it to the point that Cortez gives Tommy Vercetti this now infamous instruction? Played it to the point of completion?

Sitting on the couch last night playing - what else - Vice City, I found myself thinking about a film I watched recently. An excellent film called Ghost World. For those who haven't seen it, it includes a very interesting section in which Enid (Thora Birch) presents an overtly racist piece of advertising dating back over half a century to her summer art class. It's a fascinating item, and courts plenty of controversy. Taken apart, you can understand why people would find it offensive in this day and age - as many people in the film clearly do. Held up on its own with no context or qualification, it is a vile image. And yet I don't remember hearing anything about it on the film's release. I wasn't harangued by enraged protesters when I bought the DVD. I wasn't slammed for encouraging racial stereotypes when I commented on the film at IMDB. But then, it appeared in a film, not a videogame. It's the sort of contrast in attitudes that upsets, frustrates, and actually frightens me.

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