Miami’s Liberty City takes offense at portrayal in video game

KRT NEWSFEATURES (DIVERSITY) By Noaki Schwartz South Florida Sun-Sentinel (KRT) MIAMI _ Many people around the nation and the world only know Liberty City as a place that encourages visitors to hire a prostitute, then after sex, bludgeon her to death to recoup their money. This is because one of the most popular video games on the market, “Grand Theft Auto III” _ in which players are awarded points for killing the hooker _ takes place in northeast Miami. The game calls its Liberty City “the worst city in the world.” That infuriates people who live in the real Liberty City, a neighborhood that may have problems, but is a beloved home to people who live there. Among them: Miami-Dade County Commissioner Dorrin D. Rolle, who is exploring legal options to protect the real Liberty City’s name. “I am appalled and offended, as are other members of my community at the Grand Theft Auto video game inventors,” said Rolle, whose district includes the neighborhood. “Liberty City is a community of respectable, hard-working and predominantly African American families. Their inclusion and portrayal of this community as dangerous, is shameful.” “Grand Theft Auto III,” played on Sony PlayStation 2 consoles, has stirred controversy since it was released in late 2001, appearing on ABC’s “Nightline,” National Public Radio and in major newspapers around the country. Fans tout the game as one of the most technically sophisticated to date, but critics worry about children navigating a world in which they play an escaped convict working his way up the criminal underworld by killing anyone in his way or just for fun. Players get extra points for shooting people in the head instead of the body. The game has outraged people in high places around the world, prompting lawmakers in Brazil to ban it and Australian authorities to order it removed from the shelves until the sexual violence was deleted, according to news reports there. In the United States, the game has prompted federal legislation to stop its sale to minors, legislation that has yet to pass. Take-Two Interactive Software, the game’s designer, has developed a lucrative product that is high in demand. In its first year, “Grand Theft Auto III” sold more than 6 million copies in the U.S. and Europe at $30 to $50 each and was named by industry insiders as the best video game of 2001. Executives with Rockstar Games, a Take-Two subsidiary that publishes the interactive game for “mature audiences,” declined to respond to requests for comment. But they issued a statement that said the game’s designers did not intend for the game to be identified with actual persons, living or dead, or actual events. “The Grand Theft Auto series is a comic interpretation of gangster activity and the story, names and incidents portrayed are fictitious,” the company’s statement said. It said Rockstar Games markets its products to adult consumers age 17 and older, that the company submits every game and advertisement to the Entertainment Software Rating Board, and that every game is clearly marked with a rating. Critics say the fictionalized Liberty City is inappropriate entertainment, even for adults. “Welcome to Liberty City” reads the official Web site, which flashes the one-liner “where lunatics prosper” and warns visitors to “lock your doors.” Players can hear snippets of conversations as they push past pedestrians and can change the music in a car they’ve just hijacked. They can also change the main character’s skin and facial hair for added realism. Adding to the feel of a real city, designers put together an issue of the Liberty Tree newspaper with stories about a “local hoodlum” arrested after years of “bling and bitches” _ or money and women. Brenda Williams, a Miami Police commander for Liberty City, said the neighborhood has “really turned itself around” and doesn’t deserve the reputation it may be earning from the video game. According to police statistics, total crime in the Liberty City area dropped 9 percent from 1999 to 2000, 6 percent from 2000 to 2001 and 2 percent from 2001 to 2002. Residents who once complained about drugs and murder now worry about their trash being picked up on a regular basis, Williams said. “The best thing would be to get it banned from sales,” Williams sighed. “But I’m not sure how easy that is to do.” (EDITORS: BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM) Supposedly set in a fictional city in Florida, Liberty City looks like a stylized and sprawling metropolis that resembles urban areas such as Miami, New York or San Francisco. There’s also a Web site for the computer-generated Liberty City, complete with city information, a visitors map and a city crest in the upper left corner. One link is to a mock Liberty City College that trains people for street cleaning, “restroom administration,” “pharmaceutical baking” and “coatroom management.” Such stabs at humor fall flat with residents of the real Liberty City. “It bothers me for two reasons: it degrades the people who live here and makes it easier for others to judge,” said Liberty City community activist Max Rameau. “And it bothers me because there’s a kernel of reality in it.” (END OPTIONAL TRIM) Once a thriving area of middle-class homes and a model of public housing, Liberty City suffered after largely white owners bought huge tracts in the 1950s and built cheap two- and three-story concrete apartment blocks that subsequently deteriorated. Such poorly done projects, and the departure of some black professionals to other areas during integration, helped lead to the area’s decline and to crime. Ravaged by riots in the 1980s, the distressed area for years has struggled with its reputation as one of Miami’s most dangerous neighborhoods. While things may be improving, Liberty City remains a place where newcomers are regularly told not to wander around alone. Rameau thinks politicians intent on banning the game could find better ways to help Liberty City. “The question is what are they doing to change this reality, not what are they doing to change the video game,” Rameau said. “That would be a bigger accomplishment.” ___ ‘copy 2003 South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Visit the Sun-Sentinel on the World Wide Web at Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.