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Jan302011

Tags are it Atari's Getting Up: Contents under Pressure has graffiti artists pissed and S.F. do-gooders braced for trouble.

Publisher: San Francisco Bay Guardian, Vol. 39, No. 32
Date: May 11-17, 2005
Article Link

SUBURBIA SOMEHOW FINDS unique ways of explaining otherwise unsuburban behavior. The logic is sometimes confusing, the influences bewildering, but somehow, a culprit comes shining through. Back in December, police in Greensburg, Pa., a small town of about 16,000 in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, arrested five middle school boys for spray-painting graffiti on various buildings, including a synagogue and a Christian bookstore. The boys' tag was GKU, which they told police stood for "Gang Kids United." Although rallying the gang kids of the Appalachian Mountains like miniature Cyrii from The Warriors would certainly have been disturbing, something else emerged from the arrest that caught the eye of anti-graffiti groups around the world: the nascent graffiti writers claimed they were inspired by the best-selling PlayStation 2 video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.

Now, there are a lot of bad things you can do in the third PS2 installment of the GTA series. These very bad things include, but are not limited to, shooting pedestrians, carjacking, drive-by shooting, running over FBI agents in a stolen tank, shooting police helicopters out of the sky with a bazooka, killing cops, running drugs, running guns, gang warfare, bombing, embracing bad Italian stereotypes, and well, graffiti.

Interestingly, while graffiti may seem the most innocuous activity in the open-ended GTA series, the Greensburg arrest and supposed involvement of GTA: San Andreas was felt by city and neighborhood watch groups around the world.

"Just a quick note to let everyone know about the latest graffiti arrest in the U.S., kids were out doing graffiti because of the Grand Theft Auto video game. This is a game in which you can graffiti the city," read a posting from the Neighborhood Watch Association of South Australia's online newsletter (www.nhwatch.asn.au/web-news16.html). "We should all send many letters to these manufacturers to let them know our feelings and that making a game out of something that is a crime, is just plain wrong."

For their part, the Greensburg police remain a little skeptical about the kids' line of reasoning. "They probably did see it and thought, 'Hey, I'm going to go spray-paint some building,' but I think there's more responsibility [on their part] than that," Capt. George Serenko said in a phone interview. Though the newsletter's description of the game isn't totally accurate (graf writing isn't the main goal of the game; instead, it's limited to a mission involving gang territory), the message is clear and hauntingly reminiscent of the debate over whether violent video games trigger genuine violence. This anti-graffiti group, among others, believes there is a direct correlation between video game graffiti and real-life graffiti.

And here in San Francisco, where a headline printed in "graffiti"-style type in the Datebook section of the Feb. 11, 2005, San Francisco Chronicle spawned letters of protest and accusations of endorsing vandalism, in a city that spends nearly $5 million a year cleaning up graf, the Graffiti Advisory Board is gearing up for the September release of a new game that deals almost exclusively with graffiti, Getting Up: Contents under Pressure, going so far as to suggest filing a civil suit against Atari, the PS2 game's publisher, in anticipation of the damage the city would incur.

Atari touts Getting Up as "the first truly authentic video game based on urban culture," though it is not the first game to feature graffiti. Aside from GTA: San Andreas, Jet Grind Radio, a kind of futuristic rollerblade/graffiti game for Sega Dreamcast, and even the family-friendly Tony Hawk series have both had graffiti elements. Getting Up was developed with the help of Marc Ecko, the fashion designer of Ecko Unlimited and Complex magazine fame, and it will feature rapper Talib Kweli as the voice of Trane, the main character. Starting off as a toy writer living in a hostile city, Trane works his way up to being an "all-city king" and at the same time exposes the metropolis's corrupt government. According to the Atari Web site's description of the game, it will feature a unique system for the player (as Trane) to surreptitiously catch tags in prime spots and work in different media: markers, spray paint, stickers, stencils, and wheat paste. Judging from the screen shots, it appears Trane will be rocking a custom-made hoodie with pockets sewn in front for carrying paint cans. Another screen shot has Trane getting his ass whooped by a jackbooted (and perhaps corrupt?) police officer.

At this point the game smells like yet another foray into the crass commercialization of so-called urban culture, capitalizing on the recent success that some artists featured in last year's "Beautiful Losers" traveling show spent years working toward. Still, cheesy as the game might be as entertainment, the Graffiti Advisory Board sees it as a threat.

One particular line in an Atari news release struck an especially sour chord with the board: "[Getting Up] offers players a unique combination of skills, including the sneak and street fighting abilities to battle through the city's rough streets and Get IN restricted areas, the dexterity and agility to scale any object in order to Get UP graffiti tags and spread the message of rebellion, and the ingenuity to evade, escape and Get OUT."
In an internal e-mail, board member Gideon Kramer wrote, "Atari is doing a great job of subverting the efforts of the Graffiti Advisory Board and [the Department of Public Works] to eradicate graffiti vandalism, and it should not be allowed to do so unchallenged. It is also costing the City big bucks by encouraging blatantly illegal activity, even showing young people exactly how to do it."

In later e-mail exchanges, Kramer admitted that he knew little of the actual game but stressed that exploitation of graffiti culture is at the heart of the problem. This is interesting coming from a member of the Graffiti Advisory Board, especially when compared to similar sentiments from graf writers about the game (albeit for different reasons).

"I am dismayed by video games that glorify graffiti vandalism and by companies that capitalize on 'popular culture' by promoting gratuitous violence and vandalism, be it Grand Theft Auto or this one that promotes the culture of graffiti taggers," he wrote to me in an e-mail. "The problem I have with the game, and I must admit I have not seen it or have any first-hand knowledge about it (although the name of the game is all I need to know), is its obvious attempt to exploit the increasingly mainstream perception of graffiti as art and the tendency to gloss over such 'minor' aspects like, 'Did anyone give you permission to put graffiti on someone else's property?' "

Kramer also forwarded a copy of a letter San Francisco deputy police chief Greg Suhr wrote, on the board's behalf, to Jim Capparo, president and CEO of Atari. Officer Christopher Putz, head of the Graffiti Abatement Unit and a member of the advisory board, declined to comment but referred me to the letter, which misidentifies the game as Get In, Get Up, Get Out, a common mistake among board members.

"This game sends absolutely the worst message – that you can win by destroying your environment," board member Ken Cleaveland said. "These kinds of games don't make you want to go out and do what you see in a video game, but [they do] anesthetize you. [They raise] a certain level of acceptance to this kind of behavior."

Another board member compared Getting Up to the bald, mustachioed little man's board game. "In Monopoly you start off small, and you get more successful and get more property in a business, but in this game you start off small and get successful by spray-painting the city," Julia Vierra said. "The tragedy is the loss of young lives spending their time playing these games."

The board is also looking into legal action against Atari in advance of the game's release. "I think the city should sue [Atari], personally, because it costs cities all over the world millions of dollars, but especially San Francisco, because San Francisco attracts writers from all over to write on the city like dogs leaving their mark," Vierra said.

But mounting such a legal challenge would undoubtedly be an uphill battle. There's no provision in the law that makes the game illegal, assistant district attorney Paul Henderson said at a recent advisory board meeting. The city's best bet, he said, is to prove the game is an inducement to commit a crime – in this case, graffiti vandalism. The onus would be on the city, then, to do what various groups around the country have failed to do: prove a causal relationship exists between action in video games (usually violence) and real life.

Both Atari and Rockstar Games, publisher of the GTA series, declined to comment for this article, but Patricia Vance, president of the Electronic Software Ratings Board, said evidence of such a relationship is lacking. The ESRB is the independent organization established in 1992 by the Entertainment Software Association to rate video games. "People need to understand that games are games – games are not the real world," she said. "Players who play the game are in a fantasy world – this is another form of entertainment. Look at the ESA Web site: the surgeon general and even the government of Australia have conducted studies, and they're quite inconclusive. There's no proof that there's a causal relationship."

If board members can't get a legal action to stop the game's release – banning the sale of violent video games already has been rejected by courts under the First Amendment – they'll just have to hope ESRB ratings will be taken into account by parents purchasing the game.

They might get some help, however, from unlikely bedfellows. For all the scientific data that proves or disproves a causal link between video games and real-life actions, board members aren't the only ones who think Getting Up will start a small wave of toy scribbling. Graffiti writers aren't exactly thrilled about a mainstream game that foregrounds something they do surreptitiously and, considering the effort cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and Philadelphia invest in trying to stomp them out, draws even more attention to it. As one writer on 12ozprophet.com's forums wrote, "Graffiti is making a comeback in a major way much the same way it does every few years just like skateboarding. Real heads will just have to put up with the bullshit until it blows over.

"Only problem is that lotsa kids'll think that graffiti is 'neat' and 'cool,' thus generating a new wave of idiot toy motherfuckers who'll disregard old school writers, piss all over the unwritten rules of graff ettiquite [sic] and cause so much damage that new and more anal laws will be generated in cities across the land to discourage people from getting up."