Thursday, July 31st, 2014
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Is Your City Poor Enough to Star in the Next Hit Video Game?

"The city of Camden, New Jersey had the highest crime rate in the US in 2012. A 24/7 surveillance program is now in effect," teases Ubisoft, the enormous French game publisher, announcing a new expansion of its popular Watch Dogs sneak-hack-and-kill game. The original, which was pitched as one of the most ambitious games of all time, was set in and around a fictionalized Chicago populated by an automatically generated cast of lightly stereotyped city-dwellers. Earlier this year, a player found himself under attack by a hoodied young virtual character named "Kavon Fortin," which company representatives claimed was an unfortunate coincidence. Within a few months another Ubisoft game, Far Cry 4, was advertised with a human colonial tableau, which the company might have been able to explain away if not for the franchise's extremely recent history (as well as an adjacent controversy surrounding its flagship series).

The Grand Theft Auto series takes place in satirical renderings of New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Miami, and mostly inhabits their criminal underworlds. But its cities are backdrops—these games can depend on their players knowing that Los Angeles is place where actually humans live a variety of lives, on Earth. This is one of two ways most major video games engage with real places, the other being after their total destruction (in a past or future war, or after an alien invasion). Which treatment will Camden get? Game site Polygon's attempt at context for the announcement:

In 2012, the FBI named Camden as the most violent city in the United States with a population of more than 50,000. It ranked first in homicides in 2011, based on its population of 77,000.

So maybe a new treatment, somewhere in between: It will use the public's glancing understanding of Camden as "poor" and "in trouble," as a statistically superlative cautionary tale without any human character at all, as a backdrop for an apocalyptic playground of its own creation. Watch Dogs: Camden will be a guaranteed hit in the Philadelphia suburbs.