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Media Wed Sep 19 2012
Just a couple days prior, the also-controversial Vice magazine posted the first episode of their two-part documentary, Chicago Interrupted, about the organization on their website. Like last year's critically-acclaimed documentary, The Interrupters, the web mini-series interviewed local "violence interrupters" Tio Hardiman and Ameena Matthews while showing raw footage of their attempts to mitigate brewing street conflicts. After playing audio of off-camera gunfire at the end of a botched interruption attempt, the second part (released Monday) ended with Matthews expressing hope to Vice's film crew that their documentary would start conversations and compel people to stand up against the cycle of violence. She added, "I don't want people, America, Chicago to get desensitized...to what's not right."
As it turns out, Vice is using Chicago Interrupted to start conversations. Unfortunately, those conversations are less about Chicago violence and more about a fantasy action video game called Dishonored. In fact, the CeaseFire doc is a prominent part of a special multimedia program Vice created just to market the game.
Essentially, Dishonored is a game about a jailed bodyguard wrongly blamed for a princess' murder. He is given magic powers by a mysterious stranger, who tells the protagonist to go exact revenge. The game, developed by France's Arkane Studios, boasts open-ended gameplay, cinematic-quality graphics, and voice acting from the likes of Susan Sarandon and Carrie Fisher.
As the Eye For An Eye "About" page explains, "In support of Dishonored, which shelves October 9th, Vice and Bethesda Softworks have partnered to create a unique program based entirely on the art of revenge." As if creating an entire website about the "art" of real-life revenge to promote a game about revenge weren't callous enough in light of a revenge-driven Chicago murder epidemic, the "About" page describes the game itself as "an immersive first-person action game that casts you as a supernatural assassin driven by revenge," and boasts that the player can "Pursue your enemies under the cover of darkness or ruthlessly attack them head on with weapons drawn." Other than the "supernatural" part, this could aptly describe how hundreds of people have gone about killing other people in the city for decades.
But Eye For An Eye features more than just the CeaseFire documentary. The editorial, video and photojournalism content ranges from posts about a group of vigilante women in India to rather trivial posts like "The Greatest YouTube Revenge Pranks," a list of "Revenge Books" and a piece about the minor tribulations NBA player Reggie Miller went through during his career. Basically, it just looks like Vice's media team slapped together any idea vaguely resembling "vengeance" and threw it online.
While an elaborate sponsored promotion for a video game might seem random, special brand parternship websites are nothing new to Vice. Despite its punk zine roots, smug editorial voice and a history of exploring every weird aspect of the word "vice" in its pages, Vice has willingly toned itself down when necessary in order to grow a media empire that currently sells books and records, makes documentaries and internet TV shows, and runs its own advertising agency. The previous brand-friendly, Vice-lite sites include Intel partnership The Creators Project, Grolsch Film Works, Motherboard, and Noisey. Eye For An Eye is the first time Vice has partnered with a brand and tailored content to launch a single product. It just so happens that the content and product are both about the idea of revenge.
To be clear, I'm not condemning Dishonored itself for being violent. After all, one of the game's features is that it will be possible to beat it without killing anyone. However, considering that the Dishonored ad campaign emphasizes the killing parts, and considering that one of the goals of CeaseFire is to prevent retaliation murders in the city's complex web of gang-related violence, it's shocking that Vice would even send a film crew to Chicago to follow violence interrupters knowing that the footage was just going to be used to promote the very idea the interrupters risk their lives fighting against every day.
To get an idea of what the interrupters and Chicago police are up against, look at the statistics. More than 300 people were killed in Chicago between January and July 2012, a nearly 30 percent increase over last year. As of last week, that number is up to 374. A dozen people died from gun violence during a 72-hour span on Memorial Day Weekend alone, and one person has already been charged in what the Chicago Tribune described as a revenge killing. The spate of revenge killings in Chicago is so bad that Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy uses "gang audits" to figure out information like who gang members are and where they fight in order to prevent future casualties. Revenge, be it gang-related or personally-driven, is the driving factor in Chicago's cycle of violence. Nobody seeking to stop the bloodshed takes it lightly.
Curiously, Vice isn't the first "hip" media outlet this year to make light of Chicago's gang violence problem for the sake of online video content. Pitchfork Media ran into trouble recently when they conducted an interview with young local rapper Chief Keef at a New York City shooting range for their web series, Selector. Despite Keef's gang connections and complaints that the video was insensitive to the city's violence problem (the rapper was on house arrest for allegedly pointing a gun at a police officer), Pitchfork only removed the video after Keef-dissing rival rapper Lil JoJo was fatally shot, and a police investigation was launched into Keef's possible connection with the murder after he sent a tweet mocking JoJo mere hours after his death. Apparently, Vice didn't get the memo that it wasn't cool to casually appropriate Chicago violence for web videos anymore.
There's one more sad layer of irony to all of this. Vice is represented by Mayor Rahm Emanuel's brother, Ari. I can imagine the mayor pulling strings to have his brother's client make a documentary about the group the City just gave $1 million to in order to help reduce violence in Chicago communities. But I can't imagine he'd approve of his brother's client using footage of violence interruption to help sell a video game about revenge killing.
Ultimately, it took the death of a rapper in a rival gang to get Pitchfork to acknowledge that taking Chief Keef to a gun range was dumb and offensive. What will it take for Vice, Bethesda, and the Emanuels to acknowledge that using CeaseFire/Cure Violence to promote a website created to sell pre-order copies of Dishonored is in poor taste as well?
UPDATE 9/26/12: As of this afternoon, both parts of Chicago Interrupted have been removed from Vice's Eye For An Eye website. I have been in touch with representatives of Cure Violence and Vice Media, and am awaiting official comment from Vice. Stay tuned for further developments.