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Ubisoft’sCall of Juarez: The Cartel” has once again sparked debate over violent video games, but this time there’s a twist: players get to participate in a bloody street war that is actually occurring in their own backyard. The controversy surrounding the game is not only based on its glorification of gun play and murder, but also on how it portrays a nation and a people.

Due for release this summer, the first-person shooter game set in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, is based on drug cartel shootouts that are all too common there. In fact, Ciudad Juarez is one of the most violent cities in the world, with a murder rate of roughly eight people every day. The violence has spilled over into the U.S. as well; since the beginning of 2010, at least forty people from El Paso, Texas, which sits just north of Ciudad Juarez, have been killed while visiting. Controversy over the game has escalated after a particularly bloody weekend in which fifty-three people were killed in a 72-hour span in Ciudad Juarez.

As as result, the game has given rise to serious concerns on both sides of the border. Legislators in Chihuahua, the state that includes Ciudad Juarez, fear that the game will attract children to a criminal lifestyle. Police in Texas have expressed similar concerns, saying the game could give kids a favorable impression of drug cartels.

Government officials and scholars argue that the game’s real life setting makes it even more dangerous than other controversial violent video games like the Grand Theft Auto series, which take place in fictional cities, or the Call of Duty series, which return to battlefields of the past like World War II and Vietnam. “It is one thing to demonize violence in your own country, but once you start doing that across borders you can cause cultural misunderstandings and nationalist sympathies that can be harmful to everyone in the long term,” says Dr. Kathleen Staudt, Professor of Political Science at the University of Texas at El Paso.

Some game industry observers strongly disagree. “As a general trend, by bringing it into modern day or real day conflicts you can get more publicity to the game and make them more relevant,” says Sam Kennedy, Editorial Director for 1UP.com, a leading video game news and review website. An Ubisoft spokesperson defended the game, saying that it is purely fictional and developed for entertainment purposes only: “While ‘Call of Juarez: The Cartel’ touches on subjects relevant to current events in Juarez, it does so in a fictional manner that makes the gaming experience feel more like being immersed on an action movie than a real life situation.”

Having failed to make inroads with the game makers themselves, lawmakers in Chihuahua have take legal action, asking federal authorities to ban the game in Mexico. The lawmakers unanimously voted to ask for the ban.

The controversy surrounding “Call of Juarez: The Cartel” comes at a time when the U.S. Supreme Court is considering the First Amendment implications of a California law banning the sale or renting of violent video games to minors. Are the dangers associated with real-life settings for violent video games enough to outweigh the free speech concerns in this case? Do games like this help draw national attention to the bloodshed taking place along our border, or do they simply exploit it? Time and judicial reasoning will tell.

Jeremy Francis

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