By Michael Battista
Immigration is a complicated but important topic to discuss. There is no one right answer that would make everyone happy, but there are plenty of wrong ways to handle it. In the same vein, the way immigration is handled in media needs to accurately highlight the experiences of people who go through the process.
The best way to do this is through symbolism and fictional mediums such as allegorical films or video games. There have been many great examples of this, but two specific ones come to mind that handle the topic in different ways.
On April 29, 2008, the video game Grand Theft Auto IV became an instant success. In a series known for violent car chases and gun battles, the fourth installment also included another factor –– themes about immigration.
In the game, the main character, Niko Bellic, is an Eastern European immigrant from an unnamed nation who comes to the U.S. after taking part in a war and various illegal operations such as human trafficking and robbery. When he arrives in an American city modeled after New York City, he is greeted by his cousin Roman. The two battle racism and poverty while trying to obtain the American dream.
Dennis Vodarsky, a junior mechanical engineering major at the College, remembers playing the game 10 years ago at a friends house around the time it was released. The New York City native felt immediately attached to the setting, especially around the starting area of Broker –– a city based off of his hometown of Brooklyn.
“My family are actually immigrants from Eastern Europe,” Vodarsky said. “All those people (Niko is) exposed to, all that cultural stuff, I was kind of exposed to the same thing. It kind of made the game feel a bit more personal. The immigrant’s journey is difficult with all this stuff happening to you … it was realistic almost.”
It is true that GTA IV has a lot of violence that in no way reflects the blight of immigrants. However, by using the example of someone forced into a life of crime, the game shows the power struggle that immigrants face in the U.S.
It’s important to note while the game portrays people satirically in many cases, the depictions are still relatable. The game does not shy away from showing how those who come from foreign lands are persecuted because of their identity.
Many of the characters in the game fall into categories: the optimists who believe they can achieve success through their work, the pessimists who believe the world has nothing for people like them, and, finally, the corrupt who use their power –– both legally and illegally –– to hold down others who cannot fight back. Niko, like many immigrants in real life, mostly works for those in the latter category who are greedy or immoral.
“Playing as someone who comes to the country trying to make a better life for themselves –– getting kicked around (and) tossed down –– it definitely sheds new light on the issue,” Vodarsky said.
While GTA IV deals with gritty themes and is intended for a mature audience, there are other works that are far more age friendly. Don Bluth’s 1986 animated masterpiece, “An American Tail,” discusses immigration using relatable characters, musical numbers and talking animals.
The film follows Fievel Mousekewitz, a Russian-Jewish mouse who immigrated to New York City in the late 19th century with his family to escape religious persecution in their homeland. The mice represent the foreign immigrants while the cats are portrayed as anti-semitic and generally antagonistic in their persecution of those looking for freedom.
Entertainment media have always had the ability to break down and present topics in ways that mass audiences can understand. They have to balance being able to convey a message while also not offending the audience — that is why it is so important to appreciate the themes and messages that come from forms of media that do it right. From the outside, these themes may seem exaggerated, but, especially in a time like today, the message can really make an impact.
Students share opinions around campus
“Does media have an impact on young people’s perspectives?”
“Absolutely. It’s insane how technology is shaping the minds of new generations.”
“Social media especially is exposing kids to a lot of different things.”