Bono has developed a reputation as a rock star with a conscience. The leader of the band U2 has cofounded two lobbying groups that raise awareness about Africa’s afflictions, created a fair-trade clothing company, and brokered a deal with several major American companies to donate millions of dollars to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS. But now he is caught up in a controversy over one of his own ventures.
Dozens of organizations are asking Bono to stop production of Mercenaries 2: World in Flames, a violent video game in which players become hired mercenaries who invade Venezuela, where a tyrant has tampered with the country’s oil supply. Once there, the player takes orders from the highest bidder, buying, stealing, and destroying anything in sight. Samples of the game available online show the mercenary driving through corrugated shacks in jungle villages, firing shoulder rockets from a city sidewalk, and destroying a replica of the state-owned oil company’s headquarters. The game, developed by Pandemic Studios, is scheduled for release in the fall.
Bono is a cofounder and chief investor in Elevation Partners, a media and communications company that formed a $300 million partnership with Pandemic in 2005.
"You always hear about all of the humanitarian efforts that he does, so I was surprised he would be involved in a violent game like this," said Jorge Marin, a Venezuelan immigrant who is a coordinator of the Boston Bolivarian Circle, one of the groups that have signed on to the Venezuela Solidarity Network’s second campaign to write letters to Bono.
Since last summer, the network has called the scenario in the game a propagandist attempt to defame Venezuela’s president , Hugo Chávez. The network sent its first letter to Bono in June; it went unanswered. The new letter appeals to Bono from a spiritual perspective, having collected signatures from dozens of religious organizations, including Fellowship for Reconciliation, the country’s largest and oldest interfaith group working on social justice issues. The Globe’s attempts to reach Bono for this story were unsuccessful.
Officials at Pandemic — and gamers salivating over the game’s release on online bulletin boards and blogs — stress that the game isn’t any worse than other works of fiction based on a real place.
"While we’re flattered that people think Mercenaries 2 is a commentary on the real world, it is just a video game," Pandemic Studios President Josh Resnick said in a prepared statement. "Even though our setting provides gamers with the overall look and feel of Venezuela, it is not an accurate street-by-street depiction, and the characters as well as the story line are completely made up."
But Venezuelan network members point out the research done by Pandemic to give players an authentic experience: Buildings are modeled after photos taken in Venezuela by the company prior to production, and according to one of the game’s online forums, Pandemic consulted a mercenary to sculpt its title characters. Pandemic is also the company behind Full Spectrum Warrior, a 2003 game developed to train US soldiers at Fort Benning. The US Army base in Georgia was also home to the infamous School of the Americas — now the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation — that was accused of training two officers involved in a coup that temporarily ousted Chávez in 2002.
"We have to put it in the context of how it would feel if the reverse was done," said Gunnar Gundersen, a cofounder of the network who has family in Venezuela. "Can you imagine if a wealthy Venezuelan game-designing company with links to the military and funding from a famous Latin American entertainer invented a game where you invade the US to assassinate the president and take over the economy?"
But it will probably take more than publicity and signatures for the letter-writing campaign to succeed. Following a successful debut at last summer’s Electronic Entertainment Expo, Mercenaries 2 has won eight awards from major gaming magazines and websites, well before its official release.
"It’s highly likely that we’re not going to stop the publication of the game," Gundersen said. "But it would be nice if [Bono] would just give us some kind of response."
In Boston, Marin hopes that Bono reads the letters and considers them from the perspective of a Venezuelan.
"I don’t have anything against video games. I just don’t think it’s good to use real places when you’re going to destroy the locations," he said. "There’s no reason why they can’t make up a name and change the scenery so you can’t tell what country it is. Some people think that it’s only a game and we shouldn’t make a fuss of it, but I think it’s important because it’s my country. I am a Venezuelan and I care about Venezuela."