RIO DE JANEIRO — It's unlikely to be added to the long list of official products anytime soon, but a new cellphone game called Run Gringo Run may be closer to Olympic reality than any sponsor’s glossy TV commercial.
Dreamed up by a group of Brazilian computer geeks looking for light relief from a corporate IT project, Run Gringo Run is a free application for Android phones whose central character is a foreign tourist fleeing a group of youths attempting to rob him. The fleeing foreigner can employ a number of tricks to escape them.
Gringo is a catchall word for foreigners used across Latin America. And "gringos" in Rio de Janeiro for South America’s first Olympics have been dealing with all the crime cliches the "Wonderful City" has to offer.
On Aug. 7, Portugal’s education minister was robbed at knifepoint by the picturesque lagoon where rowing races take place. The previous evening, two Australian coaches were held up at knifepoint in upmarket Ipanema. Days earlier, gunmen waylaid three Swedes who had stopped to photograph a favela — briefly seizing one of them, before releasing the visitor.
As well as the crime, the gringo in the game personifies many of the cliches Brazilians see in foreign tourists. His gaudy Hawaiian shift is open over his beer belly, and his hair is shaved closely around his thick neck.
When the youths arrive to rob him in a massed robbery called an ‘arrastão’, or dragnet, he runs away and can paraglide over hurdles, skate away on a longboard or accumulate enough coconuts and distance covered to “buy” a police officer who will get rid of the thieves. Other obstacles he confronts include an exploding manhole and a cycle path that collapses.
Like the robberies, none of this is imaginary. Instead, for Cariocas, as Rio’s crime-hardened residents are known, scenarios like these are a real as the Christ the Redeemer statue or Copacabana Beach. The game’s creators say they are just having fun while trying to increase Brazil’s stake of a lucrative mobile gaming market.
“It shows all the ills of the country in a fun way, not an offensive way,” said Luciano Nóbrega, 37, one of eight computer specialists from the south of Brazil who were working on a big IT project when they dreamed up the idea. It was designed by Ritchie Cantuaria, 33, who lives in the interior of Santa Catarina state in southern Brazil.
As Nóbrega observes, not everyone playing the game will realize it is based on real life.
“Instead of ghosts and monsters, he escapes from real people. A cycle path that falls down is unfortunately a reality in our country. There are people who will understand this, and there will be people who will think it’s just another obstacle,” said Nóbrega, who lives in Curitiba, also in the south of Brazil.
In April a 50-yard section of a brand-new, elevated cycle-path, heralded as an Olympic heritage project when it was opened months earlier, did indeed fall into the sea after being hit by a wave, killing two people. In recent years, manholes have exploded in Rio — in 2011, two American tourists were injured by one, and Brazilians have even been killed. And corrupt police is a harsh reality of life in this teeming, tropical Gotham of 6 million people, just as paragliding over its beaches is a popular pastime.
The massed beach robbery is as perennial a Rio problem as the traffic or the pollution. A gang of youths fan out along the beach and then run to grab whatever they can from bathers — bags, cellphones out of hands, necklaces off the owners' bodies. It prompts nervous Cariocas to exit the beach en mass, leaving furious stall owners to pursue the crooks with whatever piece of wood or iron they have on hand.
In September 2015, after another wave of ‘dragnets’, a tearful British tourist was interviewed on local television after her bag was snatched. The authorities opted for a hard-line response. Riot cops were stationed on Ipanema Beach. There was a vigilante attack on a bus from low-income, outlying suburbs blamed for transporting the youths. And there were accusations that the police were racially targeting young black men with as much right to be on Rio’s beaches — a rare democratic space in this divided city — as anybody else.
Cariocas also laughed bitterly at the tragicomic scenes of overweight cops huffing and puffing after nimble youths who fled into the sea or sped off down the beach. It is this quintessentially Brazilian gallows humor that the game captures so well. “The game just shows a little of our reality,” Nóbrega said.
That reality has been slightly altered during the Olympics by the very visible presence of 88,000 armed police and soldiers. Dragnets, at least, are on hold. Once the Games are over though, Cariocas fear Run Gringo Run will once again be reality.