Sunday 26 July, 2009
Some homeboys stay standin’ on the corner, sellin’ yay and crack and not even givin’ a fuck. They steady rockin’ all purple, too, just chillin’ all casual n’ shit on the block, no trace of punk ish, all up on my block like they own that muthafucka… Aww hell naw! I’m ‘bout to roll up on ‘em in my Cadillac, bumpin’ that new Shabba Ranks on the radio, and bust a cap in all they bitch-asses…
…And in reality I get a text on my cell, ending the gangsta thug fantasy simulation more popularly known as Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.
With it’s early 90s gangsta-funk soundtrack, old school slang, and distinctive characters designed to resemble images of Black American hood cultures, GTA: SA transports gamers into a war fueled by drugs, territories, and unhinged violence. The game’s protagonist (and who the game controls), Carl Johnson (known as C.J.) is a tough, street-wise Black man who, after leaving Los Santos for five years, must re-earn his reputation as a dangerous (and apparently sexy) gangsta. He must assert his machismo by spraying his gang’s graffiti sign over other gangs’ graffiti (and in some cases, gang members), getting and remaining in shape, getting tattoos, having a nice hair cut, shooting & terrorizing rival gangs, assisting his homeboys in their crimes, and otherwise not being a “buster” by simply refusing to submit his pride or his life to another (GTA emphasizes all of these factors, seeing that they all comprise the actual gameplay).
The first thing that fascinates me about GTA is how thoroughly the game renders it’s atmosphere. From the opening credits, 90s gangsta rap era G-funk style hip hop beats blare a gritty backdrop to C.J.’s deep baritone as he narrates his reasons for returning to his hometown. No sooner does he grab his luggage from the airport when two police officers, fellow Black American Frank Tenpenny (voiced by Samuel L. Jackson) and Eddie Polaski (who seems Italian to me, but I may be wrong) arrest him. They steal C.J.‘s money, ridicule him when he states that he isn’t involved with the gangs anymore, frame him for a case in which another office was killed, and leave him stranded in a rival gang’s territory. During this cut-scene, the game begins to establish C.J.’s personality, his circumstances, and more importantly how the characters interact with one another; when a Latino officer at the airport drives off after C.J. is apprehended, Polaski shouts, “Stupid Mexican!“. Later on, Tenpenny, after describing how he will frame C.J., exclaims, “Wow, you work fast, NIGGA!”
What bothers me, at least in the hour or so that I have played the game, are how vivid the stereotypes of Black Americans and 90s Black culture are rendered in the game. From just running down the streets, I encountered a Black man wearing a red early-LL Cool J-style fisherman’s cap, nothing covering his upper body except for tattoos and a gaudy gold chain on his neck, and red baggy jeans swaggering (note that I did not use the verb “walk) down the street with unabashed hood coolness. His swagger alone to outsiders outside the Black community hollers “I’m so raw and can’t nobody touch me!”, an aura that has simultaneously entranced and struck fear into the heart of mainstream white America. Turning on the radio in the game’s cars reveals historical accuracy in the songs and artists played in the 90s, with artists like En Vogue, SWV, Boyz II Men, and Ice Cube getting airplay (all artists I listened to growing up in a predominantly Black suburb). Black and Latina women wander the streets wearing bikini tops and tight pants, speaking with exaggerated accents (Black hood girl and Latina boriqua styles, respectively), cursing out the men who “spit game” or cat-call at them. This gaming universe strives to achieve a high level of immersion into a fictional minority ghetto, where gangs and crime dictate how its denizens live their lives. And it definitely succeeds in achieving that high level, to frightening results.
The stereotypes of minorities (in this case, the Black characters), bothers me. Some may argue that historical accuracy is why the game portrays minority characters in such manners. The character Ryder, for example, comes off as a hyper masculine, thuggish N.W.A. reject who looks like a cross between rappers Easy E., Dr. Dre, and Ice Cube. He smokes cigars, talks with ebonics and a heavy “Black” accent, and commits violent acts without remorse. He seems like a character pulled out of a 90s Black film like Boyz In Da Hood. The other characters do not act much better: Big Smoke and Sweet all talk in similar manners, and they all want to re-assert their gang’s dominance. But does “historical accuracy” and “research” justify the game’s stereotypical depictions, especially when considering that many gamers, of all ages, races, and backgrounds, will buy GTA: SA and possibly internalize those same stereotypes as reality? In fact, exactly who researched the culture referenced in the game and deemed it historically accurate? Who are the gate keepers who designed the game and encouraged its Black gangsta aesthetics? Basically, is it ethical to portray these Black stereotypes in the name of “historical accuracy” or simply for effect, when many individuals who play the game may not be able to distinguish between its fictional elements and reality?
At this point, I’m conflicted. As a writer and a life-long gamer, I understand the desire to craft a story and to create game scenarios that reflect the story and the elements pertaining to it. As a Black Latino person, however, I do feel some anger at the idea that the game developers used blatant stereotypes to create the atmosphere and story within the game. As of now, however, I’d like to delve more into the game and further observe its racial and cultural representations of minorities.