Jeff and Karlin
Racial elements in media forms such as literature, television, and movies are heavily scrutinized. There are images of racial stereotypes and interactions between people of certain races that pander to society’s insecurities and face value judgments of ethnic communities. However, video games seem to be immune from any critical discourse on their use of racial images. What movies were to the past generation is what video games will be to the current generation and it is important to look at how people create video games, and how the video games are interpreted. Grand Theft Auto is a prime case of a video game series that capitalizes on racial stereotypes, violence, and sexual images. The creators of Grand Theft Auto create unique worlds filled with racial stereotypes satirical in nature and are more or less a reflection of white America’s interpretation of the underworld.
Grand Theft Auto is an open world, role-playing game where the player takes control of the protagonist and leads him from the bottom of the crime world to the top. Games have taken place in locations inspired by Miami, Los Angeles, and New York City. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas takes place in a 1990’s, Compton-inspired, Los Angeles where a young black male is controlled. The character, CJ, has to navigate basic errands for a gang, accumulating money, respect, and girls, and works his way to unimaginable wealth and power through missions that he can take at any point during his time in the game. There is no set schedule of when missions have to be completed and with plenty of smaller, side missions the player has a lot of freedom in choosing his or her character’s narrative throughout the game.
The characters in the Grand Theft Auto series are stereotypes in their simplest and most well known forms. All the gangs in Grand Theft Auto are based off the races of the group (Dymek 9). Mexican gangs wear bandanas, have heavy accents, and speak slowly. Black gangs will always be playing hip-hop and have cars with huge rims. Gangs of race will fit the definition of their stereotypes (Leonard). When women are seen in the games they are only used as props. The women have no agency and are props or victims, especially the African-American women portrayed. Race is systematically programmed into the game, to the point where certain neighborhoods will have only a certain amount of one race and some parts of the map won’t have any black people in it ever (Higgin). Different characters will also have their own theme music that they will play themselves (Miller). For example, the car of a black man will play rap music, a white’s car will play rock, and a Mexican’s car will play ranchero. The racial stereotypes have largely gone unnoticed by lawmakers because the violence in the game was of much greater concern (Leonard). CJ was the first non-white character that Rockstar had ever put in a position to be the main character. The player had control over CJ’s appearance and CJ could be dressed as a gangster with baggy clothes or wearing a suit. Some believe that since CJ’s physical appearance was so easily adjustable Rockstar avoided criticism for creating a racial caricature (Miller).
Barrett advocates that Grand Theft Auto 3 reduces African-Americans to a “blackness” that reduces them to merely a body and a victim. 50 Cent is a real life example that is cited by Barrett, because he advocates that violence, crime, and shooting makes one an “authentic” black (Barrett 106). Barrett most aptly describes how Grand Theft Auto uses race and the effects of it on participants:
Both in the very structure of the game and within the subtext of San Andreas, there is a glamorizing, and even spectacularization of violence, a marking of young black bodies as disposable, an insistence on a culture of cynicism as well as a particular formation of African-American experience that is extremely problematic. Furthermore, there is a sense of the public sphere as a site of danger and a withdrawal from any commitment to political or collective social agency that runs throughout the game. Taken together, these undercurrents in the game’s environment and narrative serve to naturalize and reinforce (as well as justify) neoliberal policies that divest power from politics and collapse public concerns into private worries. Similarly, the ideology of the game provides, and operates in tandem with, the necessary ideological conditions for both the U.S. ‘‘war on terror’’ and the war against Iraq.
Of greatest concern is how Grand Theft Auto portrays black society to white America’s youth, whose playing of the game constitutes the vast majority if not all of their interaction with black, lower-class America (Barrett 98). The game shows African Americans as violent, disposable, and without agency in their communities. However, this idea of blackness is not normal and is simply a lampoon (Higgin). Grand Theft Auto embraces racist imagery and uses the bank of stereotypes to fill its games. According to Leonard, the video game is, “A powerful medium in which racialized ideas, bodies, and structures are constructed, mediated, and presented through a safe medium” (Leonard 3). Higgins is quick to remind people that race does not function solely through representation, but also through behavior. He cites Leeroy Jenkins as a blaxploitation and racial archetype because the behavior is the biggest giveaway of the player being black rather than the name Leeroy Jenkins (Higgin). In the game blackness isn’t just seen through the races, but through the music played, the specific crimes committed, and the language used by the avatars.
One of the most damaging parts of race and its relation behaviors in the video game is how the society is uncontrollable and inescapable. The state and its powers are entirely missing from the game except for when a crime is committed and police offers arrive to make arrests (Barrett 105). Leonard goes so far to say that Grand Theft Auto legitimizes white supremacy and patriarchy. He views that the roles whites have in the game re-enforce an idea of privileged whiteness, maleness, and the need for law enforcement to control parts of society that aren’t white (Leonard 3). Furthermore, the society creates a sense that racism, sexism, and poverty appear to be natural, normal, and inevitable (Leonard 87). In focus groups on the game, it was found that people thought the game was more realistic because police officers were racist and corrupt (DeVane 277). Specifically with the case of CJ, there is no contextualizing of CJ’s community. The community is bad and decaying, but the map shows no signs of improvement. The map exists as a broken city with deep issues that is a place of violence (Barrett 102). Race matters in these situations because they can affirm the status quo, give tolerance for racial inequality, and show that the unequal distribution of resources and privileges is acceptable, if not validated (Leonard 2).
The cities created in the Grand Theft Auto series are based on the interpretations and impressions of the creators. In Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas the city is based off a 1990’s Los Angeles seen in movies such as Boyz N the Hood. The creators of the game are from Scotland and didn’t have any idea of what many of the communities they had to make looked like. Spike Lee films, such as Do The Right Thing, were also used to create the games based in the New York City-inspired locations. The realities created are a mix of fiction and realism without being over the top (Devane 265). In effect, the true citizens and mayors of the city are the team of designers, writers, actors, and culture consultants (Miller). Experts have been brought in, such as Ice Cube, to give direction to storylines and other aspects of the game, and the individuals who work on the project are the sole creators of the imagery. The developers are what Dymek would call symbol creators, “GTA 3 is not simply ‘just a game’ but also a reflection of the authors, their beliefs, views and the discourses of their social context” (Dymek 3).
While the creators are able to make a world full of storylines and characters, each with their own baggage, it is up to the player to determine how these new symbols are interpreted. When focus groups were done to analyze themes present in the video games, many different participants had different views on what was important and what wasn’t. The players of Grand Theft Auto used their own knowledge gained from personal experiences to interpret the game (DeVane 264). This shows that the players are not simply viewing and accepting what is put in front of them, but are actively engaged in how they receive the information and interpret it. Players also viewed the cities by thinking about other cities that they had visited (Miller). People from Chicago related to the Miami and New York inspired locations through the viewpoint of how it compared to Chicago, showing that there is no universal interpretation to how anyone views the game or what it means to them. Interestingly, many people who played the game saw traits present in films that both they, and the creators of the game, had seen before (DeVane 276). CJ was also very real to many of the people interviewed. However, many of his issues that appeared comical to some, were too familiar to be funny to others Leonard 414). For example, there’s an achievement in the game when CJ buys his first house and there is a funny video that follows. People from middle or upper class communities found it funny, while black players from the lower class commented on how hard it was for black people to buy homes with the unfair societal constraints in place.
Often times the players of the game are simply escaping to a world that is so foreign it might as well be considered fantasy, as if the players are simply tourists in another part of the world. In the world of Grand Theft Auto white suburban kids can listen to rap, roll out on rims, and participate in gang related activities such as drive-by shootings and not be made fun of for fantasizing about it (Miller). It has been argued that the games allow for white fantasies while still keeping and affirming a feeling of white privilege during play (Leonard 86). Video games are more than just story and characters; they are a package of ideas that include race, nation of origin, and gender. It takes people through imagination, ethnic sampling, and cross-dressing. Leonard compares the video game series to white people going to Harlem during the jazz era. At its core it allows a privileged community to go to a foreign land, and the video game now allows for previously forbidden behaviors (Leonard 5). With the open world with no timetable for accomplishing anything, Grand Theft Auto allows for the tourist to do anything they want.
At the game’s core, and what probably makes it most threatening to people, is the amount of realism present in the game. The dialogue is impeccable and the storylines are relatable to everyone interviewed. People have experienced drive by shootings or delivering drugs in some facet, either through real life or film and television. Any stereotypes and realities, even if misguided, are clearly present in Grand Theft Auto, sometimes painfully present. Instead of just watching a drive by shooting take place, the player is now the one doing the shooting. When it was released that Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas would take place in a version of Los Angeles, local celebrities and rappers tried to lend their voice to any character they could. The actors chosen complained about the lines being unrelated to Los Angeles, specifically with words like “rubbish” being in the script. The developers brought in the writers of the hit film Friday to correct storylines and the dialogue (Kushner 167). The biggest factor of the realism is that it enables the comedy. Through being real, it allows for the satire that Rockstar has claimed multiple times it tries to put in the games.
Rockstar has said that while Grand Theft Auto is very realistic, it is also meant to satirize America and the regions it shows (Kushner 163). All of the issues of violence and race are real. The public outcry from lawmakers and other concerned parties are due to the over the top nature of some of the actions present in the game. However, what could be interpreted as over the top by some may be interpreted by others as satire. There was a level discovered in a game called “Hot Coffee” where the main character must seduce a woman at a club and then gain achievements through various sexual acts. While not open to the public, it was buried in the program so as not to accidently break other parts of the game. The level was discovered by hackers who then made a patch that released the level to everyone. After lawsuits and an investigation, Rockstar had this to say about the situation, “It didn’t matter what was or wasn’t in the game because the controversies weren’t really about the game at all. They were about the fears – first violence and now racism – that the games unleashed, and Rockstar had no choice but to respond” (Kushner 163). It has been established though that people interpret the game based off their own experiences. Dymek argues that by presenting gross stereotypes as humorous in the video game, the player is given cues that will cause them to reflect and evaluate his or her own perspectives on issues of race (Dymek).
Issues of race present in the Grand Theft Auto series are now new. The stereotypes currently exist in already present forms of media. The images in the game constitute a small scope of the stereotypes and opinions present in modern America. What the created means to players however, is dependent on the players themselves. What is funny to some is serious to others, and what many find offensive or obscene, others will find as satire. It is important to analyze all images and themes present in video games, because as Grand Theft Auto shows, video games are slowly beginning to outpace other forms of media and embed players in situations where they were previously bystanders. Largely, Grand Theft Auto is loved by just as many as it is contested by, because of how honest and true the gameplay is.
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