In last week’s class, we attempted to contextualize David Leonard’s “Young, Black (& Brown) and Don’t Give a Fuck: Virtual Gangstas in the Era of State Violence” through playing Grand Theft Auto San Andreas. Though the other readings were similarly focused on race and racism in video games, Leonard’s was the one which focused primarily on the controversial title. In his essay, he asserted that the “ghettocentric virtual reality” (269) depicted in games such as San Andreas are not limited to the gaming consoles they’re being played on, but also extend and pertain to “lives, livelihood, injustice and a desire for much, much more” (269). In reference to my previous blog post, the notion of white supremacy and fetishization are strongly noted through this essay. Leonard’s basic argument is that the portrayal of black people in San Andreas is effectively reinforcing stereotypes to the predominantly white, middle-class male buyers of the games and, likewise, diminishing blacks’ integrity and perceived intelligence in the face of the white majority.
At one point in the class, Professor Stenger played a clip from the game wherein the main character, CJ, goes to meet up with a woman and take her out for what can loosely be called a date. Upon arrival at her house, the woman gets into the car and the player must then “show her a good time” by driving around recklessly and performing drive-bys. At several points in this sequence (and throughout the entire game), there are on-screen tutorials and translations for the conversations between the characters. Most specifically in this example, a translation for doing drive-bys appears, letting the player know that they must equip a weapon while driving and shoot several passerby to fulfill the woman’s “Fun Meter”.
This scene of the game became a point of contention in class, with the argument decidedly ending in everyone agreeing that there are strong overtones at work in these on-screen translations and that they act as a service to the millions of non-black, non-“hood” consumers playing the game. Though I agree that these transcriptions are racist, I would go one step further and say that they are fundamentally ignorant not towards race or ethnicity, but culture.
As our course’s title is Digital Culture, there is an inextricable corollary found here between the effects of new media on our society and mass (and niche) culture’s effects on virtual reality. In terms of San Andreas, Rockstar, the company which produces and owns the GTA franchise, made a decision to include these tutorials for players. As a man of color and particularly as a black male, I find these scenes not only bitingly funny instances of satire, but more importantly, sadly necessary for the consumers. The vernacular used by the in-game characters and even real-life people who actually live in the ghetto is not easily understood by those who don’t inhabit it. Rockstar made a lucrative and intelligent decision in creating the world of San Andreas because, as Dr. Dre once said, outsiders always want to know what it’s like on the inside and are always eager to be told stories about it. In this circumstance, many players probably wanted to know what it felt like to be a black gang-banger in south-central L.A. and the idea of the stereotypical hood lifestyle and violence piqued their interest.
It is no secret that black culture has become commodified and Rockstar simply hopped on an already speeding bandwagon. Though Leonard’s argument becomes hyperbolic at one point, he addresses these points and speaks about the game’s repercussions in the analog world. Players want to role-play as CJ and characters like him, but they would rarely want to actually want to be them. The fantasy and temporary nature of entertainment is a large part of what makes it so incredibly successful in America. By addressing whites’ ignorance via inherent white privilege, Rockstar made a game which catered to a larger variety of demographics. And although their marketing psychology and sales technique may have been questionable or racist, they sold millions and millions of copies and established an even higher level of social revenue in pop culture. This is not a new method by any means and many other games, particularly with military or war themes, capitalize on comparably amoral themes. How many WWI/WWII, “Jap”-fighting-Nazi-killing games are currently on the market despite the fact that those wars happened over 60 years ago? Games such as Call of Duty and Halo also feature these translations and tutorials, not because the characters are black or in the ghetto, but because there is a unique culture found in the military or in the sci-fi worlds. This culture often extends to linguistics and manners of speaking, therefore the designers try to translate for the audience-at-large.
In San Andreas, it’s racist and in Call of Duty, it’s normal. Context is imperative here, but so is perception.