David J. Leonard has written about the issues surrounding a predominantly white industry producing games like GTA, which he claims re-inscribe stereotypes of African American males as criminal and violent (e.g. Leonard, 2003). Paul Barrett (2006) is similarly critical of “ghettocentric” imagery in video-games. One of the main criticisms of gangsta rap was that, from the outside, it looked like it was produced by black artists as a reflection of the black American experience, but it was disproportionately owned/funded by white record labels and often consumed by white fans. Critics of San Andreas (and any other GTA title, although SA had a particularly strong focus on black/Latino communities) suggest that presumed white players are going to have any existing racial prejudices reinforced. This is the sort of media-centric reading which still seems to get trotted out when academics write only about games/music/movies without ever speaking to the audiences who are playing/listening/watching. Authors like Leonard and Barrett, who write as if the game’s “meaning” is inherent to it, tucked away inside the story and characters themselves, don’t leave much room to discuss what % of players actually take in that version of the game’s “meaning”. There’s also a really problematic assumption that these young, impressionable “gamers” are disproportionately white suburban kids who don’t know any poor, black kids and are therefore going to base their entire view of impoverished black males on a collage of videogames and other media representations. The whiteness of the “gamer” might have some truth about it if we’re talking about the geekier end of the spectrum – MMOs and MOBAs and stuff you play on a PC and read wikis about – but it’s certainly not true of the vast proportion of kids who play console games (citation needed, I guess).
On the other hand, DeVane and Squire (2008) interviewed different groups of American boys about their experiences with the same game, finding that Black youth from poorer backgrounds generally had less access and thus tended to play in groups. Those who did enjoy enough access to play the story were likely to see it as a sympathetic representation of Black street culture, where the police were [accurately] portrayed as racist and corrupt (GTA:SA even contains a fictionalised reinterpretation of the events surrounding the Rodney King trial in Los Angeles in 1992). DeVan and Squire’s white, suburban participants saw the game more as a pastiche of gangsta rap and Hollywood movies like Boys In Da Hood – a media text referencing other media texts – whereas the black boys from poorer neighbourhoods were more likely to view it in relation to their own community’s real relationships (or lack of) with the police etc. In addition, only a few of them had the level of access required to play the game through, meaning that only these few had interpreted the games protagonist as justly fighting a deeply corrupt and racist police force. Different levels of income mean different levels of access to the tech, leading to drastically different “readings” of the games, and those who were poorer tended to play the game communally and spend more time messing about, showing off to eachother, causing sandbox carnage in the city as opposed to following the story. Jesper Juul (2010) has in fact described the GTA games as “hardcore games with a casual audience” for exactly these reasons – they present a challenging series of missions alongside a narrative but many folks can easily play for hours without even touching these. As the authors put it:
“For the most part, then, game play for the Casuals was social, competitive, and performative. They were most interested in exploring and expanding the boundaries of the game’s possibility space in front of their peers. Such ambiguity of play is what problematizes attempts to assign singular “effects” and meanings to games.” (ibid, p276)
The meanings surrounding expressions of race within Western videogame culture are complex. Is there a singular, “correct reading” of the game as racist or otherwise, and if so, does it lie in the hands of some academic expert or the expert audience? Just googling “is GTA San Andreas racist?” brings up a ton of discussion on the same subject without any academic interjection whatsoever. We live in an age where everyone and their nana has a cultural studies degree and an opinion on whether Media Text X is -ist. At what point do researchers whose main shtick is the tricky task of “decoding” these -isms become redundant? At least five years ago, IMHO.
I also think that criticising ghetto-centric portrayals in games can push too far. In recent years we’ve started to see another phenomena in gaming when race comes into the discussion, and that’s the celebration of the black nerd. Go on any forum discussion about the characterization of black guys in games and you’ll usually see a lot of posts praising the makers of Walking Dead (Telltale) or Left 4 Dead (Valve) for having black male characters that don’t fit the loud, muscular, slang-talking “stereotype”. Of course, one persons idea of a “stereotype” is another’s actual way of life. It’s this sort of attitude to ghetto blackness that brought us the “hilarious” Bed Intruder Song (whose whole purpose is to poke fun at the way a group of actual people actually speak and present themselves). I call this the Uncle Phil / Bill Will dichotomy: the idea that black American men have to either be loud, egocentric gansta/athlete hybrids, or they have to lose some of that identity and be middle-class guys who wear ties. There’s very little space for ambiguity in the middle. This is perhaps why there are so many rappers who went to college but rarely talk about it in their music. It’s fine to criticise games made by white guys which portray black guys in a negative light, but recognize that there’s more than one reading, and don’t call for the total erasure of all representations of poor people just because it hurts your sensibilities or makes you feel guilty.
Another useful concept might be “liquid racism”. Simon Weaver (2011) applies this concept to the British “urban” comedy character to Ali G to refer to the multiplicity of available readings of the character – is Ali G a “wigga” (his full name is Alistair in the movies) or is he a representation of an Asian boy affecting a black British identity, or is he an autobiographical self-parody of a young (Jewish) Baron-Cohen doing the same? “Liquid racism” is a useful concept because it means a media representation can simultaneously be racist in several ways and not racist in several others, without having the problems I’ve outlined with Leonard and co.’s reading of GTA as categorically racist.
References (apologies for any pay-walls)
Barrett, P. (2006) ‘White Thumbs, Black Bodies: Race, Violence, and Neoliberal Fantasies in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas‘ in Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies‘. Vol. 28. No. 1. pp95-119.
DeVane, B. and Squire, K. (2008) ‘The Meaning of Race and Violence in GTA: San Andreas’ in Games and Culture. Vol. 3. No. 3-4. pp264-285
Juul, J. (2010) A Casual Revolution. MIT Press.
Leonard, D. (2003). “Live in Your World, Play in Ours”: Race, Video Games, and Consuming the Other. Studies in Media & Information Literacy Education, Vol 3. No. 4..pp1-9
Ritsema, J. and Thakore, B. K. (2012) ‘Sincere Fictions of Whiteness in Virtual Worlds: How Fantasy Massively Multiplayer Online Games Perpetuate Color-blind, White Supremacist Ideology’ in Embrick, D. G. Talmadge Wright, J. and Lukacs, A. (eds) Social Exclusion, Power, and Video Game Play. Plymouth, UK: Lexington Books.
Weaver, S. (2011) “Liquid Racism and the Ambiguity of Ali G” in European Journal of Cultural Studies. Vol. 14. No. 3. pp249-264