Mass Outbreaks of Xenophobia and Inbreeding: A stroll through the ghettoes of San Andreas

“Canonical American literature is free of, uninformed, and unshaped by the four-hundred-year-old presence of, first, Africans and then African-Americans in the United States.” I begin with a quote from best-selling author Toni Morrison because I feel that it perfectly encapsulates my main argument for this article. African-American culture has always been a desirable alternative for white cultures; it is seen as a novelty or exotic, against the norm. I believe that what Morrison says about canonical American literature being unshaped by anything African, or African-American, is one of the most significant reasons that some white people often desire an experience in African-American culture. Videogames, in their very nature, offer an opportunity to experience something outside of people’s everyday lives, and should therefore be seen as a perfect example of a desire to experience the ‘other’. One game in particular stands out as a representation of the desirable ‘other’; Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. It may be over seven years old, but I think the best-selling videogame of 2004 can help us to understand the racial ‘other’ that film and literature have been discussing for decades. San Andreas represents the African-American ghetto culture of the 90s, and utilises satire in a way that highlights the injustices and absurdities of white hegemonic discourses regarding the black under-class of America.

San Andreas, is a great contemporary example of white people’s desires to experience a culture often defined as ‘other’. Legendary hip-hop artist Dr. Dre once said that “people in the suburbs…can’t go to the ghetto, so they like to hear what’s going on.” San Andreas is desirable to more privileged people because it offers them an experience ‘other’ than their own, it informs them on a culture they know little about except through negative portrayals in the media. By playing San Andreas, people can, in a way, learn about the immorality and crime prevalent within inner-city ghettoes (most notably a better understanding of what went on between the Bloods and the Crips). In effect, San Andreas is perhaps going by the idea that being black will make you a better white; by experiencing the ‘other’, white players will come to understand and sympathise with the oppression faced by the black underclass, and maybe take a step towards rejecting the hegemonic discourses regarding racial hierarchy. Not only is the prospect of insight desirable, but San Andreas also allows the player to unleash the fears, desires and repressed dreams that the black ‘other’ occupies. Videogame and race theorist David Leonard suggests that the representation of black males in San Andreas reflects the dominant discourses (and fears) of black masculinity. The hyper-masculine violence that acts as the main gameplay feature helps to maintain dominant white discourses regarding black underclass ‘gangsta’ culture. The prevailing image of the black poor in the mass media is still of a criminal class, so allowing the players to participate in a violent and criminal hyperreality helps to unleash the fears of black underclass life that grip them; By experiencing the violent lifestyle of a young, black, male ‘gang-banger’ in San Andreas, the player legitimises their fears that have been established by the media.

Thug Life: This man legitimises my fears. FACT.

However, this process of representing the ‘Gangsta’ culture is definitely not without it’s problems because to appropriate a specific aspect of underclass black life (‘gangsta’ culture) is to dehumanise it. It is more likely that the players are not engaging with the issues of racial and class inequality that the game presents to them, and merely consuming the images blindly and appropriating their own meanings. The supremacy of white educational standards in American schools, and the lack of compulsory education on the subject of black culture serves to further this notion of a dehumanised representation of the ‘Gangsta culture’.The fact that the cultural repression of American colonial education serves to distort perceptions of black culture is a major issue when considering the dehumanising capabilities of San Andreas and its representation of under-privileged black people. Without a foundation of factual knowledge to build upon, the game’s message can be difficult  to grasp amongst the stereotypical characters, hyper-violence and controversies. “Many white teens identify with black culture, which they find powerful and attractive. A typical gangsta rap listener is a 14-year-old white boy from the suburbs.” This idea can be applied when examining San Andreas’s popularity amongst suburban whites. What 14-year-old white boy from the suburbs wouldn’t want to experience the thrills of anti-authority gang culture? In this respect, it is highly unlikely that the 14-year-old white player is going to be analysing the socio-political messages conveyed by San Andreas, and simply just killing as many people as possible because it’s fun.

Interestingly, the game is the result of a team of Scottish developers raised with the Los Angeles depicted in N.W.A. music and Spike Lee films exporting that culture back to Americans. So the game itself is the product of what Morrison called whiteness aimed at white readers, and as such is a product that utilises hyperbolic imagery, exaggerated violence and social satire in order to highlight the injustices faced by the black underclass at the hands of white hegemonic discourses on race. It is with satire that the game best conveys its message of injustice. It is no secret that videogames can participate in the recreation of the ‘real’ or can make the imaginary seem real, but this can especially be applied to San Andreas. The game world of San Andreas is what De Vane and Squire describe as “hyperreal, a stylized rendition of 1990s California, containing a mixture of [the] authentic and fictitious” the world is, for all intents and purposes, simply a huge playground satirising ‘Gangsta’ culture that allows the player to experience life as a ‘gangbannger’ in a highly exaggerated way.

Ryder was Eazy-E's brother from another mother. FACT.

In her influential book, Killing Rage, controversial race theorist, bell hooks outlines a need to “free the black image so it [is] not enslaved to any exploitative or oppressive agenda”. Although blatant racial tropes flourish within videogames, San Andreas uses racial stereotype and racist discourses in such a satirical way that, instead of legitimising contemporary white hegemonic discourses on race, the game in fact attacks them by highlighting how absurd they are. Throughout the game, the player – as ‘CJ’ – is subjected to constant racism and racial oppression by the white characters and what Malcolm X referred to as the “brainwashed negroes”. Right at the very beginning of the game, ‘CJ’ is picked up by the corrupt police officers, ‘Tenpenny’ and ‘Pulasky’. ‘Tenpenny’ acts as the “brainwashed negro” that Malcolm X despised so much and, along with ‘Pulasky’ terrorises ‘CJ’ throughout the game – framing him for crimes, forcing him to commit crimes on behalf of them and wrongfully imprisoning his family. The violent crimes that ‘CJ’ commits during the narrative of the game (ignoring the subjective free-roaming violence that may or may not happen, depending upon the player) are always a means by which he tries to enact justice or improve his neighbourhood. ‘CJ’s’ motives for violence and crime are good, as opposed to the self-indulgent motives of ‘Tenpenny’. By the end of the game, the player – as ‘CJ’ – succeeds in getting out of the ghetto, improving his life, and eventually improving his old neighbourhood and helping his childhood friends. Berman speaks of those who make it out of the ruins of the South Bronx as “working-class heroes”, but these are the people who have shied away from the crime that prevailed around them. ‘CJ’ indulges in crime in order to improve his existence and this is where the satire comes from; the juxtaposition between ‘CJ’s’ positive motives and his negative actions. It is in this way that the game shows that although “formal legal discrimination has been outlawed…contemporary social practices produce virtually identical racial hierarchies as those observed by Du Bois”. Despite the civil rights movement, dominant – often racist – discourses in America still exist and serve to oppress the black underclass, and San Andreas attempts to showcase this to its players by constantly positioning ‘CJ‘ – and therefore the player – in situations of racial injustice. Even the fact that the player’s only means to improve his situation is through crime and violence could be considered a racial injustice as it legitimises the white hegemonic discourses regarding race.

Crime is shooting Latino paramedics. FACT.

As well as authoritative (and, for the most part, white) figures in San Andreas oppressing ‘CJ’ and his friends, the voice of the anonymous government is also constantly oppressing him through the radio. The radio is very important for satire in San Andreas, as it is the main source of Rockstar North’s subversive comments on how the black underclass are treated. One such radio advert in the game states: “those of you who are poor, should just stop whining. Enjoy it and sit back and do what you do best: watch TV.” This echoes a comment made by bell hooks, in Killing Rage, whereby she claims that “mainstream culture tells us daily that the [black] poor have nothing to offer.”   It is socio-political satire like this that appropriates the seemingly racist discourse of Rockstar North into a message to the player that is saying “look at how ridiculous black oppression is.” Thus, San Andreas switches from simply representing the African-American ‘Gangsta’ culture for profit, to representing a grossly exaggerated form of that culture in order to convey the absurdity of a social and political discourse in America, that of racial oppression

Whenever a game focuses on a culture other than that of white British/American, questions of race will always arise. People will pick it apart, searching for the underlying racism that somehow found it’s way in. San Andreas is no different.  But it’s all subjective. There is ground for people to claim that San Andreas uses black stereotypes for negative reasons, but  it is also legitimate to say that it’s just the satirical nature of San Andreas, and it sends a distinctly anti-racism message. As with everything, the imagery presented to us will forever be appropriated by people with different agendas.


Collins, Patricia, Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender and the New Racism, (New York: Routledge, 2004).

Denzin, Norman, Reading Race: Hollywood and the Cinema of Racial Violence, (Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2002),

De Vane, Ben, Kurt D. Squire, ‘The Meaning of Race and Violence in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.

hooks, bell, Outlaw Culture, (New York: Routledge, 1994).

hooks, bell, Killing Rage: ending racism, (London: Penguin, 1996).

hooks, bell, Amalia Mesa-Bains, Home grown: conversations on race and culture, (London: Compass Academic, 2006).

Hord, Fred, Reconstructing Memory, (New York: Third World Press, 1991).

Ledbetter, ‘Imitation of Life’, VIBE: Special Preview Issue (Sept 1992).

Leonard, David, ‘Not a Hater, Just Keepin’ it Real: the importance of race- and gender-based game studies’, Games and Culture, January 2006, Vol. 1.

Morrison, Toni, Playing in the Dark: whiteness and the literary imagination, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992).

Pintado-Vertner, Ryan, ‘From Sweatshop to Hip Hop’, ColorLines: Race Culture Action, 2 May 2002, Vol. 5.

Powell, Jr., Gerald,  A Rhetoric of Symbolic Identity, (Maryland: University Press of America, 2004).


  1. Really good article! It would be interesting to hear your thoughts on GTA IV.

    • Aaron Myles

      GTAIV remains one of my favourite games of this generation. It’s more about the collapse of the American dream (and the rise of superficial superficial capitalist systems) and the increasingly multiculturalism of western civilisation, than anything else. I have lots to say on it and will maybe one day crack something out about it.

      I’m glad you liked it though. = D

      • GTA IV is one of my favourite games, although I can’t say it was because of the satirical/parodical side to it. I felt it had a possibly more uneven tone, especially when you contrast some of the main story with the TV channels (which can be just plain juvenile).

        Anyway, I look forward to reading more.

        • Aaron Myles

          I’d say the most glaringly obvious example of unevenness is seen when you consider the juxtaposition of Niko’s constant spiel regarding his desire to “settle down and live the American Dream”, and the player going on a rampage and killing everyone.

          I have always maintained that the radio stations are the best sources of parody and satire within the GTA series. I would often find myself just driving around Liberty City just to listen to people like Lazlow talk hilarious bullshit about America. What I loved about the game though was it’s sheer scale. The storytelling was also incredible (as long as you looked past the discrepancies between the overall narrative and the free-roaming player-generated violence). I should also point out that I fucking loved the characters. But Rockstar have always been good at presenting us with interesting characters.

          • I did take great delight in just driving around Liberty City. Something about it just feels – gonna sound like a dork here – ‘special’.

            The thing with the unevenness is the same thing in this article, that’s more down to player agency. From a story perspective, Niko finds himself dragged deeper and deeper into criminality (that old cliché) as a result of chasing the dream. I think the ending leaving you at the feet of the Statue of Happiness (I think that’s the name) was very well-done though.

  2. But who much does all this mean when the structure of the game encourages you – as well as simply allows you – to kill everyone and everything for fun? The OP’s article reads:

    “The violent crimes that ‘CJ’ commits during the narrative of the game (ignoring the subjective free-roaming violence that may or may not happen, depending upon the player) are always a means by which he tries to enact justice or improve his neighbourhood.”

    You can’t just ‘ignore’ such an enormous part of the game. Crazy physics, hair-trigger aggression thresholds and the ease of killing mean that it’s actually quite difficult to play the game without blowing something up occasionally. This is not to mention the many, many non-story inducements to rampage (like, er, Rampages). It would surely be inadequate to analyse the totality of the game without taking these elements into account. Indeed, for many people, they are the MAIN element – what percentage of GTA play (especially GTA replay) is people just entering cheats and passing the controller around to see who can cause the most mayhem?

    You could argue that, far from pitching CJ’s violence as some kind of redemptive effort, San Andreas merely puts a minor redemptive gloss on violence which its own game system encourages as a natural consequence.

    • Aaron Myles

      What you say is true enough.

      The difference between that is it’s the player’s choice to do so, not CJ’s. My article focuses on narrative and the representation of CJ’s motives, not the player’s. It’s simply an angle of analysis that some people take. Others look solely at gameplay, some balance the two. Besides, I don’t think the player’s decision to go on a rampage has anything to do with race, which is what this article is about.

      It’s like with GTAIV: You can analyse the ongoing narrative of Niko’s struggle to leave violence behind and find the elusive “American Dream”, without looking at the incongruity of Niko’s rampaging actions caused by the player. It is definitely an important factor when analysing the game as a whole, but when analysing narrative, it takes a backseat.

      I do agree with you that ignoring the player’s choice to rampage can make analysis misleading. But because my article is pinpointing socio-political satires regarding race in San Anreas, I think that the narrative (and world it inhabits) is far more important than gameplay as a source of argument.

      • I see what you’re trying to do; I simply feel that analysing any part of the game without even mentioning how other parts might contradict it is like reading the semantics of violence in Starship Troopers without a cursory nod to the film’s overall irony.

        I should stress that I am not claiming the game’s message can be disrupted simply by the player choosing to disrupt it. The issue is that GTA really goes out of its way to entice or simply shove you into mass brutality; it is biased towards destruction.

        With focus on the story, however, I wonder if you would mind going into more detail about how the satire you outline near the end might function. You talk about the divorce between CJ’s good motives and his bad actions (I’m unsure that he always has ‘good motives’, but it’s been a long time since I played the game, so I’d have to concede on this point if challenged). But that could surely be read as being a pretty racist depiction – at worst, as ‘negroes say they want justice but are only capable of crime’. is it instead indicting American society as one which offers no legitimate options for blacks?

        • Aaron Myles

          “But that could surely be read as being a pretty racist depiction – at worst, as ‘negroes say they want justice but are only capable of crime’. is it instead indicting American society as one which offers no legitimate options for blacks?”

          It could be interpreted as both, depending on your agenda. Looking back on the section you’re referring to, I could have outlined it better but, from my point of view, you hit the nail on the head by saying:

          “is it instead indicting American society as one which offers no legitimate options for blacks?”

          I think I do well with explaining San Andreas’s satire as an indictment (despite not using the word explicitly) of America’s white-focused hegemonic discourses. Admittedly, it’s more relevant when looking back at the years in which San Andreas was set, the early 90s. This is a time when the LA riots and the Rampart scandal occurred, both topics heavily discussed in African-American media ranging from music to literature to film. Indeed, both events are satirised pretty explicitly within the game.

          San Andreas follows similar lines to “hood” films such as Boyz n the Hood and Do the Right Thing whereby the black protagonists try and improve their lives but due to rampant racism, can only seem to get by through the acts of crime. The “hood” films of the 80s and 90s served as – what you called – an indictment of an American society which offers no legitimate options for blacks.

          San Andreas is both an homage to these films and a continuation of their themes, and although, racial injustices aren’t quite as overt as they once were, they are still a huge issue within the inner-city “ghettoes” that San Andreas represents.

          Hope that clears things up?

          • Yeah, that does – thank you kindly.

            It would be cool to see that kind of satire reflected more in the game rules, though. My darling wretched brother Jimmy holds the opinion that future GTA games should give the player a choice of white or black protagonists. Choosing black amounts to playing on hard mode: random stop and searches, wanted stars just for running or having a gun out, and redneck militia behind Ammunation counters refusing to serve you. Now that would be a ballsy move.

  3. My favorite bit of hyperbole in San Andreas comes from the radio, actually: there’s a broadcast where the reporters non-nonchalantly state that a major earthquake has occurred and that “experts” have reasonable cause to believe African-Americans are to blame, news at 11. That’s about as direct and biting as you can get, and in a few sentences Rockstar attacks the mainstream media and white fear that’s gone on for far too long.

    • Aaron Myles

      Ha, really? I spent countless hours playing the game and searching the the internet for the best radio quotes. That one definitely would have been useful to know lol.

  4. Dear Aaron, Even an old git like me did find that interesting…I get the impression that the sort of kids that are influenced by these games are those that not given leadership from home,leaving a vacuum for this sort of impressionalism to step in, and in the worst case scenario,being re-enacted in their lives . I read your essays, as if they have been in an envolope for too long .Well done. Trust you are both well. Love from Mark.