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.
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.
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.
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.
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