GTA San Andreas

GTA San Andreas and the Pedagogy of Racism

This week we were given a choice between seven articles centered on the theme of othering, or the process of identifying those that are different from the mainstream. Glancing through the list of articles I noticed one had Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas in the title, and considering I used to play the game (and almost beat it) I didn’t hesitate in choosing it. While the article was printing I couldn’t believe I was actually about to read an academic article on a video game! The first page read ‘the intentions of the game are primarily to offer a fun experience, which it undoubtedly does’ (Barrett, 2006, p. 95), nodding in agreement I ended up on procrastination auto-pilot and found myself blowing the dust off my PS2 and pressing the on button, San Andreas was still in there. A few wanted stars later I was back sitting at my desk ready to read the article, which is titled ‘White Thumbs, Black Bodies: Race, Violence, and Neoliberal Fantasies in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas’ and was written by Paul Barrett. The title White Thumbs, Black Bodies spawns from Barret’s idea that the majority of people who play the game are white, and these white players control a black character… you can see where this article is going already.

 Barrett (2006, p. 95) asserts in his article that Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas glamorises violence and sets up the belief that ‘young black bodies’ are disposable, and in doing so naturalises violence and racial stereotype. Devane & Squire (2008, p. 266) also state that the majority of criticism towards GTA: San Andreas is focused not on its violence but on its recapitulation of media’s depiction of African Americans as hyper violent criminals. Clearly GTA: San Andreas has boiled the water of racial stereotype and has no doubt let off a steam of political criticism. Barret’s (2006) political critique of the game is one of many, but is still eclipsed by the millions of positive reviews which have transformed GTA: San Andreas into an icon of pop culture.  Devane & Squire (2008, p. 264) point towards the immense popularity of the Grand Theft Auto series which has sold more than 40 million games globally, with San Andreas selling 20 million alone, by calling the series ‘one of the most dominant media franchises of the new millennium and a cornerstone media point for millions of today’s youth’. This is the very reason that Barrett (2006, p.115) finds it so important to write his critique of the game, because ‘after all, [San Andreas] is a text which is being ‘read’ by a great number of people… it is a text that generates meaning. It actively constructs a worldview that has implications in the larger, political sphere’. This quote forms the base motive behind the article, which despite its generalisations and tangents, does help the reader to understand where the writer is coming from.

The writer is concerned with the word pedagogy, or the learning environment, and its relation to the themes of GTA: San Andreas. Basically Barrett (2006) is afraid that the game teaches the gamer to view the world through a stereotyped lens of violence and racial inequality. Barrett (2006, p. 96) believes that ‘one of the most concerning pedagogical implications of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is the way that the game represents ‘blackness’ as inextricably reduced to the body’, he supports this statement by finding evidence in the way one can customise the look of the user controlled character CJ, by changing his haircut, buying him different clothes, working out to build muscle, or eating junk food to get fat. Here Barrett (2006, p. 97) assumes that because the character is black, and the game allows the player to alter his appearance and work on improving his body, he is simply a faceless black body marked as ‘subhuman and [stripped] of politcal agency’. This is one of those ‘it’s because he’s black moments’, considering that virtually (pun) every single user controlled character in any game is technically just a body. How can a video game character be any more than a body? By this logic one could write an article on Super Mario, and how the protagonist Mario is stereotyping Italian-American plumbers as faceless bodies who jump around a lot and occasionally throw fireballs. Only a few games exist where the player can actually hear the thoughts of the protagonist, one of them is Heavy Rain (2010) released on the PlayStation 3. Considering in this game you can hear the characters thoughts, one could argue that the character is more than just a body, but a body and a mind, right? But this is a needle in a haystack example as very few games implement the player’s thoughts into the game, so it is impossible to single out San Andreas without attacking the majority of video games in terms of the avatar being simply a body. In Heavy Rain (2010) not only can you hear the character’s thoughts, but you can also control them to do a variety of bodily actions, from getting out of bed, brushing their teeth, shaving, showering, to putting their clothes on. But this is even more extreme than making CJ change clothes or eat food in San Andreas so does that reduce Heavy Rain’s characters to bodies as well? There are no black playable characters in Heavy Rain so I assume Barret’s answer would be ‘no’.

CJ Fat

Barrett (2006, p. 97) further demonstrates his point by describing CJ’s speech as a ‘mechanical, reflexive, bodily action where what the black character actually says is not important’, the writer concludes from this that ‘in this sense, the black male becomes defined primarily as a body’. The previous two GTA avatars were white and had even less emphasis on character development and speech than CJ in San Andreas (the first GTA game even featured a white mute as the protagonist, he didn’t have any dialogue!), but because of their colour Barrett didn’t think to probe those games, but instead jumps on the first GTA game to feature a black main character. The irony in this approach is that it in trying to criticise racial stereotypes, Barrett is being completely racist in the process. CJ, or should I say ‘the black character’ (Barrett’s words, not mine) actually shows very human qualities and has dialogue which is important to the progression of the storyline and the game. This dialogue is presented in cinematic like ‘cut scenes’ spread throughout the story. Miller (2008) agrees that these cut scenes ‘allow for the presentation of extended dialogue, narrative exposition, and character development‘; the words character development being the most important here, as it dismisses Barrett’s (2006) point that what CJ says is unimportant, thus blowing his racial theory out of the water.

 Barrett (2006, p. 97) makes a comment that racism and fascism disconnect actors from their own agency by making them solely physical beings, controlled by an external power. He compares this to San Andreas where ‘the black male is strictly a body who literally is controlled by some external authority’ – this is where the title of the article ‘White Thumbs, Black Bodies’ comes into play. Here Barrett (2006) is suggesting that the majority of people playing San Andreas are white, and are controlling a black character. He is also suggesting at the core of this nonsensical racial onion that this means white people are an external authority, controlling, and even oppressing the black body, which is seen to be something that is useless and disposable. This is another grand generalisation as arguably every single game character in the universe is controlled by another ‘external authority’, but only when the character is black does it have it have to become an issue. My contention here is that Barrett sees racism where it does not exist. It is almost as though he is searching for it far and wide, and in his hunt somehow lands in the world of video games, scanning left and right for a game with a black lead character. It is racist for the writer to assume that the person playing and enjoying the game is strictly white. I’m sure out of the 20 million people who own it, more than a few black people have enjoyed it as well. Barrett (2006, p. 98) states that ‘during much of San Andreas the white player is commanding his black avatar to shoot black characters… creating a strange pedagogy of black-on-black or white-on-black violence’, here is an example of where the writer makes his subtle assumption that not only are the majority of the players of San Andreas white, but also the implication that this creates a learning environment of white on black violence.

 The writer then moves on to the game Manhunt (2004), created by the same company that made San Andreas. He states that ‘while the main character in Manhunt is white, many of the gang members he kills… are not’ (Barrett, 2006, p. 103). Now I can’t exactly prove this to you, but I have a copy of Manhunt, (which I bought in America years and years ago – the game is banned in Australia) and there is not a single black enemy in the entire game, the enemies are all white skin heads. This makes Barrett’s point moot, and further establishes my point that he sees racism where it clearly doesn’t exist. However, I think it’s about time I gave this Barrett fella a break and agreed with him on something. I agree that video games are unnecessarily violent these days, especially Manhunt, and I agree that GTA games such as San Andreas mark the public arena as a threatening space which is full of violence and danger. While the violence portrayed in San Andreas (2004) and Manhunt (2004) are completely different – the violence in San Andreas being stylised and not very graphic – the main concern with the game is its approach to violence in the sense that it is so widespread and easy to commit. In Manhunt, however, the violence is dark and gritty, it is a lot harder to inflict violence as you have to do it stealthily (if you get spotted it’s pretty much game over) while in GTA it is easy to leave the entire police force in the wake of your apocalypse. The executions that can be performed in Manhunt (gacekkd, 2007) paint a pretty grim picture of violence in video games, the YouTube video is linked in my bibliography and in it you can witness not only the violence but also the lack of any ‘black bodies’. Barett (2006, p. 115) mentions that ‘San Andreas acts to naturalise and, thereby make more acceptable, the violence of the real world’, this is the contention that I tend to agree with in the article, as the violent nature in video games has become so normal in today’s society that it desensitises us to real world violence. We live in a society where violence sells as much as sex does, and we as the consumer, have become numb to it through constant repetition in all forms of media. Miller (2008) makes an interesting point that a lot of complex anti-social and violent actions in San Andreas have been reduced to the pressing of a single button, for example if you’re near a car on the street and press the triangle button on the controller, CJ will automatically run up to the car door, force it open, punch the driver in the face (or bash his or her face on the steering wheel) and throw him or her onto the road. CJ will then climb into the car, slam the door shut, and close the door while saying some random one liner such as ‘I know this seems bad but it could be worse’, or ‘I need this more than you… I think’. All this occurs after the pressing of one single button, and after all this goes down, the holding of the x button will allow CJ to burn out of sight with his newly acquired vehicle. They don’t call it Grand Theft Auto for nothing! (Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, 2004)

I will conclude this long and drawn out critique with a quote from our old friend, Barrett (2006, p. 110) who says of video games: ‘clearly these are forms of entertainment, and are intended to be taken as such, [but] they are also pedagogical vehicles that contribute to an ideological environment in which war and neoliberalism become all the more justifiable’. Word?