Race and Representation in San Andreas


April 16, 2013 by jenniferashiru

Race and Representation in San Andreas

GTA: San Andreas is an action-adventure video game set in the early 90s on the west coast in the fictional state of San Andreas.  The player navigates the game in third person as a young black gang member, Carl “CJ” Johnson, who returns to his home in Ganton, reminiscent of the real-life city of Compton, and gang, the Grove Street Families.  Unlike most video games, San Andreas features a mostly African-American cast of characters.  San Andreas could easily be considered a stereotypical representation of race due to gang violence, but by allowing the player to traverse the gameworld as a young black male, the game instead portrays how young black males like CJ are subject to being stereotyped by people in society through mechanisms such as racial profiling.  CJ is an individual, just as the player is an individual; and CJ progresses when the player progresses.  Therefore, CJ’s actions are learned and not innate to him just because he is black.  Overall, in the gameworld of San Andreas, appearances, character interactions, and the modification options of CJ serve as a reflection of stereotypes in society.

In San Andreas, the Grove Street Families is one of the major gangs characterized by their green apparel and principles of community and family values.  The gameworld features many Grove Street members that are recognizable by their race, gender, and style of clothing—they are essentially young, troublemaking black males wearing green gang apparel, and unlike the main characters of the game, these characters lack depth and development to the player.  The San Andreas gameworld populates its cities with recognizable stereotypes rather than individuals, so gang members not directly essential to the storyline are often repeated in appearance throughout the game.  These members take on three different forms and these three forms are repeated throughout the gameworld. For example, there can be a group of six Grove Street gang members and four of them look exactly the same. 

However, this is also a testament to how CJ is viewed in the gameworld by other characters.  This is made apparent in a three particular cutscenes in the opening of San Andreas.  The first cutscene depicts the initial homecoming of CJ in which he is harassed by an African-American cop named Officer Tenpenny.  In this scene, the player experiences second-hand what is like to be a victim of racial profiling.  The player quickly realizes CJ is pulled over because he is a young black male driving a semi-nice car in a semi-nice area, and due to this the police officers proceed to harass him.  Feeling as if he has something to prove as a black cop, Officer Tenpenny takes CJ’s money and accuses him of handling drug money and then proceeds to place a handcuffed CJ in the backseat of a police car.  CJ proceeds to tell Officer Tenpenny that he is clean and that he is simply back in the area to bury his mother, but Officer Tenpenny disagrees and then frames CJ for the murder of a cop that happened ten minutes prior to their conversation.  CJ was nowhere near the crime scene at the time of the murder, but because he may fit the possible profile of the murderer, he can easily be placed at the scene by an eyewitness. 

The second case is in which the player witnesses racial stereotypes against CJ is when Officer Tenpenny drops CJ off in enemy gang territory, Rollin’ Heights Balla Country.  CJ contemplates, “Now I ain’t represented Grove Street in five years, but the Ballas won’t give a shit”.  This confirms that CJ has not associated with Grove Street for years, but to the Ballas he is just another enemy Grove Street gang member.  The third cutscene features CJ’s childhood friend and fellow Grove Street member, Ryder, yelling at CJ about blending in with the rest of Grove Street: “Get yo’ self some colors, fool.  And a haircut, it’s embarrassing to be seen with you”.  So, CJ needs to look cohesive with the Grove Street Families, and the player needs to complete missions in which CJ adds to this cohesiveness such as graffiti tags, dressing/looking the part, drive-by shootings, etc.  It is like once the player adorns CJ in green apparel and completes gang-related missions, the gameworld and its characters view CJ as nothing more than another young black male in a gang.

The interesting thing about San Andreas is that the player gets the unique experience of traversing the gameworld as one of these faceless and nameless members of the Grove Street Families.  CJ is the only avatar available to the player, and San Andrea’s narrative is driven by CJ’s personal circumstances, and the player is very active in CJ’s narrative.  CJ is only customizable to the player through acquired physical traits and abilities such as tattoos, weight, hair, respect, sex appeal, etc.  However, the player can never change CJ’s race or the fact that he is a member of the Grove Street Families because the gameworld and its narrative revolve around these specific personal circumstances of CJ.  As a part of the unique experience of San Andreas, the player experiences what it is like to be considered a living, breathing, walking stereotype. 

The player is essentially an active performer in CJ’s story; and the player forms a connection with CJ through various activities whether it is hitting triangle on the PS2 controller to steal a car, getting a haircut, or even participating in various gang-related missions.  One thing that the player quickly realizes is that CJ is an individual and somewhat of a nontraditional hero whose main goal of the game is to reestablish the Grove Street Families as one of the most notorious gangs in the fictional city of Los Santos.   The player also realizes that initially, unlike his fellow gang members, CJ is a terrible gun handler; he may initially have trouble when stealing a car when the player first hits triangle; and the progress of trivial things like his dancing ability and sex appeal are determined by the player and their skill.  Things like being able to shoot a gun and steal a car with ease, dancing well and having sex appeal are stereotypes that plague young black males like CJ in the gameworld of San Andreas, and accurately reflect thoughts about black males in society.  However, San Andreas actually strays from these stereotypes by showing that these actions and traits are not innate to young black males, but rather learned.  As the player makes progress, CJ does too.  The gameworld is also open to the player, so CJ is not limited to Ganton and Grove Street missions, but he can leave Ganton, and meet many interesting characters outside of gang life.

San Andreas seemingly appears to perpetuate these racial stereotypes with young black males such as the Grove Street Families immersed in gang violence and thug life; and young Latino men such as ally gang, the Varrio Los Aztecas, immersed in lowrider and hydraulic culture and always being heavily armed.  But these video game characters in San Andreas and most other games featuring non-Caucasian male characters are being introduced by stereotypes familiar to society.  The unique experience of San Andreas is to play as one a young black male who society would automatically perceive to be trouble because of his race and personal circumstances.  The player forms a connection with CJ through cutscenes and missions that allow the player to get to know CJ as a nontraditional heroic individual dealing with the loss of his mother, trying to earn back the respect of his brother, and ultimately striving to restore the Grove Street Families rather than just another violent young black male. 

Overall, by being an active performer in CJ’s narrative, the player finds that despite CJ being a nontraditional protagonist of a videogame, his narrative elicits feelings of sympathy from the player; CJ as a character is even found somewhat relatable despite his nontraditional status.  This is very interesting because video game characters, especially the characters in which the player navigates the gameworld with, tend to be Caucasian males.  Perhaps, Caucasian male video game characters generally appeal more to audiences over other races, and audiences find it easier to sympathize with and relate to this kind of character because of their race.  When any other races are finally represented in the gameworld, they are often wildly stereotypical and not well received because some videogames take advantage of certain culture like gang life and make it only specific to certain races because this is what is seen in society.  However, gang life is not exclusive to males, African-Americans, Latinos, etc. in society.  But, some videogames will take something like gang life and make it the only identity of minority characters and because of this minorities are often not seen as individuals in the gameworld or by the player.

One thought on “Race and Representation in San Andreas

  1. omar373 says:

    You essay is quite interesting because I actually had the same focus for my writing. When I was observing the game, I found some interesting portrayals but I actually found the game cast to have a somewhat diverse ethnic scope. Between the Vietnamese gangs, the African American characters and even the White and Hispanic presence it seemed to have a diverse representation of all the different groups that make up the ghetto urban scene in the United States. Despite this, it is true that one does see a disproportionate representation of the struggle of CJ and his peers, and it is easy to make generalizations on the African American community based on this. Also, to comment on the ability for one to relate to the game character, I believe what makes CJ someone we can identify with is the fact that the game narration gives insight into his thoughts, and he appears to be a very clear minded individual who is just reacting to his surroundings. The game does a good job of placing the character in his shoes, and lets us live his albeit exaggerated life in an engaging manner. Please do read my essay as well and tell me what you think about my reflections.

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